Saturday, November 22, 2014


Had an exchange on fbook this week. Tried screen capturing but it was tough to read so I'm copying and pasting:

DL (original post):
Step 1: Think of the most despicable villain or group of villains you can (ISIS, Nazis, Pinochet, Saddam...)
Step 2: Explain what's bad about them.
Step 3: Translate your answer to step 2 into principled terms. For example, "it's wrong when anyone does X, Y, Z."
Step 4: Answer the question: "does my government or favorite politician do X, Y, Z?"
Step 5: You answered "no." This is normal, but not in a good way. Now think about how hard your brain had to work to rationalize aggressive imperial wars, torture, etc., to conform to a good guy/bad guy narrative that mostly developed before you were capable of critical thought.
Step 6: Answer the question from step 4 again, this time honestly.


DL: "Are you comparing (something I like) to (something I hate)?! *expression of dismissive disbelief*"

DL: It's not uncommon to equate comparing and equating.

Commenter #1: Aztecs. They ripped apart and dismembered live human beings. Does my government endorse and protect dismemberment via legal abortion? Yes.

JD: Deontology is a red herring. So step 3 is wrong.

DL: [JD], I thought you thought I was a consequentialist, whatever that is. In any case, there's nothing particularly complicated, fancy, demanding, theory-heavy or unusual about suggesting that moving the yardstick is cheating. I'm guessing maybe you have me saying something along the lines of "you should do X because the eternal structure of the universe demands it!" Whereas I'm making a rather obvious comment (or, well, it's obvious sans tribalist bias) about methodology. If you use grams to measure oranges, you should use grams to measure apples. If killing is wrong when the blue team does it, it's wrong when the red team does it.

JD: I disagree! Killing is sometimes wrong and sometimes not so wrong. Life is hard!

JD: Or maybe you're right, but it's certainly disingenuous (although maybe rhetorically savvy) to present it as an open-and-shut case. I say this is deontology because, like, rules, man. But rules are insufficiently flexible for life, which, as previously mentioned, is hard!

JD: Or maybe it's not disingenuous, in which I case, I believe you are mistaken.

JD: So that leaves us with right but mistaken about obviousness, right but disingenuous, or wrong. I think that about sums about the possible states of play. Sorry for so many comments. Off to teach!

DL: Like I said, I'm talking about method, how to analyze politics. Don't move the yardstick. Imagine telling, say, a neuroscientist, "hey, life is hard, you can't just use the same yardstick to study rats and humans." If you did, she'd have good reason to suspect (human) biocentric bias on your part. Mammal brains are mammal brains, which of course doesn't mean that rats are humans. Your insistence that "every situation is different, life is complicated, etc." is the problem. You don't study rat or human behavior by imagining yourself in the subject's shoes. "Our test shows you consistently identified stereotypically Black names with criminality." "But I have a Black friend! I'm not racist, I swear." "OK, we won't count your test then." That's exactly how you move the yardstick and it's what I'm saying you shouldn't do.

DL: Keep in mind, I'm letting you choose the yardstick. Not because it's unimportant which one is used but because you're basically arguing that Omar Vizquel was a better power hitter than Barry Bonds so I'm pretty confident that as long as you don't compare Vizquel's OPS with Bonds' AVG, you don't have a case. This leaves you open to use an oddly arbitrary measure like HRs in 0-2 counts against Al Leiter in the third inning or, politically, maybe the Catherine wheel is torture (because the bad guys do it) but drawing and quartering isn't (because we do it).

JD: My argument is asserting that (Omar Vizquel > Barry Bonds)? That seems like a little bit of a straw man. But it turns out you can't (at least blithely) use the same yardstick to study rats and humans, and if you find out a particular treatment has an effect on rats, the next step is not widespread over-the-counter use. You consider what the two creatures have in common, and how they differ, and then all your statements and assertions are--and must be--contingent assertions.
So we can't have categorical imperatives, unless we simply want them to be sufficiently broad platitudes that they don't actually help very much when trying to distinguish between two courses of action...which means that statements like "killing is wrong" might be rhetorically useful because who could disagree? But ultimately they're not much help in evaluating the rightness or wrongness of a course of action.

And this opens me up to a rhetorical broadside because it sounds wishy-washy and also convoluted, but what is rhetorical weakness is sometimes moral rigor. It is a far more interesting and useful approach to apply moral intuition, examine circumstances that are maybe edge cases to try to discern what are the contingencies. For example, most societies break down "killing" into sub-classes. Killing that was unintentional and in self-defense is morally different than killing that was premeditated and senseless. They are different concepts. Even using the word "killing" for both of them ultimately confuses the issue. So we can get more specific and the contingencies that pertain to that specificity have moral weight. Most societies also treat killing by soldiers differently than killing by civilians...except when they start to cross other moral lines. It is interesting and complicated and not at all obvious how one ought to think about these things. I think clearly a 6-step process to a perfectly coherent and consistent morality is probably simplistic...although that is me turning *you* into a straw man (although in my defense, I think you presented it as simple as a rhetorical strategy so this is kind of rolling with your momentum into a throw).

We can also go more broad: a killing is a violation of one's duty to another and a violation of their rights. So are all duty violations and transgressions against others' rights morally equivalent? Obviously not: mass murder and shoplifting are morally different and our society's judgment, imperfect as it is, reflects that difference.

A penultimate point: given the complexities of such a contingent morality, it's interesting to wonder where exactly the "evil" lies. Which act or attitude or vice pushes you over the line into reprehensibility? It's probably a continuum. ISIS, Nazis, Pinochet, Saddam--they're at least different from you and I in degree and volume of their acts (also two of them are organizations and whether an institution can be said to be moral or not feels weird and again, not obvious. I mean, obviously you can *say* that they're evil, but what that means...). Is killing the same as authorizing a killing? If I pay someone to kill a pig so I can eat it, is that the same as me killing a pig? Or am I more morally suspect because I've besmirched someone else? What about cases where the Amish use pneumatics instead of electricity as a work-around? The spirit of the law v. the letter of the law? Wow there is a lot.

Finally, this kind of a contingent morality I assert to be the correct kind of morality! It harmonizes with a moral intuition, which, like much intuition, is broadly right but prone to systematic biases. This is I think what you were ultimately trying to point out--that our moral intuition systematically fails, when, for example, we like somebody. We don't want to believe that they're a bad person capable of bad things. See, e.g. Bill Cosby. Similarly, when we dislike a person or a class of people, we assume the worst. I totally agree that these are bad, and that a 6-step approach to solving these biases is not a terrible thing. It seems like a complementary approach, maybe preferable in the long run, is to construct a functional morality that acknowledges these complexities and also points out our blind spots like unmapped regions with handpainted calligraphy noting here be dragons.

DL: About Vizquel v. Bonds, the U.S., by any reasonable measure, is far beyond Bonds status in terms of deadly military force. Compare the # of wars started in the past century, # of bases on foreign soil, # of countries currently being drone bombed, weapons sold to dictators, nuclear stockpile...If you think Ajmedinamuhdood is anywhere near as bad, you're including intentions in your calculation, and you're saying Vizquel was a better power hitter. It would be a strawman if I misrepresented your opinion. But you think Putin is a bastard whereas Obama is merely imperfect (read: good guy who makes mistakes), as I understand you, so... Anyway, I don't think this is complicated. Like, I understand it, very easily, though it took some deprogramming. (I still need deprogramming in other areas!) If it's complicated for you, it's certainly not due to intellectual deficits. I think it's because by the time "Putin" reaches your conscious brain, it's already associated with so much outgroup baggage that his bad guy status can't help but get rationalized. That's what the conscious brain does. Whether to drone bomb 10 or just 9 countries is not an ethical dilemma (all ethical dilemmas I know of assume "good intentions"). One doesn't need to deduce some fancy shizz from trumped up first principles. One can be a deontologist, consequentialist, or just someone who doesn't think about that stuff and still see what's going on. The scouts and the statheads agree that Bonds was a better power hitter.

JD: Aren't own goals different from goals scored against? The bases you choose to build, the specific countries you choose to bomb--these things matter. You're saying "they're the same they're the same they're the same' and I keep saying "they're different they're different they're different' because *of course they're the same*. But also they're different. And their differentness is waaaaay more interesting and important than their sameness. IMHO.

DL: You know that's what apologists for motherfuckery say, right? Literally, they're saying the same thing. So, what's your yardstick?

JD: Well, sure, lots of people say lots of things. I'm not sure what my yardstick is, but I'd like to have a productive conversation about it. It's the ethical agenda we should be working on. But I'm not sure I've convinced you yet. It seems like your yardstick measures every head of state and judge them in direct proportion to their power...which doesn't seem that useful to me. It essentially just says everything is a yard long. Another way to put it: if your method had moral advice to give, it would essentially be: don't become a head of state. But someone is going to! And we need to be able to differentiate between them, morally. So my ideal yardstick would provide a means of distinguishing between choices.
In addition, it should work up and down the social ladder. Being a father, for example, necessarily puts one in a paternalistic position. If paternalism is bad, or power over another is bad, then the answer could be: don't become a father. But any moral calculus that leads to that as its advice must be deeply flawed. The question isn't "is it wrong to be a father". The question should be "Given that I AM a father, how should I behave?" A yardstick should help us both distinguish between good and bad fatherhoods, as well as provide guidance as to how to move in one direction or the other on the spectrum.

That's what I mean by their differences being more interesting. Both Obama's and Putin's sins, as you tally them, descend directly from their being heads of state, or at least many of them do. But all that tells me is that you disapprove of heads of state. I guess maybe I do too, but it doesn't seem interesting to me, because unlike, say, serial killers, it seems unlikely that better policy will reduce the incidence of heads of state. And I'm still not sure we'd want to. I think they're an unintended consequence of a world order that has improved overall human welfare by many orders of magnitude.

Commenter #2: Great exchange on both sides!

Saturday, November 1, 2014


Heroes get by on the illusion of having willed themselves to success, having earned it, having gotten there by some indescribable "it factor," having "really wanted it." "He wouldn't be denied," they say, on those occasions when the hero doesn't happen to have been denied. But the hero is a speck in a vast universe with conscious access to a fraction of a percent of its brain. The hero is chemicals, mainly, without access to or understanding of or control over that. Everyone tries fairly hard, but the ones who succeed, post hoc, are said to have succeeded by virtue of effort, character, etc., because that's how human brains generally interpret such things.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

the outgroup is the ingroup? impossible! (revised)

Dichotomous strawman post, visualized. Already found a problem. The translation process should be shown filtering through the inner two circles, which should be understood as automatic, heuristic, unconscious processing:

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

is this the best islamaphobes have to offer?

(Sometimes when I post youtube videos here, they show up as empty space on various mobile devices. So, link:
Here's a very serious progressive defense of Sam Harris and Bill Maher that seems to have made one or two laps around the internet. These guys must have done something right, then. Maybe they address the methodological inadequacies and complete lack of evidence coming from the "Islam is uniquely awful" camp. Let's have a look.

The guest in the video, one Gad Saad, has four things to say:

1. Progressives say it's OK to criticize some religions, not others.

--I wouldn't call myself a progressive but, as a non-Islamaphobe, I find myself among the accused. So, do I think it's OK to criticize some religions (say, Christianity) but not others (say, Islam)? My last post was titled "no, no, i hypothetically love it when sam harris criticizes bad ideas," where bad ideas meant any bad ideas of any relgion. (Amazingly, I came across this video when someone posted it as response to that post). There, and in another recent post titled "islamaphobe challenge," I explicitly asked for criticisms of Islam. The problem is that I added an awkward caveat. I asked that criticism of Islam be methodologically sound. "Don't criticize Islam because I don't like it when people criticize Islam and other stupid reasons" is mostly the same strawman I addressed in the "no, no..." post, where Harris claimed that some people are just plain opposed to entertaining criticism of bad ideas.

Saad's target is perhaps not yours truly, it's "progressives," so it's fair to wonder if the charge might apply in some cases. Well, who knows? He only calls out one particular progressive, Ben Affleck. Does the charge fit? Well, where does Affleck say or imply that "you can't criticize Islam"? Nowhere in the now infamous Maher kerfuffle. And Affleck clearly expresses disgust at the idea of putting apostates to death. Hence, he accepts criticism of actual terrible actions by individuals who are members of the group being attacked as a monolith. What he doesn't accept is the baseless tribalist claim
that Islam is like, the worst thing ever. Or something. I dunno. Harris, Maher, and Saad don't really say. Sometimes they'll say "Islam is 'the motherlode of bad ideas'" (Harris) or some other version of uniquely violent; other times they'll claim they're just trying to point out that Islam has negative consequences. If the latter, well, no shit. Being an irrational atheist asshat like Sam Harris has negative consequences too. "Group X is uniquely evil" is an entirely different argument than "some beliefs accurately attributed to self-described members of group X have negative consequences." In R. Scott Bakker's lingo, that's called "gaming ambiguities." Critique the baseless "uniquely evil" charge and get a defense of a mundane, uncontroversial charge that Islam helps cause some bad things. They don't see the switcheroo and many of their critics don't catch it either.

2. Attacks on Islam can't be racist because Islam is not a race.
--This is correct, arguably, though it's the sort of thing only an apologist would say. A non-apologist would advise the use of a better term to describe the same problem and note that the complaint is merely semantic. For my part, I haven't used the term racism to describe Islamaphobia because I find tribalism more useful. I see racism as a subset of the category "tribalism" -- the principles are the same. You set up a monolithic other by projecting the opposite of all you'd label "good" on it, then you attack the strawman you've created.

3. Saad claims that progressive attitudes toward Muslims are based on anecdotal evidence; implies his case is statistically sound.
--So, my "no, no..." post, again, is a challenge to any defender of the idea that Islam is uniquely prone to violence to prove it with, you know, data. So this is the part where one might hope Saad would do just that. Nope. Just psychologizes about how his a priori mistaken adversaries must be basing their cases on anecdotes. Those silly kids.

Before getting to #4, the host repeats Saad's strawman with a slick addition. He says that progressives think "people shouldn't criticize Islam for fear it would be offensive." Can't speak for others but personally I'm not one to pull punches for fear of offending people. I offend people, quite intentionally, where I think they hold baseless beliefs that are harmful to others. I'll eagerly offend Muslims on exactly the same grounds. Unless shown otherwise (e.g., some quotes), this is just more strawman material.

I would, however, defend the "feelings" of Muslims to the extent that they're targets of unfounded tribalist hate, which is altogether different. I'm also concerned about the material consequences of Islamaphobia. There are real consequences to being baselessly targeted as part of a monolith. (Ask, I dunno, Black people.) For example, someone might use that Muslim caricature as part of an effort to, say, launch an aggressive war against your country, kill your family and such. Muslim Americans (and others who just look like they could be) are victims of violent, so-called hate crimes (statistically!) at a greater rate than say, white people, thanks in large part to the tribalist Muslim caricature. Kind of a big deal. Not a "being offensive" issue.

Around the 6:00 mark, Saad repeats the strawman.

4. Saad offers an anecdote about someone he talked to who just didn't get it. Ha.

The end.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

no, no, i hypothetically love it when sam harris criticizes bad ideas

"We have to be able to criticize bad ideas..." Interesting point, Sam, but it seems like an issue that needs to be settled between you and that non-existent group of people who openly oppose criticizing bad ideas, you strawman-dependent asshat.

"Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas." OK, so that's your claim. Your thesis, if you will. A bit imprecise, but whatever. Maybe you can back it up? This link suggests it's an absolutely baseless claim against a large non-monolithic group of people that carries terrible real-world consequences for its targets. If true, that would mean that anyone who says you're being irrational or wrong is correct and that anyone who says you're being a bigot is also correct.

For example, if you'd said "people with purple hair are the motherlode of Ebola transmitters (and although this conclusion will lead to negative consequences for them, those consequences will be worth it...for somebody)," you'd be an irrational bigot if you didn't come up with some compelling evidence. And if your claims about purple-haired people had been debunked again and again, and if it were shown that there's not even a goddamn correlation between purple haired-ness and Ebola, you'd be some kind of next-level irrational bigot, I guess. Or, it would just be more obvious.

As for what a rational case against Muslims (or purple-haired people) might look like, I covered that here. In short, you'd need to make at least one unambiguous, falsifiable claim set up such that we might apply the same yardstick consistently to all members of the set in question; make a strong case, or at least give some reason to believe that there's a correlation between Islam and, well, nevermind. If you can't do the first two, and you can't, just stop.

"My criticism of Islam is a criticism of beliefs and their consequences...". Nope, it's a bunch of jello.

"...but my fellow liberals reflexively view it as an expression of intolerance toward people ." Stop talking about how people don't understand your jello and make the case. See above.

(This post feels like it's missing something. Well, I haven't actually debunked any specific claims. Because he didn't make any here. As for what he's said elsewhere, check the jello link.)

Thursday, October 9, 2014

the strawmen are coming and they look just like you

Let's play a game of name that fallacy:

A: That guy over there is being rude to the waiter.
B: Yeah, looks like he's being a prick. I can't stand people like that.
A: When he leaves, I'm gonna follow him home and go all Dexter on him.
B: Don't do that.
A: Why are you defending him?!

When B says "don't do that (kill him)," is she implying "because he's a fine human being"? Is she defending him? No and yes. She's defending him, verbally at least, from being killed on absurd grounds. She's not defending his character. So there's equivocation on the oft-used apologist favorite "defend." 

For a while I've been calling this fallacy the false dichotomy-strawman combo. 

It's a false dichotomy in that it posits only these two choices: guy is a prick + kill him OR guy is not a prick + don't kill him.

It's a strawman because it's not just perfectly possible but simply an everyday feature of many people's lives to negativ
ely appraise behavior without experiencing death wishes or other extremely dehumanizing thoughts. The person who says "don't kill him" is simply not saying "...because I'm totally OK with his behavior."

But now it seems to me that all false dichotomies create strawmen, and more interestingly still, are at the foundation of the distorted view of the other that is the hallmark of tribalism. 

First the strawman creation issue. Take that famous false dichotomy, "have you stopped beating your wife?". If it's known that the man had been beating his wife, it's neither a false dichotomy nor a strawman. If it's not known whether he'd been beating his wife (or if he even has a wife, etc.), the question is both a false dichotomy and a de facto strawman. Either he was beating his wife and stopped or he was beating his wife and still is. Either way, he's being attacked on phony grounds (as it's not yet known). 

The false dichotomy builds the strawman, which can then be attacked with relative ease. The false dichotomy happens without the perpetrator's awareness. You might become aware after the fact, secondarily/metacognitively, but it's already there. You're looking at the strawman but blind to its creation. Anyone who has ever had the feeling of self-righteousness (i.e., everyone) has been comparing themselves to a strawman. And yet they weren't aware of it.

I think everything is a kind of strawman, finally -- this entire human experience, that is, existence as perceived, the shadows on the walls of Plato's cave, qualia, the results of neurons modeling environments to control them.

But for now, back to the maybe slightly less complicated issue of tribalism and how the false dichotomy creates the other. Here's the giveaway --
guy is a prick + kill him OR guy is not a prick + don't kill him. The second option, the only one (apart from his own position) made available to B, by A, connects two propositions that are entirely unrelated in B's more nuanced (and less murdery) perspective. The other, from the vantage point of the tribalist, is simply the mirror image of his own position. The inside of any distinction is the definition of good, its opposite the definition of bad, and so as long as the line is held, tribalism is untouchable. Not based on a rational assessment of the other's position, which would be death (non-repetition) for the tribalist position, it's always going to be a strawman produced by a false dichotomy created independently of consciousness. It has to be a strawman in consciousness. This is how it survives. Its false dichotomous creation has to be inaccessible to consciousness. This is how it survives.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

islamaphobe challenge

Something I posted on fbook (I can go snarkfree when I put my mind to it):
I'm committed to abandoning bad ideas when they're exposed as such, in theory, at least. Surely, as a human, I do it imperfectly. But if you're talking to someone and there's nothing that can dissuade them, you're talking to that person about their religion. I'm not talking about my religion.

With that in mind, here's what it would take to convince me that Islam is particularly likely to bring about negative outcomes:

1) Show there's a good reason to believe there's a correlation between self-identified Muslims and negative outcomes. State clearly what your idea of a negative outcome is -- homicide rate, suicide rate, number of aggressive wars launched, legal rights of women, terrorist attacks. Use the largest sample sizes, please -- the worldwide population, going as far back historically as reliable data allows. Define your terms clearly and apply equally to the entire set of phenomena under analysis. No moving yardsticks.
 2) Establish correlation between Islam and negative outcomes in such a way that it would make sense to say Islam plays a causal role. Explain where geopolitical, economic, and other factors fail to explain what you think Islam explains in terms of causation.  For example, imperialism correlates consistently with poor economic outcomes for the imperialized, to the extent it makes sense to say imperialism generally brings about poor economic outcomes.
If you're among those who thinks Islam causes relatively terrible things to happen, what would it take to convince you otherwise?