About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

David Silverman and the scope of atheism — Postscript

by Massimo Pigliucci

Predictably, my recent post on some remarks made by American Atheists President David Silverman has generated a firestorm on blogs and twitter, even though I thought the opinions expressed therein are actually quite mild. But such is the nature of debates in the age of social networking. There are several interesting points that have emerged from the thoughtful discussion that has taken place on this blog, for which I thank my readers. (No, I never check discussion threads on other blogs. Sorry, not enough time and energy!)

Some of these points have also been taken up by two of the most critical commentaries, one by PZ Myers and the other one by (future Rationally Speaking podcast guest) Greta Christina. I will analyze these as representative of the discussion, and as an occasion to further clarify my own views.

Predictably, neither piece takes a kind view of my essay, nor, frankly, did the authors try to give it a charitable reading that may lead to fruitful discussions rather than name calling. But in the case of PZ’s sarcastic remarks, I richly deserved it. His entire (short) post takes me up for writing (in the original version of my essay) that “abortion should always be a very difficult and emotional step.” I did not mean that literally, as should have been clear from the context and the examples given. But it was certainly an instance of sloppy writing on my part. After some of my readers pointed it out, I revised the entry to read: “certain types of abortion (say, last trimester)” should always be a very difficult and emotional step,” and later added a footnote to call readers’ attention to it.

This ought to take care of most of PZ’s remarks, though I’d like to hear from him directly. I say most because PZ (and surely Greta, as well as several of my readers) still objects to the “presumption” that someone might dare tell another human being how s/he ought to feel in certain morally salient cases.

I don’t get it. We do this all the time, and it is a cornerstone of our moral education — in true virtue ethical-Aristotelian fashion, I might add. We begin with young children, trying to both explain to them the reasons why certain things (e.g., stealing) are wrong and how they should properly feel about those actions (shame, guilt). We do it to adults too, of course. We criticize the greed (emotion!) of big bankers, we call on our politicians to feel sorry (emotion!) about their misdeeds, and we are horrified by the lack of emotional response on the part of sociopaths when they show no regret (emotion!) at whatever crime they may have committed. And this goes for positive emotions as well, of course: we say that people should feel pride for this, happy about that, and so on. So, what exactly, is the problem with someone arguing that another person should (morally) feel troubled by a certain (ethically salient) decision?

But perhaps the idea is that I, as a man, should not dare tell a woman how to feel or think about something I couldn’t possibly have experienced myself. But that is also highly problematic. As one of my readers pointed out, we do this too all the time. We don’t think that only people who have relatives on death row have a right to express opinions about the emotions and ethical reasoning of people who do. And the same holds for pretty much any other ethical discussion: being a first-person participant is neither a requirement to engage in it, nor necessarily an unquestionable positive (the reason we don’t let families of victims of crimes render verdicts and hand out punishments is that they are too emotionally close to the events themselves).

Moreover, as it happens, I have actually been very close to a painful decision about abortion, so I do have a very good (second hand, since obviously I wasn’t the pregnant one) sense of how complex and wrenching that decision was. It happened many years ago, and I have no intention of going into the personal details of it, but both people involved were definitely secular and were definitely weighing the issue from a non-religious perspective. That didn’t make it a slam dunk.

Now let me turn to Christina’s, longer, much less charitable than even PZ’s, response. I am a bit at a loss to see how a fellow traveler in atheism, skepticism and critical thinking could so grossly misread what I wrote. Below are a few bits from Christina’s post, with my commentary.

> Thank you so much for dismissing the issue of the basic right to bodily autonomy of half the human race as a “tempest in a teapot.” <

I didn’t. That phrase referred to generic diatribes among atheists, not to the basic right to bodily autonomy of half the human race. This should have been clear both from the context and from much of what I’ve written about the New Atheism over the years.

> What a great way to make women in the atheist movement, and women who are considering joining the atheist movement, think that our issues are taken seriously by the movement’s leaders. <

Except, again, that that sentence had nothing to do with any of that (and I’m no leader of any movement — more on this below). Christina might have missed that the post was about a very specific claim, that there are no reasonable secular arguments against abortion — it wasn’t a call to shut down abortion clinics around the country. My strong pro choice position ought to be clear, and I take women's issues very seriously. But you’d hardly know the difference if you just read her post.

> By all means, let’s treat the right to abortion as a philosophical exercise in which both sides should be thoughtfully considered and given intellectual validity <

Ah yes, the by now mandatory dig at philosophy as a useless intellectual exercise indulged in by mostly white (mostly dead) men. Except of course that we get much of our non-religious ethical discourse precisely from philosophy, and that to reject the need for rational discourse on ethics is a bizarre position to take for someone who is interested in reason and critical thinking. (And I would add that to refuse to grant intellectual validity to thoughtful opponents is precisely the tactic of the Religious Right, not to be imitated.) 

Moreover, and importantly, Christina confuses a discussion about the ethical issues raised by abortion with support for curbing women’s access to the procedure. While the first is obviously relevant to the second, one can very consistently maintain that there is something to be debated about the ethics of abortion while at the same time staunchly defending a woman's right to have one.

> Stephanie Zvan has already masterfully taken apart your whole thing about how abortion should always be a very difficult and emotional step. <

I’m sure she has (I haven’t read the piece, see note above about limited time and energy). But Christina already knew of my correction to the above statement (she acknowledges it at the end of her post), which should have set things straight. Why didn’t it? Why did Christina go on with her diatribe even though I had already corrected my post and explained what I actually meant? No interest in being charitable, apparently, nor in actually engaging in a discussion. It’s all about rallying the Forces of Change against the Old Guard.

> Do you seriously think abortion has nothing to do with atheism? Are you aware that the fight against abortion rights has been waged, almost entirely, by the Religious Right? Are you aware that the case against abortion rights is almost entirely centered in religion? <

I do seriously think about what I write, I’m not a comedian, I’m a philosopher. Being an atheist carries no logical (broadly construed, see below) connection whatsoever to a lot of political positions about social issues. And yes, I do read newspapers and I am aware of where the opposition to abortion (mostly) comes from. But, as usual, things are more complicated than that simple narrative. To begin with, there are plenty of religious people who are pro-choice. There are also plenty of prochoice people who would not have an abortion themselves. Second, my original post was much more narrowly focused: I was disputing the ill informed statement by Sarah Moglia that there are no secular arguments against (certain types of) abortion (not abortion rights). Of course there are. And even though I don’t find them convincing (as I said in my original post), they are neither irrational nor informed by bad science, as Moglia stated. We (the pro-choice camp) are right, rationally, morally and scientifically. But there is no reason to pretend that the other side is made up entirely of religious nuts and ignorant country bumpkins.

> What atheism has to say about abortion is, “There are no gods. You have no evidence that your god exists — and you certainly have no evidence that your god shares your political opinions.” <

But the discussion I started had nothing at all to do with religiously motivated objections to abortion. It concerned the (alleged) lack of secular reasons against it.

> First, and very importantly: Abortion access is a church-state separation issue. <

Psychologically, maybe, in the sense that most opponents are indeed religiously motivated. But not rationally, or even legally. No law aimed at restricting access to abortion procedures is couched in religious terms. Our opponents are doing precisely what John Rawls said people should do in a pluralistic society: they are translating their concerns into secular language, making this a secular debate. The terms of that debate are partly philosophical (ethics is a branch of philosophy after all), partly legal, and partly scientific (when does life begin? When do fetuses start to feel pain?). Just because someone has ultimately religious motives to take up a given position, that doesn’t make the debate itself an issue of church-state separation.

> Second: You’re arguing that organized atheism should only work on issues that logically and directly descend from atheism itself. … There are literally no issues that logically ought to unite every atheist. <

Here Christina is playing the card of taking my writing so literally (again, lack of charitable interpretation) to make it sound absurd. Yes, of course if we are talking about formal logical entailment (are we using Aristotelian logic or something else?) then atheism implies absolutely nothing other than a commitment to a negative epistemic or metaphysical claim, depending on how one interprets the meaning of the a-word.

But what I meant was that there is much more room for disagreement among atheists (and secularists more broadly) about all sorts of socio-political issues, and for substantial secular reasons. Which is why we have other types of secular movements (humanists, ethical culturists) who have articulated a specific, progressive, political agenda, which is coupled with their atheism.

Christina uses a reductio ad absurdum argument against me, saying that — on strict logical grounds — there is no connection between atheism and church-state separation or the rights of unbelievers either. And she is right, if one adopts formal logical entailment as a criterion. But I didn’t. It seems to me that it is much easier to rally atheists to fight those fights than to embrace pretty much any other political cause, and for good reasons. Remember that this is in the context of David Silverman daring to go to a conservative political convention to make the argument that atheism isn’t necessarily a liberal issue. And it isn’t, and Dave was right in making the move. Humanism, however, is a liberal movement, and I would feel pretty uncomfortable if Debbie Allen, the President of the AHA were to make the same move.

Look at it from the point of view of a parallel between atheism and gay rights. The gay rights movement has rightly focused on the issues that are closest and most specific to it: the legal rights of gay people. It’s likely that a majority of gays also endorses other political positions (mostly liberal?), but since there are progressive gays and conservative gays and libertarian gays, it was wise to stick to the basics. And it worked, beautifully (though clearly the fight is not over yet). Moreover, the leaders of the gay movement also could have made Christina’s case for their issues being ones of separation of church and state, since most of the opposition to gay marriage, for instance, is religiously motivated. But they didn’t. On the contrary, they sought allegiances with progressive religious institutions, just like other minorities had done before them. And again, in my opinion this was the wise and effective thing to do.

We finally get to what really seems to be bothering Christina:

> What you’re saying is that the people who have traditionally been running organized atheism, the people who have been setting the agenda of organized atheism for decades, are the people who should continue to set the agenda. What you’re saying is that the old guard should get to keep running the show. <

And I assume she thinks I’m one of those people who have been “running the show.” She hasn’t done her homework. I’m not a formal member of any atheist organization (I do have a life membership with AA, but it was given to me as an honorary title, I didn’t join), nor have I ever served on the board of any atheist organization (except, briefly, NYC Atheists, and look how that ended!).

> You don’t get to help decide what we work on. … And you don’t get to set the agenda for all of us. <

And where, exactly, did I ever say that I “get to decide”? I have no power, and if I did I would simply nudge the agenda in my preferred direction (based on my disputable but nonetheless articulated reasons), just like anyone else (including Christina herself) does.

> At best, at the most charitable interpretation of your words, you’re making the argument from tradition — one of the worst, least rational arguments around. At an only slightly less charitable interpretation, you’re making the argument from privilege. You’re making the argument that the people currently running things should continue to run things. In fact, the argument from tradition is an argument from privilege. <

Tradition? Privilege? I don’t recall making any argument at all that was based on something along the lines of “this is what atheists have done in the past, therefore…” And what privilege, exactly? As I said above, I have no position of power within the movement, and I’ve always refused to be involved in political disputes internal to any atheist organization.

But does that mean that I, as a somewhat rational human being who has been thinking and writing about atheism, secularism and related issues, get no say (“you don’t get to help”) in what I think is the best way for atheists to engage in the public square? Why? Is it because I’m old? White? Male? A university professor? A fan of AS Roma soccer club?

And isn’t Christina forgetting that American Atheists itself was founded by a woman? And was run for 13 years by another woman? Were they, too, the Old Guard who isn’t entitled to help in the debate?

I have a pretty established record of critically engaging both the New Atheists and American Atheists, including David Silverman himself. And of course I’ve had bones to pick with Greta Christina too (after which I invited her to promote her new book on my podcast with Julia Galef). That’s what constructive debate within a movement looks like. We are supposed to engage each other, not to shut the opponent down by accusing him of wanting to keep his alleged and factually entirely non-existent privilege. Christina wants to steer atheism toward new directions? More power to her. But I do have a right to point out that in my opinion she is largely reinventing the wheel of secular humanism. We can have a lively discussion (as we did on the RS podcast) and then we can go have a beer together for some more back and forth. The ability to enter into vigorous yet thoughtful debate (and to drink beer) is what truly separates us from the religious fundamentalists. Let’s try to keep it that way.


Postscript to the postscript: apparently, "friendly atheist" Hemant Mehta is also in trouble now, according to a statement released by Secular Woman. It is interesting that the statement makes the same confusion that Christina incurred in, mixing up the idea that there are secular arguments showing that some abortions are morally problematic with the idea that women's rights to control their bodies should be curbed. Once more: they are not the same thing!

According to SW: "Entertaining anti-choice arguments delegitimizes women’s humanity and bodily autonomy," which essentially amounts to an exceedingly anti-freethought stand, seems to me. And here is more hyperbolic rhetoric from SW: "What seems to be lost on Silverman, Mehta and others is that debating women’s humanity is not an academic exercise." Debating women's humanity? Seriously? I'm appalled.


  1. What did you expect from these people? They've found a money-maker so they latch onto it, logic and reason be damned. To paraphrase Pratchett, "It's logical fallacies and click-bait all the way down!"

  2. "I am a bit at a loss to see how a fellow traveler in atheism, skepticism and critical thinking could so grossly misread what I wrote."

    We need to stop assuming that every person who claims to be under the banner of skepticism and critical thinking is a person who globally applies skepticism and criticial thinking. Some are not interested in discussing ideas, but rather misinterpret, attack individuals, and are unable to take a disinterested view when faced with ideas contrary to their own.

    As you alluded to in an earlier piece, many are quick to 'play the m-card' - casting people who question their ideas as misogynists trying to take away rights of women and/or harass women. Rather than engaging with ideas, they heap abuse upon others and mount campaigns of vilification. You, Massimo, are just the newest 'Witch of the Week' (and you've been so before).

    Great piece, Massimo.

    1. Exactly. Massimo is being way too charitable. I'm not at all at "a bit of a loss about Greta or PeeZee."

    2. My particular thoughts on abortion use Ted Rall's language to get even more at the moral dilemmas involved: http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2014/03/abortion-gordian-knot-for-many-liberals.html

    3. I completely agree Justin.

  3. Massimo, despite disagreeing with you on many issues in the past, I think you have this absolutely right.

  4. Massimo, you are the only blogger that I read that constantly writes in a civil way on this topic. It's sad that instead to engage in a polite discussion, people attack you personally and are preaching to an audience that cheers it.

  5. While that concept of “bodily autonomy” certainly seems to bear some weight, I would say that it is hardly the absolute that many apparently wish to make of it, a claim that shows some evidence of jingoism – “remember the Alamo!” – and group think – “four legs good, two legs bad”. As I’ve argued elsewhere (1), the U.S. at least already has laws on the books and a system in place – the Selective Service System (2) – that while not having been used in the last 30-odd years, is still there as a Damoclean sword hanging over the heads of men in particular – Teh Patriarchy, eh? Funny thing that – should push ever come to shove. A rather clear case where society is willing, able, and prepared to abrogate the “bodily autonomy” of men if it deems its needs outweigh those of the men it is prepared to put in “harm’s way”.

    1) “_http://www.patheos.com/blogs/templeofthefuture/2014/03/on-the-privilege-of-discussing-abortion/”;
    2) “_http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selective_Service_System”;

  6. Well-done, Massimo, and extraordinarily generous, given the fact that your post was stubbornly cherry-picked and the criticisms seemed to me a sort of double-binding, despite the title of your piece and the rather clear wording of its point, i.e., quote "The point is . . . ."

  7. I recently engaged with a couple of professors at theology colleges about a philosophy paper they wrote about proving God from logic (follow link in my name, if interested). I was utterly shocked by some of the responses from others to what was a pretty serious, disciplined and well argued paper. My issue with it was an (as I saw it) equivocation in one step in the argument; we end up arguing about logic.

    Others' issues with it were that it wasn't "presuppositionalist enough", that it was compatible with anti-trinitarianism (note, not that it was anti-trinitarian)' or that it arrogantly suggested that if God thought X then we too could think X. All nothing to do with the argument at all. The objections seemed to be that if you squinted at the argument and looked sideways at it then it might allow dogma to be discussed and that was a bad thing. It reminded me of Soviet thinking, an insistence not just on concluding in a Marxist way but in getting there in a Marxist way. Not just that one must agree "X" but that one must be unable to conceive of not-X.

    Then I find out about this, which seems to go even further. Not only is anti-abortionism unconscionable (pro-lifers), not only is suggesting there might be a debate unconscionable (Silverman), but the suggestion that it's not unconscionable to suggest that there might be a debate is unconscionable.(Massimo)

    How many metas does this go to? Is my suggestion that it is not unconscionable to suggest that it is not unconscionable to suggest that there is a debate itself unconscionable?

    Greta's crack about philosophy is astounding. She's all for rational discussion until it comes to certain issues, at that point rational discussion is an evil rejection of dogma. She actually implies that we should not think about abortion!

    1. "How many metas does this go to? Is my suggestion that it is not unconscionable to suggest that it is not unconscionable to suggest that there is a debate itself unconscionable?"

      I made this point on Greta's blog. The answer is "yes".

  8. "Our opponents are doing precisely what John Rawls said people should do in a pluralistic society: they are translating their concerns into secular language, making this a secular debate."
    As an aside, where can I find more information on this view? It's about time I engaged with some political philosophy.

    1. Rawls' "A Theory of Justice" is the definitive text to read, although I personally find it *very* unpleasant to read (not because he's a bad philosopher, but because he's extremely dry and dense, even by academic philosophy's standards). I recommend starting with the SEP article (particularly section 3.3), and follow the bibliography for more sources.


    2. Actually, contra C, while I totally agree with Rawls' political desires, I *do* find him a bad philosopher. Not because he's dense or whatever; I just find him to not be that logical.

  9. We could reword the offending phrase to "in the last trimester, a woman should always find carrying an unwanted child to term to be a very difficult and emotional step." If this version is insightful and respectful, so too is the original.

  10. To find out about what American Atheists stands for, I went to its "About Us" page:

    Atheism may be defined as the mental attitude which unreservedly accepts the supremacy of reason and aims at establishing a life-style and ethical outlook verifiable by experience and scientific method, independent of all arbitrary assumptions of authority and creeds.

    Materialism declares that the cosmos is devoid of immanent conscious purpose; that it is governed by its own inherent, immutable, and impersonal laws; that there is no supernatural interference in human life; that humankind -- finding their resources within themselves -- can and must create their own destiny. Materialism restores dignity and intellectual integrity to humanity. It teaches that we must prize our life on earth and strive always to improve it. It holds that human beings are capable of creating a social system based on reason and justice. Materialism's "faith" is in humankind and their ability to transform the world culture by their own efforts. This is a commitment which is in its very essence life-asserting. It considers the struggle for progress as a moral obligation that is impossible without noble ideas that inspire us to bold, creative works. Materialism holds that our potential for good and more fulfilling cultural development is, for all practical purposes, unlimited.

    (As I've mentioned before, Paul Krugman has written about the unscientific nature of Republican economics.)

    1. Do they really say that? Materialism "declares"? Materialism "teaches"?

      And the definition of atheism has been sexed up. They used to just say it was the absence of belief in gods.

    2. There is no word "God" or "gods" in AA's Aims and Purposes.

    3. You know, that actually sounds pretty Randian. (PIcturing Silverman as Atlas, in a corner, shrugging.)

  11. I get the feeling that these people are lacking moral imagination. I'm glad they don't write novels.

  12. The author seems to be under the misapprehension that the radical leftist circles around FTB are interested in honest dialogue. They're not. And it's a bit hard to believe that anyone missed that bit.

  13. Kel, I would suggest starting here:

    The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a peer-reviewed encyclopedia, and has generally excellent entries which will point you to further sources. It's a good place to start for any philosophical inquiry these days. They also will have articles on related topics (issues, other philosophers, etc).

    A second philosophy encyclopedia — also peer-reviewed I believe, although in this case I'm not certain — is the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Their Rawls entry is here:

    Personally, my recommendation would be to read both entries for any topic in which you have any serious interest (and for which both have entries — both are volunteer-driven and have gaps), since it's always helpful to get two views on a topic. Both have entries on Rawls.

    1. Thanks, Stephen. The SEP is usually my first stop currently for any time I want to pick up a new philosophical idea. So I'll check it out. Ultimately, though, I'd want to find a good book or two written for the undergraduate. First I'll check out those links.

    2. Mind you, you have got to be carefu of the SEP - for example, they keep insisting that poor old Ernst Mach and Rudolf Carnap are Neutral Monists.

  14. One of the most passionately pro-life people I knew was an atheist. Idiosyncratic guy, to be sure, but he was troubled by late-trimester abortions as he found the distinction between an newly born baby and a late-trimester fetus trivial. He found it difficult to reconcile the fact that killing the new-born would be infanticide but terminating the fetus, only a few weeks younger, would be permissible (in the views of some).

    Anyway, Greta's article was really uncharitable and vitriolic, especially given that on the abortion debate, you are mostly on her side. This is evidence of how unfruitful a movement new atheism is. These people will wheel on you if you refrain from toeing the party line even minutely.

    1. I am like that person. I am anti-late-term-abortion (it should be outlawed). It's a habit of fundamentalist "feminists" to portray abortion as a very simple issue and to pretend that thinking for more than one second on it or not being pro-choice is misogynistic. I do my best to stay away from such people.

  15. Your argument for focusing on a movement's primary goals so as not to alienate potential allies (exemplified with the gay rights movement) is interesting, but there is an obvious counter-argument: One could say that effectively all XYZ rights movements are facets of the equal rights for everybody movement. That has two consequences.

    First, it would appear to be intellectually inconsistent to demand equal rights for atheists while pretending not to have an opinion on, say, women's' rights. What is your argument for equal rights in the first case if the very same argument does not have the same force in the second?

    Second, once that is understood, it would perhaps be strategically sound to support each other. If the atheist rights movement supported the women's' rights movement, and the women's' rights movement supported the gay rights movement, and the gay rights movement supported the ethical minority rights movement, and the ethical minority rights movement supported the atheist rights movement in their respective demands for equal rights, then the whole would certainly be bigger than the sum of the parts.

    The alternative, of every small movement only caring about itself, of the women's rights movement throwing gays under the bus because women are mostly straight, or of a given ethical minority rights movement throwing atheists under the bus because that ethical minority is mostly Muslim, and of atheists throwing women under the bus because bodily autonomy is not logically entailed by atheism, is a classic case of divide et impera.

    I assume that this is at least partly and at least implicitly an argument of those who want the equal rights for atheists movement to also care about equal rights for everybody else - it is intellectually consistent and makes strategic sense.

    1. If one didn't know anything about the organization American Atheists but just went by their "mission statement" words, one could read from that that American Atheists is not just an advocate for "atheists" (or "atheism" in some narrow philosophical sense), but calls for progressive action to promote the rights and well-being of people at large ("to develop and propagate a social philosophy in which humankind is central):

      American Atheists
      to advocate, labor for, and promote in all lawful ways the establishment and maintenance of a thoroughly secular system of education available to all;
      to encourage the development and public acceptance of a humane ethical system stressing the mutual sympathy, understanding, and interdependence of all people and the corresponding responsibility of each individual in relation to society;
      to develop and propagate a social philosophy in which humankind is central and must itself be the source of strength, progress, and ideals for the well-being and happiness of humanity;
      to promote the study of the arts and sciences and of all problems affecting the maintenance, perpetuation, and enrichment of human (and other) life;
      to engage in such social, educational, legal, and cultural activity as will be useful and beneficial to the members of American Atheists and to society as a whole

    2. "One could say that effectively all XYZ rights movements are facets of the equal rights for everybody movement."

      One could try, but that presumes that there is a general argument for giving equal rights to XYZ that consistently applies regardless of the XYZ. That is not obviously true, however. If "equal rights" is broadly construed, then it is questionable whether we would give equal rights to, for example, children. We would most likely agree that children should not be abused or neglected, but neither of us is likely to argue that children should be free to work or marry. Now it is true that arguments for equality do tend to follow similar patterns. For example, one can argue that a member of group XYZ should have just as much opportunity to do job W because being a member of that particular group does not impair one's ability to do that job. However, whether that argument actually holds true depends upon the actual properties of group XYZ.

    3. Wow, the pursuit of happiness. Why didn't those religious idiots who founded the USA think of that one?

    4. In addition to what JJ Ramsey said, who ever said the atheist movement was about equal rights for atheists? I can't think of any rights atheists don't have compared to the religious, even in America. There is simply a cultural dislike of atheists, which has nothing to do with formal rights.

    5. Leveraging the "natural" alignment of political movements is a demonstrably bad strategy. Just look at the effects of Atheism+ on Atheism. It is one of the greatest accomplishments of liberalism that people who otherwise disagree with each other can put aside those disagreements in order to work on something they actually do agree on.

      I hear this all the time up here in Canada because we have a situation where there is essentially one right-leaning party and many left-leaning parties. The consequence is that even though the left-leaning parties have more votes between them than the right party, it's the right party that is in power. This encourages those on the left to assume that the left would be in power if all those left-leaning parties united. This is a mistake. It is far more likely that a united left would alienate enough of those idiosyncratic left-leaning party members that the right really would have a numerical majority.(In fact, this right-leaning party formed by swallowing a smaller right party, which resulted in half the members of that smaller--but more centrist-party going to the left!). What causes this myth?

      I suspect the problem is an over-estimation of the homogeneity of beliefs across populations. We talk about our political world in terms of left and right, then imagine we have tapped into some deep essential truth about human nature. We haven't. Take the assumption that feminism and gay rights are natural allies. Would it come as a surprise that the percentage of Men's Rights Activists who self identify as gay is higher than the number of feminists who self-identify as gay, or that a minority of queer men and women identify as feminists at all? What would happen to the queer movement if it policed feminism internally? What if the Queer movement policed the values of Men's Rights? The fact of the matter is that kicking the crap out of someone because they are gay is right or wrong (I happen to think it's wrong) regardless of the relative status of men and women. Tying the former to the latter puts the former at risk, and has the dubious honour of lending an unearned credibility to the latter--all the while, reducing the supportive population through an ever-expanding list of required secondary commitments.

    6. "Take the assumption that feminism and gay rights are natural allies. "

      And not least because feminist groups of yesteryear have called being gay the ultimate expression of misogyny.

    7. I was aware when I wrote this that the assumption of the atheist movement being an atheist rights movement can surely be questioned. Perhaps it is at least partly a let's make more people atheist movement, a let's make the public discussion secular movement, or even a let's get together and feel superior to the believers movement.

      That being said, I think some of you severely underestimate the degree to which an atheists' rights movement is still needed in some countries. It is worst in those countries where you can still be executed for publicly expressing disbelief, but why would it be okay to discriminate against atheists "only" based on "cultural dislike"? Say you have obtained marriage for homosexual couples, and all that is left is "cultural dislike", does that make it okay if some business refuses service to homosexuals? Hope not.

      JJ Ramsey,

      Well, duh. I don't argue that blind people should have the right to become bus drivers either. Obviously the point is always to fight discrimination that does not have a real reason beyond nastiness.

      Jame Allen,

      I don't see where I have argued that only one party should be formed. I have, to stay with the analogy, argued that the various leftist parties in Canada should find common goals and form coalitions to achieve them instead of infighting and believing they will make >50% by themselves.


      So what? I describe what one might do if one were reasonable. I do know the reality looks different, as can be seen by all those atheists who go "I don't personally experience any discrimination any more, so why should I care about women's, aboriginal or transgender rights? None of that is logically entailed by atheism, and if you care about of it you are a dogmatic radical leftist."

    8. Let's talk about, say, "polygamist rights." Given the nature of the matter, than polygamy has normally involved almost totally **polygyny** and very little polyandry, It's pretty easy to see how this would conflict with other rights movements.

      Downquark puts it correctly otherwise. Now, sometimes, the currently existing rights have to be legally pursued, but, they're there.

    9. Gadfly,

      Look, this is really not rocket science. Assume, as a not entirely hypothetical example. a country in which women are recognized as complete equals by the law, but in which they are on average paid two thirds of what men are paid for the same amount and type of work.

      Question: Does this country need a movement to raise awareness of the issue and push towards equal pay for women, or is there no need to worry because "the rights are there"? (And what if, for example, the courts mostly took the position that women already get what they deserve because the free market has decided so, and the free market can do no wrong?)

      Same for all other cases. There is more to equality than paper. Paper is patient, as we say in Germany.

    10. Alex, I didn't even mention the direct conflicts between feminists, especially of the social justice warriors ilk, and men's rights advocates. On purely economic issues, you may be right, but on social issues? There's groups that will always be in direct conflict.

    11. I certainly endorse equal pay for equal work and lack of hiring descrimination. But that has nothing to do with atheism.
      I was never interested in the atheist movement for crass Americocentric identity politics, I personally just like it for the discussions - for the fun of it.

      Sure if you want to turn it into an economic/social movement. Do it. But im not interested and think its a bad idea.

      Furthermore the form of movement I see people engaging is not one of equality or aquiring a social respect. Its simply about cultural domination.

    12. A lot of this appears to be about talking past each other.

      I do not mean to turn the atheist movement into an equal pay movement; my real argument is that it makes sense to consider each individual 'we want equal treatment and respect for us' movement as a facet of the 'we want equal treatment for everybody' movement. It is intellectually inconsistent and hypocritical to fight for the removal of discrimination that affects us and then lean back and not care about discrimination against somebody else.

      This lead to people implying that atheists don't even need to fight for equality any more, and I pointed out that they still do, at least in some parts of the USA from what I hear and certainly in many Asian and African countries. The gender pay gap was merely an example to show that equality on paper is not necessarily the end of the story.

      I may likewise misunderstand the arguments that some others are making - at least where they go beyond "this is Freethought Blogs we are talking about so obviously they must be dishonest, hur hur hur".

    13. You are labouring under premise that equality arguments all stem from the same tree, unless you are a fundamentalist egalitarian they don't (and if you are that's fine but you can't expect everyone else to be). Every form of discrimination has it's own "reasons" that can be debated and disagreed on a case by case basis (see the example of children etc). Do you think American atheist organisations should be fighting for equality of Buddhists in Tibet? That's a perfectly good cause by why under the banner of Atheism, people can join more than one movement. Perhaps half the atheists would rather be promoting Atheism in Tibet.

      Not to mention the various definitions of equality - equality under the law, equality of outcome, equality of cultural respect.

      I don't understand why you want a one-stop-shop for a complex issue, least of all why you think the Atheism movement should be that (see humanism). Movements come and go, if there was equality for atheism I would much prefer the whole thing disbanded in dissolved into other interests - like these things normally do.

  16. What bothers me is that it isn't the first time this kind of story has been told. Over and over the same types of responses from the same group of people who think they know better than everyone else. They remind me of the types of groups you see form in high school.
    But we aren't in high school anymore and usually people mature to the point where those types of groups are no longer appealing. How can they fail to see the flaws in their thinking? The way they revel in their own ignorance makes me embarrassed for them. It has gone on for so long any return to reason is unlikely. Even if PZ was to realize his folly, having to admit to that would harm his ego as much(or worse) than he has harmed his own credibility.

  17. I'm dumbfounded by all this. As an undergraduate I tackled the abortion issue like I did every other issue at the time, as something to be approached without emotional bias and treated seriously as a question permitting of all sorts of responses, which I set out to explore, understand, and then weigh to determine my own. I made that approach as an atheist, as someone who could probably be said to have a pro-choice leaning which in hindsight came bound up in my politics, which at the time swung wildly between moderate left to extreme left. As I set about that project and began thinking earnestly about it, I realised it was much more difficult a question than I had previously believed it was. There were so many things I hadn't thought about it that now seemed like important considerations. When I communicated that to my work colleague, he informed me that actually any opposition to abortion stemmed from a hatred of women.

    Wow. This came from someone who had never bothered to explore the different arguments. He had plenty of arguments for why abortion should be allowed, but understood none of the other side, why it might be problematic or even morally wrong, other than the 'faith' based argument of because God told me so. Yet he claimed to know the real psychological motivations of the people who would even begin to make such an argument.

    Here I was wading through the many considerations that need to be taken in to account, in a complex issue that, for me, was beginning to look like had its foundations in the very meaning of what it is to be a moral agent, deserving of moral consideration, and entailing moral responsibility - and really I was just a mysoginist all along.

    Some people like to frame this debate as solely about the rights of women to their bodies, then shout you down if you bring in any other considerations (like, for instance, that the very act of conception may bring 'rights' and 'responsibilities' in to play for the organism that has been conceived, and that these might need to be balanced against and along WITH a woman's right to her body.)

    It's so easy to assign alternative psychological motives to people and it means you never actually have to consider their argument itself. It's the equivalent of putting your fingers in your ears and name calling. As someone who still finds the abortion question an extremely vexing and troubling moral question, I would never dream of putting my fingers in my ears and loudly proclaiming that the 'pro-choicers' were really driven by a desire for convenience because they didn't want to be held morally accountable for the consequences of their behaviour, that all they wanted to do was shirk their responsibilities as moral agents. It's easy to do, but completely unfair, completely anti-intellectual, and as bad as the 'faith' based arguments. Instead of shouting others down for not sharing their god, they are shouting others down for not sharing their assumption (that the issue is solely about a woman's rights.)

  18. Excellent post!

    I knew about this debate for many years but did not give a damn. Thus, I did not read any article on this issue from both sides. This is the first time I read about this issue. I am greatly surprised that both PZ Myers and Greta Christina can draw any intelligent reader from those quotes which you have quoted.

    Why is abortion an issue of God or atheism? Abortion is ‘only’ about ‘killing’ a baby which most likely will become a human if it is not ‘aborted’ by an intentional action. Is the ‘first’ baby of mankind a creation of God? I don’t truly care for the answer one way or the other. But, I do know that all the babies who have been aborted thus far have no ‘direct’ connect to God but are the results of some lustful sex acts. Might be, some religious people are using God as an issue to fight this abortion debate, but I think it is very dumb.

    Then, when does the life begin? I certainly can show when it is with science and logic, but I will of course not to do it here as most of people in this debate will not change their position just for the true science. But, I think that everyone should agree that live does not ‘begin’ after ‘birth’. Thus, aborting a baby before its birth has a big chance (whenever it turns into a life) of ‘killing’ a life.

    I don’t give a damn about the ‘choice’ issue. Thief chooses to steal; murder chooses to kill, and those are all choices for them, per their free-will. Of course, woman has the absolute right of choosing to kill her loving unborn baby, not my lost. But, don’t beg me for sympathy or permission. Of course, I am a lucky person, not a law maker or a judge. I am happy to stay away from this issue.

  19. Is it ok for the mother to choose to keep a boy and abort a girl? Her body her choice, right?

    1. Or, per someone on Massimo's original post, is it all right to have an abortion because you already planned a vacation to Europe in nine months?

  20. The problem with a lot of pro-choice people is that they -- presumably without much reflection -- rely on the libertarian "argument" that the fetus is part of the woman's body and she has the right to do to her body whatever she pleases (neither part of which I agree with btw). Drawn to its logical conclusion, this means that there is, for example, nothing morally objectionable about binge-drinking during pregnancy despite its likely negative developmental consequences for the child, a position I would hope very few people would subscribe to (but you never know).
    I'm sorry, but if you want to be okay with abortion, you really have to bite the bullet and make the argument that the value of the life of the fetus is insignificant enough that is morally permissible to end it (this should not be hard in a society of meat-eaters).

    1. Not all pro-choice arguments have to bite that bullet. The famous Judith Jarvis Thompson argument, for example, argues that abortion is permissible even if you think that a fetus has the same status as a fully grown human being.

      Personally, I don't find her argument very convincing, but I'm just pointing out the options in logical space.

    2. Or, you can be like P.Z. Myers on non-philosophical grounds, or Peter Singer on utilitarian philosophical grounds, and extend this argument into early childhood euthanasia.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  21. Thinking about the debate over abortion, does the instrumental considerations of the abortion debate justify trying to make irrelevant the philosophical considerations? Or, to put it in another context, do you sympathise with the biologists who get irritated at people who retreat to philosophical speculations to try to undermine the theory of evolution? I could imagine that to a certain extent showing that there's a "legitimate" debate on abortion might be considered morally problematic to some - that the idea that someone can reasonably hold an anti-abortion idea is so antithetical to female autonomy that it becomes ethically defensible to attack the anti-abortion arguments as being the result of malicious intent. Jean Paul Van Bendegem's entry in The Philosophy Of Pseudoscience about the ethics of argumentation is weighing on my mind.

    1. >>Or, to put it in another context, do you sympathise with the biologists who get irritated at people who retreat to philosophical speculations to try to undermine the theory of evolution?

      This is an interesting question. I think the answer depends on the details of what the "philosophical speculations" are trying to do.

      For example, one way that philosophical speculation might "undermine" the theory of evolution is by arguing for a generalized kind of skepticism or scientific anti-realism. I don't think scientists should be bothered by these kinds of arguments, because they are philosophical arguments about the nature of scientific knowledge in general rather than attacks specifically on evolution.

      On the other hand, there are the philosophical challenges to specific aspects of evolutionary theory that we saw in "Mind and Cosmos" and "What Darwin Got Wrong". In both of those cases, I think biologists were right to be annoyed, but not simply because somebody dared challenge The Sacred Dogma of Evolution. Rather, biologists were right to be annoyed because both of those books were rather shoddy. When somebody publishes a rather shoddy book in obscure metaphysics or philosophy of language, it's no big deal - the book gets poor reviews and everybody moves on. But shoddy books like "Mind and Cosmos" and "What Darwin Got Wrong" are positively counterproductive, because they get abused by creationists. If, however, a very rigorously-defended, scientifically-informed philosophical challenge to evolution can be formulated - one whose problems cannot be easily identified - then I think it's worth investigating.

      So in the case of abortion, I think abortion-rights activists can be legitimately annoyed if philosophers keep trotting out LAME arguments against abortion. They can reasonably argue that wasting time on obviously lame arguments has no intellectual or philosophical value (it's the intellectual equivalent of eating candy), so the fact that it lends legitimacy to abortion opponents may be a good reason not to spend much time on those arguments. *However*, if somebody proposes a very thoughtful argument against abortion that cannot so easily be refuted, then I think that's worth discussion.

    2. When I was writing the comment, the book I had in mind in particular was Stephen C Meyer's The Signature In The Cell - a book that impressed Thomas Nagel to sufficient degree.

      But in general, the problem I was highlighting was not the philosophical challenge itself, but the move to which someone brings up a philosophical problem in order to make a point against evolution. Philip Johnson going after methodological naturalism would be one example. People using Kuhn's idea of scientific revolutions, or using Popper's idea of falsification other attempts I've seen by creation. One I recently came across was someone using Feyerabend to try to cast doubt on any confidence in the scientific enterprise. The point with the use of reason isn't whether it's correct, but whether it serves to undermine a legitimate stance.

      The difference I'm trying to highlight is between the idea of an academic discussion and a cultural one, where the question of how ideas are used is very different. It wouldn't matter in this case whether the arguments were any good or not (shoddy arguments haven't stopped Creationists), but whether those arguments serve to bolster or undermine the position. What might be right from a purely rational point of view might not translate into getting people to see it that way, and it could serve to undermine what are socially important issues by getting bogged down in the debate over them. It might be even more problematic in the abortion debate when the anti-abortion movement is largely filled with people who hold it's wrong because it's a sin and who use whatever they can in the fight against it. And maybe in this case the worry is legitimate, though it would raise the further question of whether the tactics used to defend abortion rights are persuasive - and seeing as I've never persuaded anyone in my life of anything, I'm definitely not in a position to say what works and what doesn't.

      (I also agree with you, C, that it's worth discussing the quality of the arguments. Namely because I don't know what else one can do but hope to try to use rationality to get through tricky issues. I just wonder if that approach is somewhat tangential to the aims of activists on the issue - and if it is, then other factors such as social reasoning come into play.)

  22. Massimo, you should know by now that the blood on the freethoughtblogs altar must never be allowed to dry - when it does, they turn on each other (you see this happening regularly). They need a steady stream of sacrificial scapegoats for their outrage theatre - it's the only thing they have to give meaning to their otherwise inconsequential existance - and it's your turn. You should wear these attacks as a badge of honor. All they really say is you must be doing something right. It's your turn to be Witch of the Week. Again. From memory, it's not your first time is it?

    1. Well, I don't take these attacks as badges of honor. They are more a source of sadness and frustration.

    2. They are sad. That said, on the civility issue, it's a two-way street. I don't go out of my way to be uncivil to folks like that, but I don't go out of my way to be civil to them any more, either.

  23. You give these doctrinaire tub-thumpers far more time and effort than they deserve, Mr. Pigliucci. It became clear several years ago that the likes of Myers make a habit of distorting and misrepresenting the words and opinions of those who, in their eyes, do not follow their preferred pseudo-liberal political dogma, or who have the gall to suggest that there may be more than one side to an issue. Having done that, they then feel justified in hurling insults and ad homs.

    They are also shamelessly hypocritical in their behaviour, not least in the way they will happily use quotes out of context, or opt (as you have seen) to take an absurdly literalist interpretation of someone's statements, yet will sneer and mock anyone who does something similar to their words.

    They represent a disturbing but ultimately insignificant clique in the "atheist community" and the best way to react to them is to ignore their noise. They had their moment a couple of years ago with the fuss around "Elevatorgate", Atheism Plus and so on. Most of us learned then that they are essentially unreasonable and vindictive people, and it simply isn't worth engaging with them. That approach seems to have been working, since this exchange you are having is possibly the first time they've reappeared on the wider atheist radar since that time, with the notable exception of Myers' shameful smear campaign against Michael Shermer.

  24. Massimo,

    What Jack March said.

    Myers and Christina are ideologues who just happen to be secularists and atheists. As with all ideologues, doctrinal and political obedience trump any other principles they claim to have.

    They are hardly alone in this, having drawn to themselves many FtB/A+ members in a mutual vice-grip of circular reasoning and confirmation bias; at this point there is nothing anyone can say to them that will break their shells.

    Like religious True Believers, Rand/Objectivism disciples or old-school Marxists, they don't believe their assumptions are open to scrutiny. All questions have been answered. All X-variables have been solved. They see themselves as "CSI: Atheism" and they have cracked the case. (Spoiler: The murderer was your privilege!)

    What you're seeing with Christina's reply, for example, is not a lack of being "charitable" but quite deliberate malevolence. Compare this with the oft-witnessed spectacle of Plussers snarling "Misogynist!" at those who don't share their gender politics.

    Do they seriously believe the objects of such accusations hate women? No, but they don't care. It's their version of "Burn the witch!", "Commie!" or what have you.

    1. So anyone who objects to the assertion that women should on occasion have less rights than a corpse is just a keerrrazy fanatic? And I bet you're confused why the word "misogyny" get thrown around so much in this discussion.

    2. Wow ... there's enough straw men in two sentences, or straw people should I say, to create a whole family. Massimo's not a misogynist, has never argued that women should ever have fewer [sic[ rights than a corpse, or anything close. That said, plenty a "keerrrazy fanatic" has made exactly such fact-free, logic-free claims. And, yes, I'd put both PZ and Greta a lot closer to that group ing than Massimo.

  25. I was also surprised, disappointed and dismayed at the reactions after I pointed out on Christina's blog that those offering injunctions invoking "rights" and "morality", if those injunctions are to have universal obligation above mere recommendation or pragmatic formula, needed to ground that obligation in some way.

    You can view what the responses were in the comment section at...


    1. I just took a little side trip per your cited url. It is rather depressing when you read a blog than complains about "tone trolling" a tone. Is it reasonable to ask why the blogger simply didn't shut down the endless back and forth about the blog after stating "I am not willing to host a debate about my right to not be forced . . . ."?

      And yada yada yada. Where is this mysterious "force" coming from except from the insistence to keep it going yourself? Especially when your point seems to be that those who agree with your tone fall within your definition of comprehension and those who don't, don't. There is no need for commentary. So why not shut it down?

      It is perhaps a bad analogy, but this reminds me of someone who smells smoke in a theater and then insists on the right to yell "fire!" despite being told that there was indeed a fire, but it was put out two hours ago and you are simply smelling residual smoke. While it's true yours is a legitimate, paid admission, some of us believe it important to to investigate the cause of the fire, not your right to shout "fire."

    2. Thomas has it right. As for the "Slymepit" that Atheism Plusers complain about? It's as much a tar baby for them as the Religious Right is for Gnu Atheists.

  26. Whatever choice One makes there will be those for and those against. Surely it is not the for or against that matters, just the freedom of choice. Let freedom ring! =

  27. Hello Massimo

    > "I don’t get it. We do this all the time, and it is a cornerstone of our moral education — in true virtue ethical-Aristotelian fashion, I might add. We begin with young children, trying to both explain to them the reasons why certain things (e.g., stealing) are wrong and how they should properly feel about those actions (shame, guilt). We do it to adults too, of course. We criticize the greed (emotion!) of big bankers, we call on our politicians to feel sorry (emotion!) about their misdeeds, and we are horrified by the lack of emotional response on the part of sociopaths when they show no regret (emotion!) at whatever crime they may have committed. And this goes for positive emotions as well, of course: we say that people should feel pride for this, happy about that, and so on. So, what exactly, is the problem with someone arguing that another person should (morally) feel troubled by a certain (ethically salient) decision?"

    Sorry to re-hash this again but I strongly disagree with that view.

    I would say that we teach children not to steal and instilling shame and guilt is how we teach it to them. What is morally relevant is that they do not steal, not how they feel about it (yeah, I am still a hard headed consequentialist). We criticize the *actions* of bankers caused by their greed but whether they do those actions out of greed, out of nihilism or out of love for Baal, god of all financial meltdowns is not really relevant. I do not care that our politicians feel sorry about their crap, I want them to clean up their act. I can't even know whether they are truly sorry or not, so how could that be relevant...

    We are horrified and frightened by the lack of certain emotional responses of sociopaths because we realize they are profoundly alien to us, just like we would be horrified and frightened by a velociraptor.

    Same goes for positive emotions, I would not dream to tell someone whether they should feel happy or not, proud or not. What kind of insanity is that? You might be able to make an argument based on psychological health but that is not a normative one...

    We do care about the emotions of others because they are good predictors of how they will behave. If we are convinced a murderer feels remorse, we are going to assign a lower probability to him killing again. If we are convinced someone is totally impervious to shame and guilt, we know there is no way to impose social control on them and that they can thus be very dangerous to hang around.

    And that is what we are talking about when we teach children to feel guilt and shame at certain actions: we know that if they associate certain emotions with certain actions, it will change their propensity to perform said actions. Feelings are tools in the implementation of a certain ethic. Think about Khaneman's system 1 and system 2. If an individual has strong emotional reactions to certain actions, we are sure the message will get through event if they are tired, stressed out, distracted. If they have to carefully ponder moral consideration every time, we know this is bound to fail more often than not. In the end, relying on shame and guilt is a (rather blunt) tool for imperfect individuals living in an imperfect world.

    And it is certainly suboptimal to insist on normative constraints on emotions. Let's say someone made me angry with a certain action. I realize why they did it and understand they were correct in performing that action. Yet I still am angry (emotions do not magically disappear on rational examination, see how arousal works in the human body). If I consider I have no right to be angry, I will try to repress that emotion and will probably feel guilt on top of it which is not going to help me react correctly to the situation or facilitate my interactions with that person. I probably won't be able to tell them what is going on with me since admitting I hold normatively incorrect is considered shameful by everyone present (and that this shame is itself normatively correct...)


    1. Jean-Nicolas Denonne wrote: "I would say that we teach children not to steal and instilling shame and guilt is how we teach it to them. What is morally relevant is that they do not steal, not how they feel about it.

      I think this sentence alone demonstrates what is wrong with your argument.

      I would never use shame and guilt to stop my kids from stealing, rather I would instill in them respect for others and for others' feelings. So how they feel about it is of paramount importance.

      A consequentialism of action is incoherent - a sort of "Stepford Wives" consequentialism.

      The only consequences worthwhile are consequences of feeling - feeling safe, nourished, free, happy, fulfilled, respecting of others.

    2. I think you misunderstood. I am not the one saying that children *should* experience guilt and shame, I argue against that.

      And when I argue against the moral evaluation of feelings, I oppose the notion that some feelings are correct and others incorrect. I am well aware that emotions as consequences are morally relevant. If my actions cause grief to someone, I should take that into consideration. So I think we agree on that point.

      With regard to education, I do feel queasy about shaming and guilting children, as you do. But I think it is inevitable that when an authority expresses desaprobation to a child, the child is going to experience negative feelings. With repetition, those feelings will become ingrained.

      And with an emotionally immature child (no denigration, it took me 30 years to reach something I dare say resemble maturity), you will not be able to sort those through those feelings with them and allow them to take distance from them.

      I you manage to pull it off, I might want to buy your book ^_^

    3. Jean-Nicolas - help me out here:

      "What is morally relevant is that they do not steal, not how they feel about it


      "I am well aware that emotions as consequences are morally relevant"

      .So I can't really understand what you are saying. You said earlier that a child's emotions about stealing were not morally relevant and then you say you are well aware that emotions as consequences are morally relevant.

      So why is the earlier example an exception.

      That this might be difficult in practice is not relevant. If I could only save 9 out of ten people from a fire I would not consider, therefore, that saving 9 out of ten was a better consequence than saving 10 out of 10, merely that the better consequence was not, in this case achievable.

      If my kids do the right thing to avoid the negative emotions associated with doing the wrong thing because this is the best I can do in a case then it is still the better consequence that they do the right thing because of a positive emotion associated with doing the right thing.

      I will accept the lesser consequence if I have to and strive for the better consequence when I can.

      And yes, I manage to pull it off from time to time - I think that most parents do.

      But I can see no argument at all that their feelings about stealing are not morally relevant.

  28. [Continued]

    On the other end, compare that with a situation where everyone accepts that people feel what they feel but what really matters are our actions. I can then accept my anger and (more or less) calmly decide what to do with it. I can even tell the person that I am angry with them but that they should not concern themselves with it, that it is my problem to deal with. I can then go for a quick walk or whatever routine helps me to re-enter myself and go back to working with that person. It minimizes the risk me blowing up to their face (actual actions, morally relevant to me) and it allows us to negotiate the situation in a way that minimizes harm (once again, actual actions with different consequences, morally relevant).

    C, on the other thread, used the example that we would disapprove of someone saying he holds a deep hatred of black people. Once again, expressing that opinion is an action and how that action is performed and what its consequence are going to be is going to affect how we should judge it morally. Was it said with no reservation at a family gathering, thus normalizing the expression of hatred in the public sphere? Or was it said in confidence to a friend in the mode of "Every time I am near a black person, I feel overwhelmed by a boiling rage and this is deeply troubling. I am afraid this negatively affects my behaviour around them and that it might cause them harm", allowing the person experiencing these feelings to seek out support in solving a problem and, hopefully, making sure nothing bad comes out of those feelings. Now, we might feel distrustful or disgusted by such a person and decide to avoid their company but that is not the same thing as a moral judgment, more of an expression of taste, or a measure of self-protection. (It might feel the same to us but the fact that our neurological apparatus used for moral judgment piggy-backs on others used for disgust or fear or whatnot should not be relevant in a philosophical discussion of morality. It might be relevant in the discussion of how do we get people to behave morally and how we make sure to stay coordinated and to keep cooperating as a society...)

    We are also more likely to forgive someone who expresses the "right" feelings, but once again, this is a question of empathy and trust, not something that should be considered moral (and do not get me started on the idea that you *should* forgive someone who hurt you because they expressed the *correct* emotions of remorse and regret afterward...)

    So, I would say that emotions are salient to human beings because they are strong predictors of an individual's behaviour (I do not deny that) but that they should not be held up to moral evaluation, what should matter morally are concrete actions in the outside world.

    1. Jean-Nicolas,

      Regardless of whether you think that emotions should be subject to moral evaluation, the point of my post (and, I think, part of Massimo's point) is that the moral status of emotions is a legitimate philosophical debate in its own right, and it doesn't presuppose any kind of sexist attitudes.

      The problem with some of the reactions to Massimo's post wasn't simply that people disagreed with his statement - the problem was that they seemed to be positively *outraged* by the prospect of one person making a normative judgment about the emotions of others. This is like a Kantian vilifying a fellow blogger for supporting utilitarianism. We should be able to discuss and disagree on philosophical issues without vilifying one another.

      If people reacted to Massimo the way you did - by giving *arguments* against making moral judgments about the emotions of others, then I don't think this would be an issue. It would just be another case of philosophical disagreement. Unfortunately, instead of arguments, we got a whole lot of "How dare you!?"

      (By the way, I would point out that, by saying that we shouldn't make normative judgments about the attitudes of others, *you* are making a normative judgment about the attitudes of others. Hmm...)

  29. A clear, well reasoned, and thoughtful postscript. Precisely why I read this blog!

    I had intended on going on a rant here, but instead I will simply offer up to the "Atheism +" and FTB crowd, a little nugget of wisdom for their consideration:

    The Ground Rules of Controversy in a Democracy:

    1. Nothing and no one is immune from criticism.

    2. Everyone involved in a controversy has an intellectual responsibility to inform himself (sic.) of the available facts.

    3. Criticism should be directed first to policies, and against persons only when they are responsible for policies, and against their motives or purposes only when there is some independent evidence of their character.

    4. Because certain words are legally permissible, they are not therefore morally permissible.

    5. BEFORE impugning an opponent's motives, even when they legitimately be impugned, answer his arguments.

    6. Do not treat an opponent of a policy as if he were therefore a personal enemy or an enemy of the country or a concealed enemy of democracy.

    7. Since a good cause may be defended by bad arguments, after answering the bad arguments for another's position present positive evidence for your own.

    8. Do not hesitate to admit lack of knowledge or to suspend judgement if evidence is not decisive either way.

    9. Only in pure logic and mathematics, not in human affairs, can one demonstrate that something is strictly impossible. Because something is logically possible, it is not therefore probable. "It is not impossible" is a preface to an irrelevant statement about human affairs. The question is always one of the balance of probabilities. And the evidence for probabilities must include more than abstract possibilities.

    10. The cardinal sin, when we are looking for truth of fact or wisdom of policy, is refusal to discuss, or action which blocks discussion.

    Sidney Hook "The Ethics of Controversy" (1954)

    1. I think it is perfectly acceptable to point out that something is not impossible if you are answering someone who claims it is impossible. So 9 should refer to all statements of ruling things in or out.

    2. wow, I knew Syndey Hook when I was very young, and his conversion to right wing politics has always baffled me. although It mainly had to do with a reaction due to his disillusion with marxism.
      I have been seeing strong reactions from some feminist areas that make me consider that internalized oppression is operating, and the role of oppressor is being reflected in the attacks on what some are questioning as modern feminist orthodoxy.
      this attack on Massimo reminds me of the same sort of dynamics as the attacks on Ani diFranco. Being an icon of feminism and a very visible ally against racism. She was made to submit to the attacks and offer a full scale surrender.
      This circles back to my thinking that Hook was horrified at the treatment of communists by Stalin, who were all forced to submit and acknowledge their being traitors.
      I think it vital to find ways to show that this sort of approach is not only unnecessary to further the goals of feminism but is actually greatly undermining it in damaging ways. 1. By discouraging those that have honest disagreements. 2. By modeling behavior that thinks to solve conflict by "defeating the enemy" rather than encouraging dialogue that leads to greater understanding by all.

  30. This notion that people have a right to choose what to do with their bodies, does it apply to doing heroin? Does it apply to underage drinking, smoking, and cosmetic surgery without parental consent?

  31. "It is interesting that the statement makes the same confusion that Christina incurred in, mixing up the idea that there are secular arguments showing that some abortions are morally problematic with the idea that women's rights to control their bodies should be curbed. Once more: they are not the same thing!"

    This is either the most obnoxiously dishonest sentence you've ever written, or you are so intensely uninformed about this topic, you should stay very, very far away from it.

    1. Care to actually explain why you believe that rather than making the accusation? What is exactly dishonest about his statement or how is it misinformed?

    2. Presumably Massimo doesn't believe in natural rights, so when he talks about "curbing rights" he probably means something about curbing what people are *legally* permitted to do. This makes it pretty easy to see how "showing that some abortions are morally problematic" is different from "the idea that women's rights to control their bodies should be curbed."

      It's perfectly consistent to believe that (i) abortions shouldn't be *legally* restricted, but (ii) there might be something morally problematic about them.

      By comparison, people engage in all kinds of immoral behavior (lying, breaking promises, cheating on partners, etc.), but we don't think that the law should get involved in all of these cases.

    3. Your comment "this either is the most obnoxiously dishonest sentence you've ever written ... " has several failings.

      First, it's an elementary school logical fallacy of a false dilemma. Either you recognized that and wrote it anyway, so you're the dishonest one, or else you didn't, and you could stand to learn some basic logic. If the former is the case, then stop being hypocritical. If the latter is the case, and without caring about the Wrath Of Plusers, politely ... be quiet until you do learn some logic.

      Second, per other comments, you appear to want to stereotype white males without further asking their political beliefs, details of their philosophy, or anything else.

      Having seen such illogic before, having pointed it out, and having been subjected myself to the Wrath Of Plusers, none of this surprises me.

  32. "Nothing and no one is immune from criticism."

    Except while male atheists who are accused of sexual harassment/assault. THEY should be defended immediately and unquestioningly, and immediately pronounced innocent.

    1. This is not even remotely germane to the current discussion and reveals the inflammatory and uncharitable intent behind your words.

      I haven't always agreed with Massimo in the past, but I don't think he's ever posted a sexist or misogynistic viewpoint in the 7 years I've read his blog. Why can't you respectfully disagree with him? Why must you slur and insult and demean?

    2. I took it that Audra was referring to the so-called "Elevatorgate".

  33. Very nicely done, Massimo. I waded into the toxic sludge at Pharyngula over the weekend, basically to state a charitable interpretation of your original remark. Not surprisingly, (almost) nobody there was interested in dialogue. What I find really peculiar about it is that the thread was itself little more than a testament to the points you've made here. They are busily *engaged* in the process of recommending certain feelings in relation to certain behaviors. That, after all, is precisely what shaming, demanding apologies, hurling insults and accusations of dishonesty, and the like, are all about. That behavior, especially in relation to this topic, is also pretty good indirect proof of what ought to be a no-brainer: that decisions about abortion are ethically and emotionally complex. The denial of that strikes me as an obvious over-reaction to perceived challenges to one's autonomy. But the mere fact that one recommends a course of action, or even attitudes toward different courses of action, is not itself a curb or attack on autonomy; it's just a basic feature of ethical dialogue.

    But the confusion is pretty damning, because it serves, in practice, as a trump card against dialogue of any sort. And that, to be sure, is a clear attempt to curb a significant dimension of expressive autonomy.

    1. It's not ethically complex, it's one of the simplest to answer: always wrong, in all cases. The questions on when life begins, on the other hand, and why substance-identity is correct, why body-self dualism is wrong, why the intellect is immaterial, and why personal identity cannot be psychological may each be technically complex, but those aren't ethical questions. I think atheists too often confuse the two.

    2. Yep, Blinn, it's all about tribalism.

  34. While having an abortion could be "morally problematic" (lets say after the first three to four months), voting for a Republican is more clearly morally problematic. Republicans in state legislatures are passing laws that are eliminating the possibility for a woman to have access to an abortion even at one month (by passing regulations that close down clinics). There is nowhere for a woman to go for hundreds of miles. That's a reality that will lead to women's deaths that follows from voting for Republicans.

    It seems to me (regarding abortions) that voting for a Republican is more morally problematic than having an abortion.

  35. This whole matter is really unfortunate. Anyway, it reminds me of a scenario where one is having a discussion over dinner and someone at another table picks up parts of the discussion, then ambles over and proceeds to redirect and reframe the discussion to one of his own choosing.

    In this case, you can either take up the new discussion (which in this case seems like standpoint theory and has no bearing on your original discussion) or ask the interloper to return to his table and be accused of being rude. In either case, no one enjoys the meal or the discussion.

  36. One thing that annoys me is when people say that atheists should get involved in such and such a cause so that "we can extend our appeal into that demographic. Get involved because something is right, not because you want to open a new market.

  37. If I ever got pregnant I would have an abortion, what about you Massimo?

    1. That's like saying, "If I met a gay man, I'd beat him with a metal pipe."

  38. In the spirit of seeking levity where perhaps none is now possible, may I suggest this over thought piece on misunderstanding the lyrics of songs in which the author states:

    "The real and ever-present danger with Gang of Four, as with any group with political goals, was always their propensity to preach: Rock audiences for the most part don’t appreciate being lectured to. Could the mondegreen, then, represent listeners’ unconscious resistance to dogma—the way our minds turn something rigid into something malleable, something a fan can work with rather than simply obey? A way to make the experience of listening to rock truly interactive, rather than simply assimilative?"

    But be sure to read the humorous comments on the piece, such as those that draw parallels to the misunderstandings by children of the lyrics of prayers and hymns. My favorite is "Lead on, O Kinky Turtle," instead of "Lead on, O King Eternal."


  39. Im surprised the matter didnt end with your clarification(fwiw the original context was clear to me , even without the clarification) and Im finding the escalation of rhetoric(from "our" side) to be particularly stupid - especially since I consider you on the other side when it comes to New Atheism .

    I do think you are giving Silverman an easy pass though - You cannot go to a place containing people responsible for passing anti-choice laws and make sympathetic noises about abortion.
    To me there are logical implications of atheism and people who follow that logic will arrive at liberal positions - given than secular objections can always be countered effectively - religious objections cannot and in a good number of issues religious opposition is all that really remains . In the case if abortion if you take out all the religious objections , even if there are secular objections , do you really think that the laws that get passed today, will get passed tomorrow? If not , then for all practical purposes non-belief ==> pro-choice.

  40. Bodily autonomy is a bullshit and baseless highfalutin theorizing. One need not rationalize any further than Margaret Sanger's public health concerns.

  41. While I agree that a discussion and debate over the secular arguments showing that some abortions are "morally problematic" is different from the political debate over whether we should change the laws on abortion and thus curb women's right to control our bodies. That said, what Silverman did was go to a convention of political parties who are officially and actively fighting to limit or ban abortion, and then he told them that there are secular arguments against abortion. The implication is that there are secularists who are "pro-life" (which is a political stance on the legality of abortion, not a philosophical stance about the morality of choosing to have an abortion) and who use arguments which are sensible.

    What Hemant Mehta did was much worse IMO, because he twice in one month gave a platform to leaders of actual anti-choice organizations that are actively working to change the laws and limit access to abortion at any stage of pregnancy. (The organizations "Secular Pro-Life" and "Pro-Life Humanists."

    That is why there is outrage over this. I don't mind at all if people sit around discussing the morality of abortion as a personal decision, so long as it is fully accepted that my and every other woman's rights to have a safe, legal, abortion for any reason during the pre-viability stages of pregnancy is maintain AND that my right to have my and every other woman's health concerns prioritized over even a viable fetus is maintained.

    Greta's point was that this shit is personal. You people are all sitting around talking about my rights. Don't fool yourself or anyone else into thinking this is about just ideas. It's about laws and regulations and women's rights, which is to say, human rights. If you don't believe me, I urge you to visit the websites of "Secular Pro-Life" and "Pro-Life Humanists" and see just how dishonest, manipulative, extremist, and *politically* active they are.

    1. Well stated, Martha. I agree.

    2. I also agree with you completely, Martha.

    3. I am prochoice, but I know a few nonbelievers who have difficulties with abortion, including one pro life atheist who claims she was "almost aborted" by her parents.

      That said, most arguments about what is "right" and "wrong", regardless of context, have more to do with one's moral intuitions than empirical claims. And there is a strong tendency to think one's own moral intuitions are so obvious that those who do not share them are "dishonest" and "manipulative".

      The posts in this thread make for a good case study in moral psychology.

  42. I have to say I was surprised you would have someone like Greta Christina on your podcast because vitriolic statements seem to be her baseline behavior; emotionalism rather than reason seem to be how she operates.

    Still, I am not against having her, since I support the free exchange of ideas. Greta, on the other hand, actually bans people from her blog who have even slight disagreements.

  43. You're way too smart to be just figuring out now that you're dealing with a massively irrational religious cult (which merely happens to lack a deity).


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