Civility and free speech

There’s much discussion in the blogosphere at the moment about the merits of requiring charity and civility on comment threads. For example, Jerry Coyne has a post about his rules over here, while Daniel Fincke writes about his rules here. Before I go on, I’m not necessarily endorsing everything in either post – though I think both are on the right track. Fincke makes some eccentric points, but they are marginal to this discussion. Suffice to say that both are mainly asking for charity (interpret what your interlocutors are saying in a way that takes their position at its strongest, rather than attributing to them a weak or extreme or untenable position) and civility (address interlocutors in reasonably non-hostile way, and concentrate more on disagreements with their ideas than on trying to make them feel hurt or angry … and thus withdraw or respond with rage).

[Edit: And I now see a similar comment policy announcement by Kylie Sturgess, though again I don’t necessarily endorse everything in it.]

Should we adopt an approach of asking commenters to be charitable and civil to each other? For myself, the answer is strongly Yes. That’s always been my general approach on my own blog, and one thing that makes me comfortable posting here at Talking Philosophy is that it’s the approach we take across the site.

An obvious objection is that this is somehow contrary to freedom of speech. Generally, I don’t think that’s so. I am about to draw heavily on my discussion of freedom of speech in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, so go there for more (and to make me and my publisher happy if you actually buy a copy!).

Bear in mind that multiple justifications have been given for freedom of speech. On Liberty, Mill’s classic defense of political freedoms in general, is based essentially on self-actualisation arguments, but the bulk of its second chapter, entitled “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion,” is devoted to a rather different justification of free speech that goes beyond freedom of expression as self-actualisation. If you refer to the chapter, you’ll see that Mill favors the freedom to develop and discuss ideas in the search for truth or understanding. This is very powerful as far as it goes, but inevitably it’s somewhat elitist (not always a bad thing!), for relatively little speech and expression in real-world societies appeals primarily to the intellect.

Still, the rationalist justification (as I call it in my various writings on the issue, including in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State) can be extended beyond the speech of academics, scientists and other intellectuals. To some extent, it merges with the self-actualization justification, insofar as it involves our individual need to pursue truth and understanding in our own ways, necessarily reliant on resources available through language. It also encourages us to protect serious literature and art, especially narrative forms such as prose fiction, theatre, and cinema, one function of which is to open minds by appeals to the imagination. The rationalist justification also merges with the democratic justification, insofar as debate about political ideas — with attempts to find the best kinds of political structures, principles, and policies — forms a large component of the general pursuit of truth in modern societies.

Fine so far – there are various synergies between the popular justifications of free speech (and perhaps no one justification covers all the speech that we’d want to defend). In arguing against unrestricted free speech, Alan Haworth suggests that Mill pictured society not as a marketplace of ideas, but as something like a large-scale academic seminar.

A seminar, of course, is an effective forum for refining and testing ideas only because its participants can rely upon tacit standards of conduct and interaction, including some degree of mutual respect. In past writings, however, I’ve emphasised that no entire society can operate like a seminar. If too much weight is given to Haworth’s point, free speech will be a far more narrow thing than is usually understood by the concept. It normally includes freedom for robust, sometimes even offensive, kinds of interaction that would be strongly inhibited, if not actually forbidden, in the confined/refined space of an academic seminar. It is usually accepted in liberal societies that there is a public interest in permitting debate that is not so restrictive of the parties involved. This allows them to express themselves passionately, emotively, and loyally on subjects that arouse passion, emotions, and competing loyalties — all without fear of retaliation by state agencies, or of narrow constraints being imposed to preserve decorum. Further, it allows the participation of individuals, perhaps the majority, who may not have been socialized or trained to express themselves with the detachment and urbanity that might be expected in a seminar for, say, middle-aged philosophy professors. If freedom of speech is confined too closely to decorous speech, this is likely to disadvantage young people, working class people, and many other groups.

Fine, you say, so isn’t it contrary to freedom of speech if we insist at Talking Philosophy on commenters showing charity and civility to each other? No. Just because the larger society cannot, and should not, act like an academic seminar does not entail that an academic seminar should not act like an academic seminar! There are good reasons for academic seminars to act like academic seminars – it is just that we don’t want their standards to be applied by force across the entire society by means of the coercive power of the state.

This blog, Talking Philosophy, is not a seminar, but something of the same values apply. We are here to make some intellectual progress, and exactly the same justication that Mill relies on to argue for freedom of speech will apply to justify a local requirement that the speech concerned be charitable and civil – though pretty much fearless as to the substantive views put forward. And if you want to express yourself by insulting, misrepresenting, and strawmanning others, there are other places you can do it. The state generally allows you to do this, as I believe it should.

Of course, if you do go around insulting, misrepresenting, and strawmanning, adverse moral judgments might be made about you, but you won’t (and shouldn’t) be prevented from doing so by means of the coercive power of the state.

As a matter of fact, there is much to object to about insulting, misrepresenting, strawmanning, piling on, expressing rage, and so on. These tactics can be used, especially by people with large audiences, to bully ideas off the table. People can be intimidated into shutting up. Possibilities for mutual understanding and intellectual progress can be lost. A blog that encourages these behaviours – or where even the poster/blog owner engages in them – is open to criticism for damaging the general quality of discussion in our society. But that doesn’t mean I want heavy-handed laws to stop it from doing so. Criticising behaviour is not the same as calling for it to be banned.

[Pssst, my Amazon page]

Leave a comment ?


  1. I’m broadly in agreement about free speech; I think the state should have a hands-off approach. However, as everyone from Mill on agrees, you can surely limit it in those cases where the relevant speech is a threat. Moreover (and perhaps controversially) I do think that you can threaten groups of people with what you say — and that the law calls “hate speech” ought to track those genuine threats in a principled way.

    Like you, I think that one might distinguish between the state’s rights and responsibilities with respect to free speech (say, the laws of Australia), and private rights and responsibilities (say, TPM blog). But I also think this distinction has been pressed so often that it obfuscates some deeper points. I mean, on some level, when you talk about the rights and responsibilities that a person has in tolerating dissenting speech, you’re broadly giving people advice on what they should expect and tolerate from other people in their day to day lives. For many of us avowed liberal types, the private question is the most important question, perhaps the only question. The ‘hands off, State!’ platitude offers no help when we want to know how to honor the spirit of free speech in the day to day.

    Like you, I agree that the principle of charity tells us something about how reason and modesty coincide on a deep level. If you are primed to distrust someone, you shall not have any incentive to recognize their dignity as rational agents. If you have no incentive to recognize their dignity as rational agents, then you’re just not going to understand what they are saying, even on a superficial level. Indeed, if you encourage people to be either unreasonable or assholes, you’re going to get a community of unreasonable assholes, whether you wanted it or not.

    But I also think that you cannot try to enforce virtue without becoming a neurotic perfectionist. Consider the academic seminar. (For the moment, let’s put aside cases where people in the seminar are violating actual, identifiable, explicit rules of propriety, like “Don’t chew gum” or whatever.) Even in the context of the academic seminar, you ought not try to force people to behave according to your strict prior expectations of what ought to go on in an academic seminar — not unless you can specify the rules being broken. Otherwise, you take the risk of making terrible gut hunches which end up silencing justifiable controversy, and only narrow down the range of debate.

    The fact of the matter is that even the most experienced and urbane judge is fallible, and apt to misjudge in some pretty reliable ways, owing the the frailty of the human character, and the lousiness of spontaneous gut intuitions. So a realistic judge has to account for the possibility that they shall make their own mistakes in character judgment (whether a person is being unreasonable but sincere, as opposed to being insincere but civil, disrespectful but virtuous, or wrongheaded and obtuse, passive aggressive, smug and fallacious, etc.) So if you’re going to have a rule that can be fairly enforced, you have to incorporate a margin of error within the rule.

    That’s why I have long said that I think the rule ought to be something like this: it is broadly suberogatory for you to act like reasonable asshole or gentle fool. But by power of heaven and earth, thou shalt not be an unreasonable asshole.

    (One of the nice things about this kind of maxim is that it applies generally, without needing you to do any tiresome compromises suitable for each context. As a rule, it applies both in politics and the schoolyard, bedroom and boardroom. It allows for some consistency. But I’m sure where I see this as a feature, others will see it as a bug.)

  2. Regarding Talking Philosophy, you have missed the most important point, which is that it is a private forum that has been opened to the public, not a public space. You are entirely within your rights to delete a discussion about football, for example. That would not be a restriction of freedom of speech.

    Similarly, asking for charity and civility here is not contrary to freedom of speech, but not because this is an academic seminar. It is because this is privately owned.

  3. Hi Julian, I’m not sure whether you’re addressing me or Ben. If it was me, I agree that something that would be oppressive if done by the state will not necessarily be so if done by private parties – such as the people who manage a blog and are entrusted with some authority by whoever ultimately owns it. Perhaps I wasn’t clear in making that point. But yes, we allow people all sorts of authority in private spaces that they control that we would not be keen to allow to an institution as ubiquitous and powerful as the state.

    That’s part of the reason why freedom of speech, freedom of religion, etc., are primarily negative rights against the state (which is why, in turn, on my view of things as elaborated in the book, these freedoms don’t come into conflict with each other).

    But even if you think that X has a negative right against the state to act in a certain way there is still a separate question as to whether what X is doing is praiseworthy, blameworthy, etc. Also, some private institutions exercise a great deal of power, and that can be a concern.

    And if someone does impose a restriction in a private forum – or, conversely, decides not to – I think you can still ask whether it’s a good restriction (conducive to some important end, for example) as well as just saying, as you do, that it does not impinge on freedom of speech, understood as a negative right against the state. Since I see freedom of speech as a essentially a negative right against the state, I can go along with your analysis as far as it goes. But there are other worthwhile questions to be asked.

    So although I’m happy enough to analyse a lot of these things in terms of “negative right against the state”, I do agree with Ben that (if this is what he is saying – I think I need to read his comment again) this might not be the entirety of the analysis. With something like freedom of speech, it may be the essential point, but there are other points.

    Happy to continue this back and forth a little, because there are some interesting and important issues in the vicinity.

  4. Thank the Gods we have never had free speech. Whoever you are, there is always something someone can say that will move you to violence or worse. There is no reason why they should be allowed to say such things with impunity. Social limits, approved by most people, trump free speech every time.

    Why is this flip-side of the free speech issue so rarely considered?

  5. Thank you Russel for a very interesting post.

    For me the intention behind the speech is critical. When I argue, am I trying to find the best answer-truth if such a thing exists- to a problem? Am I trying to cooperatively solve a common problem? If I am attempting to do so, then the other person and his unique point of view become a partner, a friend in a common goal.

    However, I believe most of the times we see people trying to impose their ideas on others. Probably most of the time becuase of insecurities or because they are too identified with their ideas; in a way that if proven wrong, their self steem, their sense of goodness is damaged. But at other times, some people are trying to impose an agenda that just favor their own selfish interest, and that blocks any productive interaction.
    When and how a public or private institution, should intervene in regulating free speech is a very difficult question in my mind. And the problem is what are the limits of this intervention, and how to prevent that this public or private institution slowly engages in activities that restrict freedom. In that sense, I prefer to err on the side of freedom, and develop tolerance.
    I am not so sure about the distinctions between private and public. Should we allow a private blog to engage in racism for example, just because it is private. Or is it there any value on discussions that are not discussions but just propaganda. Should a person be allowed to be an “asshole” because it is in a private or public site?
    In the end, I am not sure of a distinction between private and public. I prefer to err on the side of tolerance, and assume the responsability to contest and vigourously oppose unaceptable behaviour.

  6. Why is this flip-side of the free speech issue so rarely considered?

    I think it is frequently considered. There’s plenty of political, legal and philosophical literature out there defending regulation of certain kinds of speech. Speech is regulated in many countries (as we’re all too aware here in the UK).

    It is as an advocate of ‘free speech absolutism’ that I feel that I’m in the minority!

    Back on topic: good article. I think freedom of speech qua blog moderation isn’t as worth fighting for as it is qua the law. You aren’t depriving anyone of their human rights by banning them. There are the consequentialist arguments from Mill and others that give good reasons why freedom in a discussion will benefit everyone. But I do think that if someone is hindering the discussion’s progress by merely insulting the other posters, or trolling/spamming, then they may justly be blocked from commenting.

    I think fairness is the primary virtue to consider when moderating a blog. I sometimes see bloggers applying their policies only in cases where someone is disagreeing with them.

  7. I agree with the “private blog made public” to a certain extent. People should be free to put their ideas out there without having to also host comments that just attack people. However, there is a general trend towards lumping genuine disagreements with “trollish” behavior.

    “X is disagreeing with something we all (perhaps mistakenly) view as factual, putting his view “beyond the pale”, and thus ripe for moderation.”

    Without a perfectly rational, perfectly objective moderation process, mistakes will be made despite the best of intentions. However, echoing notung, charges of depravity and disruption provide a convenient cover for discharging a rational duty to defend that which is genuinely debatable. That is to say, we often don’t have the best of intentions, tho we may pretend we do, and this can serve to narrow the sphere of disagreement into an echochamber just as unhelpful and pointless as mere name-calling.

  8. Above legal minimums, I cannot see why blog comment rules cannot remain unprincipled and lightyears from one-size-fits-all.

    Today’s blogger (or collective thereof) is free to weigh up personal preferences and guesses and stats to draft “no bullying” rules that suit themselves. For example, a royalist blog needn’t accept non-royalistic comments –impertinent, polarizing, or otherwise– for any reason or none.

    At the base of it, it seems that the volume of blog interactivity (comments, hits) is a dial that’s right for the blogger/s to adjust at will. It’s their hobby or job or both. It’s their reputation. Or anonymous online persona.

    Bloggers don’t and needn’t understand contemporary public/private sector principles like free speech. They’re under no ethical obligation to justify or even document their “rules” at all. Welcome to owning a website; now with added reader comments made public.

    I’m yet to see the value of a highly principled approach to public reader comments, to say a religio-political blog. Or for celebrity gossip.

    What am I missing?

  9. Charles Sullivan

    @(anonymous coward), I think what you’re missing is the idea of a blog aiming at some form of understanding of important ethical, political and social concerns.

    If one is not genuinely interested in aiming for some kind of understanding, then blog comment rules can remain unprincipled, and one need not feel bound by ethical obligations that would seek to further a genuine understanding. But if one is interested in furthering understanding, the “principle of charity” helps prevent the discussions from getting sidetracked (at the least), or intentionally distorted (at worst).

  10. There’s no easy standard for bloggers to apply, but if you want your comment pit to be a debating chamber and discussion forum then ad hominem attacks should be off limits.

    Not all comment pits are discussion forums — they can be as random or moderated or like Amazon reviews disconnected from each other. On the backend, the admin can ban words, phrases, IPs, URLs or moderate the site so that only POVs they want get through the filter.

    Hell I started a whole blog network out of revenge for being banned from Religion forums for calling a bigot a “bigot”, but I blame the flawed Jury system at DU, not their general policy against ad hominem attacks meant to reduce the name-calling. I don’t think I should’ve been PPR’d, but maybe warned? (I don’t think “bigot” is on their list of banned insult words.)

    Attack the argument, not the person making the argument.

  11. I use the Golden Rule of atheist blog commenting:
    Treat others comments the way you would have wanted Chris Mooney to have treated yours.

  12. It seems to me that Russell was extremely clear when he made a distinction between state and private action. Indeed, he was so clear about this distinction that I had to present much of my comment as a mild corrective to it.

    Nine out of ten good liberals agree that state censorship is bad, and that state censorship is not the same as editorial control of a blog owner over their page. No doubt. That makes the difference between state censorship and private editorial control a platitude about governance, not a piece of advice which provides help to answer all questions. In particular, it tells you nothing about what you ought to get away with saying in a particular community.

    We all want to broaden the enlightenment franchise. We want to make the very idea of liberty and good reasoning popular. We want to turn it into a code of honor that can be practiced in a community of moral actors who are living out their everyday lives. We want to do grassroots politics. Hence, we have to figure out what rights and responsibilities we think community members have as community members.

    When a plaintiff says, “You’re squelching my free speech” to a blog moderator, we should agree that their claim is strictly false. But we should also acknowledge that they are indirectly trying to make a legitimate complaint about how they are being treated in the community. Suppose that the essential part of the enlightenment project is the recognition that community members have the right to the dignity of due consideration. When a plaintiff complains of heavy-handed editorial conduct, they really mean to object to how they are being treated. The underlying complaint can take many forms: e.g., “You’re disenfranchising me as a public reasoner”; “You’re preventing me from getting due consideration”; “You haven’t even tried to give a minimum of respect” ; “You are fostering a community of people who are lazy, mean, and stupid; and you lack any intellectual authority”.

    So it’s generally not very satisfying for someone to just remind the plaintiff that they have mis-used the term “free speech”. You also have to say something that is more directly relevant to their actual concern. e.g., “You may be right, I shall try to give you a closer reading in the future”; or, “I have given you as much due consideration as is practically possible, and have to stop here due to time constraints”; or, “I have given you exhaustive consideration, and you still sound like a complete tool”; or, “I don’t care much for enlightenment ideals, so get lost or shut up.” Those are all at least relevant replies, even though obviously some of these replies are better than others.

  13. I think Julian interpreted “An obvious objection is that this is somehow contrary to freedom of speech. Generally, I don’t think that’s so. I am about to draw heavily on my discussion…” as meaning that a large part of your discussion was devoted to explaining *why* your blog comments policy is not contrary to freedom of speech, and he was just pointing out that the most obvious reason (namely that the context is private) was not mentioned. But perhaps he (like me) was attributing too much weight to that issue as a motivation for your subsequent discussion.

  14. It is unclear to me why that quote would support the claim that Russell did not recognize the public/private distinction. As far as I can tell, the point of those two sentences was to say something like this: Some people think that heavy-handed rules of private decorum are against free speech. I say this is not so. And then, of course, he goes on to say that the issue of free speech is a question of state coercion, not private decorum. This is a more hard-line liberalism, framed as an alternative to Mill’s idea that free speech was about self-actualization.

  15. I didn’t claim that Russell didn’t “recognize” the public/private distinction, and I did acknowledge that I (and I think Julian) may have been “attributing too much weight” to the issue of why a blog comment policy is not contrary to the right of freedom of speech.

    So far as I can see there is no right of free speech in my living room or in the comments on my blog; the private space argument kills it instantly without further discussion. But I also value Russell’s distinction between the issues of truth-finding and self-actualization – both as motivators for the concept of freedom of speech as a right (in the public domain), and as principles governing how much freedom to allow in a private discussion such as this.

    Another issue that I think is of interest in the private context is how much obligation the owner of a space has to make clear the level of editorial control being imposed. If Russell wants to censor out the comments of someone he sees as undermining his position, then he certainly has the legal right and the capacity to do so (and essentially without anyone else being the wiser unless the villain can find another platform to reach this audience). But would it be “right”?

  16. Alan, my reply was to you was predicated on the assumption that you are willing to defend Julian’s comment. And I don’t want to force you to go into a lengthy postmortem of somebody else’s mistake.

    However, I don’t see how we have even a prime facie reason to believe what Julian said, on the basis of that passage you quoted. You still seem to still think there was some reason, but I don’t know why that is, because the passage you quoted said the opposite of what he took from it. Take your claim, that “[Julian] was just pointing out that the most obvious reason (namely that the context is private) was not mentioned [by Russell]”. Okay — but it doesn’t matter what got mentioned, since that reason was used so frequently — indeed, the whole post was an exploration of that idea. If you’re looking to support your assertion, then allowing the passage you quoted from Russell to have any weight is to give it too much weight.

    Anyway, I’m inclined to have mixed feelings about your assessment, that “there is no right of free speech in my living room or in the comments on my blog”.

    For one thing, it looks as though the two instances you mention are different in kind. The living room is genuinely private, while the blog is private in the legal sense and quasi-public in another sense. Blogs are quasi-public because they are visible to prying eyes at little cost, while there are a great many added costs to spying on people at home.

    I would agree that citizens in a private context cannot legitimately complain about free speech. Take the instance of a church. The plaintiff cannot argue that the chiding of the pastor disturbs the plaintiff’s right to free speech. The plaintiff’s complaint, taken literally, ought not hold any sway with the pastor. However, I do think that the free speech argument is motivated by a picture of how we ought to behave in private contexts. In my view, the free speech argument is at its strongest when it is predicated upon the idea that people have a moral right to exchange due consideration with others in a community with enlightenment values. That’s why, when a plaintiff in a private context erroneously asserts that their free speech is being threatened, I try to convince them that they meant to say that people morally ought to be treated with due consideration.

    So in my view, if blog-owner Jones wants to censor people in his private space just because they disagree with what is said, then Jones is morally wrong to do so. Moreover, if Jones does it without any explanation of why, then Jones is acting irrationally.

  17. BLS, If Julian made a “mistake” then so did I because I agreed with what he wrote (and might have said it myself if he had not). I certainly don’t want to impose my postmortem on *his* reasons unless they happen to match my own, but if minds that think alike must be great (please don’t bother correcting my logic here!) then I think whatever misreading we did may be worth noting.

    It is interesting that you (BLS) and the two of us had essentially opposite takes on whether the private-space aspect was over emphasized. Perhaps it is because we are interpreting the idea of a complaint about restricting “freedom of speech” in two different ways.

    I am among those to whom a complaint about restricting “freedom of speech” tends to imply that the complainant thinks of what has been abrogated as a right rather than a privilege. And although I would share your censure of “Jones”‘ behaviour, I would not describe it as restricting anyone’s *right* to “freedom of speech”. While it may be wrong of me to be an unreasonable asshole in the administration of comments on my own blog I don’t think that being one would violate the rights of anyone affected.(Though if the censorship was done in a hidden or duplicitous manner then I might say that it violated the right of the audience not to be deliberately misinformed – which others may or may not agree is a right which trumps freedom of speech.)

    I have already said that I “value Russell’s distinction between the issues of truth-finding and self-actualization – both as motivators for the concept of freedom of speech as a right (in the public domain), and as principles governing how much freedom to allow in a private discussion such as this.” But I still think that the initial reference to freedom of speech was a bit unfortunate as it lends itself to misinterpretation by those of us who are inclined to read it primarily with the former interpretation.

  18. Hey Alan. I don’t know if any deep disagreement is at the root of our different readings. But anyway, too much of this exegetical business is philosophically boring so I’ll drop it.

    I think there is some interesting stuff going on when it comes to the word “right”. We usually associate the idea of “right” with moral and/or legal entitlements. Since I’m one of the enlightenment types, I would say that (within practical limits) people have a genuine moral right to due consideration. So we might or might not have a straightforward disagreement about that.

    But there’s an amoral sense of right which you might associate with the simple idea of being bound to keep one’s commitments. So, some philosophers seem to think that there is a sense in which people carry rights and obligations simply because of their commitments to an action. So, for instance, when somebody commits to doing something, and doesn’t hold up their end, they can be accused of doing something impermissible — meaning, they can be rationally criticized. And they can seemingly be rationally criticized even if the commitment was immoral. e.g., a group of sadistic baby-torturers can rationally criticize the guy who doesn’t show up for baby-torturing duty, even though all hands agree that baby-torture is morally wrong.

    This is the sense in which Jones is well within his rights to do whatever he wants. For if Jones makes it plain that he is an unreasonable asshole — and hence, he administers his blog without regard for anyone’s dignity — then then he’s being rational enough. You might say, he’s well within his rational rights to do so. I only say that he’s irrational if nobody can really know what the heck is going on with him because he doesn’t even bother giving a minimal explanation.

  19. I don’t want to flog a dead horse either, but the horse is alive and quite capable of kicking so we can get it from his own mouth if needed and exegesis is not the issue. He may or may not care for my suggestion as to how his posting might have inadvertently encouraged misinterpretation but that message has been delivered and requires no response.

    I think you (BLS) are right about the word “right”. It has a range of strengths and the right to due consideration is an interesting case. It certainly exists to some extent, but with 7 billion voices clamoring for attention (even considering the small fraction of those that actually reaches my senses) it is hard to assess my obligation to attend to each of them.

    With regard to “Jones”es, the one who I can’t figure out because he seems irrational is less problematic to me than the one who seems to be running an open discussion but who is filtering comments so as to favour his own position or reputation. In my own ranking, the right not to be deliberately deceived is more important than that to having my opinions duly considered, and even also trumps freedom of speech. The right not to be offended? Well let’s just say “not so much”.

  20. “there is no right of free speech in my living room or in the comments on my blog”.

    When I read this statement a lot of thoughts came to me, and I believe in one way or another most of us would make this statement or a variation of it. But then my concern is: Are we becoming dictatorial, totalitarian? Isn’t this a phrase that any dictator will say: “there is no right of free speech in my living room/state/country etc” Where does the my ends?

    In my opinion, the way the right to “free speech” is balanced by other rights should not be determined by the private-public space argument. Are we saying we all have the right to be dictators in our own private space?

    I believe the right of free speech is balanced by the duty to respect other people’s integrity including their right to life, safety,etc.

    Regarding the opinions expressed in a blog, I believe a set of rules preventing clear missbehaviors is appropiate. You can always vigorously express disenting opinions respectfully.

  21. Whoa! Not sure I can get too far into exegesis of the original post. Perhaps something was unclear in the way I expressed the points, but I think it’s better with these things to just clarify what you think rather than arguing with people about how your original post should be interpreted, based on some kind of close reading, or whatever.

    So, if needed, I do actually think that freedom of speech is primarily a political principle about the state not controlling what we can say. Notice my weasel word “primarily” – for example, I think there might be circumstances where very powerful non-state parties are collectively acting in ways that it makes sense to oppose in the name of freedom of speech. I don’t think there’s necessarily an absolute difference between the state and such actors.

    That said, I’d need to think about this some more and I’d probably have to write a separate post on it.

    So for practical purposes on this occasion, I do think that freedom of speech is really about the use of the power of the state – which is a particularly ubiquitous and powerful institution, and one that plays a special role, however we define it.

    So there’s a sense in which I could have stopped right there.

    But I also think there’s something unsatisfactory about that, so I wanted to say more rather than just relying on that point. There are deeper values that lie behind freedom of speech, and I think these values come into play when we consider how we are going to use power to exercise some control over what speech takes place in our living rooms, or on our blogs, or whatever it might be. So the original post talks a bit about how I think that plays out when it comes to charity and civility in the blogosphere and on this blog in particular.

    While the state should be very hands-off (and I favour constitutional provisions to encourage this), I think there can be good reasons for other players to be more hands-on. It’s not just that they have the legal or political right to be – sometimes they actually should be.

    And I now realise, yet again, how clarifications can often leave things even less clear. I hope I haven’t done so this time.

  22. “So, if needed, I do actually think that freedom of speech is primarily a political principle about the state not controlling what we can say.”


    I think I understand your legitimate concern regarding the state controlling, in this case, free speech. The state has the power to make things legal and enforce them. Therefore, it should be a primary concern to limit the involvement of the state in what is primarily a human right.

    But why does this not apply to private parties, individuals or groups, is a very grey area to me. As long as, the private party is enforcing a set of rules, then it appears to me that the standards should be very close.

    I believe disagreement should be allowed in any blog, particularly because blogging is a social activity. What should not be allowed is personal attacks, or any variations on the theme. I consider the verbal personal attack an attack on the free speech rights of the other person.

  23. Is it ok to sing:
    “Go tell it on the mountain, Over the hills and far away-ay, Or anywhere else I can’t hear ya, But don’t you tell it to me!”
    Or does the right of free speech include a right to be heard and attended to?

    Does the right of free association include the right to exclude someone from a private discussion on arbitrary grounds?

    At what level does a private discussion become public?

    Any discussion of the moral obligation of a moderator to either allow unfettered comments (as per Juan) or to exercise some control (as per Russell) surely depends on having judged the context as less than totally private.

    To me it seems that the key factors involved in deciding where a forum sits on the public-private spectrum are how it has been promoted and its share of the total attention bandwidth of the society in which it lives.

    While I agree with Juan’s “disagreement should be allowed in any blog” in the sense that I want to see disagreement allowed in the blogs I read, I can’t go so far as to make that a moral obligation on the blogger (except where the blogger has created an explicit or implicit expectation that it will be). And while I agree with Russell in the sense that I want the editors of blogs I read to be “more hands on” than the state with regard to ensuring propriety, again I can’t see that as a moral obligation on the blogger.

    Even though both of those requirements may produce a better result for society I still can’t get my head around saying that they “should” be met.

    Not being a professional philosopher I don’t know where this puts me in the pantheon of great thinkers (probably somewhere far outside it I suspect!) but although I tend to seek utilitarian justification for moral claims I don’t think the optimization problem is solvable and even when it is I don’t see the solution as obligatory (ie I see loc max util as a necessary but not sufficient condition for obligation)

  24. Tom Dobrzeniecki

    Jerry Coyne posting rules on civility?

    Give me a break! He is the rudest SOB I’ve
    ever encountered.

    He frequently calls people names (rather than addressing their comments) and censors people
    who dare to disagree with him!

  25. “While I agree with Juan’s “disagreement should be allowed in any blog” in the sense that I want to see disagreement allowed in the blogs I read, I can’t go so far as to make that a moral obligation on the blogger”

    Perhaps here is the key question regarding basic human rights like free speech. Do we have a moral obligation to within our human limits enforce basic human rights?
    I believe we do, becuase if we do not we will loose those rights.

    Regarding Tom’s comment;

    “Give me a break! He is the rudest SOB I’ve
    ever encountered.”

    It is a personal attack, and offers no factual evidence on its claims. I believe it is wrong and inapropiate. I have never read Jerry Coyne; I do not know him. In my opinion these type of messages are completely inapropiate.

  26. Yes, quite. Apart from the fact that Jerry actually does set a pretty high standard of civility on his blog, the comment adds nothing to our discussion. Since it’s been quoted, I’ll leave it there as an example of one sort of comment that we don’t welcome.

  27. Alan, those are good points. And it certainly does seem plausible on first blush to claim that “the key factors involved in deciding where a forum sits on the public-private spectrum are how it has been promoted and its share of the total attention bandwidth of the society in which it lives”.

    Except, the proposal hinges on some idea what society you’re referring to. But I am not sure what the word “society” actually means — what entity out there it is supposed to denote. When you ask, “What is a society?”, then you are asking a question with no uniquely meaningful answer. Off the top of my head, here are some candidates:

    (a) You might try to define your society in terms of a population of individuals. Hence, you might define society as something like, “the densest network of people contiguously situated in a place, and which possesses a culture”. In that case, strictly speaking, you and I are not in the same society at all. In which case (unless you live in Buckingham Palace) the Queen of England would not have a high share of the total attention bandwidth of your society. But she’s still very much the paradigm of a public figure, I think, so that can’t be right.

    (b) Or you might define a society as whatever social forces are contextually affecting some specific individual (say, you). Then, your conception of society would be unstable: it might include me, right now, but I might not be in your society a year from now. The Queen might be a public part of your society when Prince William gets married and all television sets are tuned in, and then sort of drift off into privacy when things go back to the status quo. In some sense, this seems plausible. On the other hand, it seems as though she would be objectively important to Commonwealth nations even if at any given moment nobody was thinking about her.

    (c) Or maybe “society” means something like “the most wide-ranging institutions that you participate in, whose rules you are bound to, and which grant you entitlements and privileges by giving you access to resources”. In that case, the Queen and I are in the same society, because as a miserable Canadian wretch I have to give an oath. She’s a public figure because the political institution heaps attention on her. Well, okay; but while this includes the Queen, it excludes a lot of people who are public figures and yet who are not (yet) part of the basic institutions of the society. e.g., Snooki.

    If I am forced to put The Queen and Snooki on a spectrum, I’m tempted to put them more or less at the same place. They’re both public figures. There’s no point in saying one is more public than the other. But I don’t know how I can say that, unless I claim (d):

    (d) Alternately, a society might be an idea that needs to be deflated entirely. For instance, it might be a kind of abstract demonstrative. You say, “my society”, and the word “society” has no prior literal meaning. In this way, “society” might mean something like “this” or “that”; one minute I can use the word “this” to denote my table, and the next minute I can use that very same word to denote my book, or whatever. Perhaps “society” is the same sort of semantic marker. I might be using sense (b) in one breath, and (c) in another.

    However, if I choose this option, then the skeptic can respond by saying that I’m really only committing myself to (e):

    (e) “Society” is just a term of fiction, not even a demonstrative. Perhaps we use the word “society” as an active game of make-believe, without ever trying to denote anything real. When we say “society”, it’s just this thing we do, a way of talking. There’s no serious conversation to have, no science to conduct.

    If your definition includes a term that is so unclear, then your definition falls with it. Though of course Russell’s initial post suffers from the same unclarity, and may suffer the same fate.

  28. Russell, you say: ‘we allow people all sorts of authority in private spaces that they control that we would not be keen to allow to an institution as ubiquitous and powerful as the state.’

    I wonder if there’s a growing problem that’s being somewhat down-played by classical liberals (and I largely count myself among that number.) When the public square is genuinely public, then it’s entirely sensible to fear the state as the main threat to free speech (assuming a minimum level of order in a society, i.e. those who disagree can’t just beat me into silence.)

    But in our societies in 2012, where is the ‘public square’? Is it a physical space? Or is it more accurately seen as Twitter, Facebook, newspaper discussion boards? Maybe even Talking Philosophy? It’s fine to say that someone banned from expressing a view on those sites can go elsewhere, but a journalist banned from Twitter is being denied access to a pretty large part of the ‘marketplace of ideas.’ Whereas overt state censorship must at least be justified in terms of some sort of common values, and will often be open to challenge in court, there are no such checks and balances on the ‘private sector censorship’ by the new owners of the public square.

    I think this is likely to be one of the most contested and important discussions in the ‘free speech’ debate. And it’s going to challenge those of us who think genuinely free speech – not just free from government, but from corporate censors too – matters.

  29. Colin, yes, I think that situation can arise. I had that sort of thing in mind when I said: “I think there might be circumstances where very powerful non-state parties are collectively acting in ways that it makes sense to oppose in the name of freedom of speech. I don’t think there’s necessarily an absolute difference between the state and such actors.”

    Still, I do think that it’s important to for individual players to be able to require standards that may have their own justification, or may simply reflect the values of those players. For example, I think it’s important for a blog like this one to be able to enforce standards of charity and civility. Indeed, I think it’s important that we feel free to criticise other places that do not enforce such standards and consequently end up with flame wars, trashed reputations, and the like.

    But yes, at some point I’d like to have a conversation about the possible cumulative effects if powerful non-state actors suppress certain kinds of speech (or perhaps also if they encourage undesirable speech of certain kinds). That is also something to fear. (When I say “at some time” I’m not trying to discourage you from talking about it now if you wish, just signalling that I haven’t thought it through.)

  30. @Charles Sullivan, yes for a blog committed to “truth-finding” like Talking Philosophy, I see its bloggers cannot avoid moral obligations wrt comment rules that limit say ad hominems (because ad hominems tend to hinder truth-finding). It’s less clear to me that those same bloggers have an obligation to insist that commenters mustn’t hinder their blog’s mission.

  31. Islam, racists, and legitimate debate | Talking Philosophy - pingback on August 9, 2012 at 5:47 am
  32. One of the worst things on comment forums is the almost sadistic level of disdain to others shown by militant atheists. Led by smuggites like Laurence Krauss and Richard Dawkins, they’re all about freedom of thought as long as they have okayed the content: they behave, even with each other, as if they are in some kind of a wrestling match.

    “Ah-ha! Opening gambit – straw man argument! One point to me.”
    “Disingenous at best, risible at worst.”
    “Science deals in FACTS. Do you believe in fairies?”
    “A creationist lie! Straw man argument! You all saw it! One point to me.”

    And so on. Their whole aim is to make someone else feel small, to trivialise the humanity of others; to humiliate someone they don’t even know.

    Here’s one from this afternoon, trying hard to humiliate someone else and boost their own sagging self esteem: “Clearly the words of a man who hasn’t the slightest clue about retroviral insertions, how they endogenise, or what their presence in nested hierarchies actually means.”

    Who wants to share a planet with people who know every fact but gleefully trample on another person’s sense of self? Give me the Sikhs, Buddhists, Muslims and vicars anyday. yes, even the Pope. I don’t care – say what you like about religion, at least they look for the good in others.

  33. Iain,

    You realize you criticized Kruss’ and Dawkins’ smugness in the smuggest way possible right? Are you being ironic?

    Because taking the same position towards someone else that you suggest they themselves take towards others is quite ironic.

    Otherwise, generalizing an entire group based upon two members is a bit dubious. Generally.

  34. Iain – Please modify your rhetorical style in future posts. We have a strong code of civility operating on this forum, which means that stuff such as:

    smuggites like Laurence Krauss and Richard Dawkins

    is not allowed.

    It would have been entirely possible to make the point you’re making, which I think is not an unreasonable point (though I’m not sure that Krauss & Dawkins are really part of the story), without the overblown rhetoric. In future that’s the way to go.

    After all, it isn’t in the least bit plausible to suppose that the entire aim of “militant atheists” is “to make somebody else feel small”, etc., whereas the claim that these kinds of dynamics are sometimes (or even often) in evidence would have been plausible.

  35. Yes, that’s a fair comment. But I do get a ltitle worked up when I see people going giddy over the Mars landing – an impressive feat, no doubt about it – when 1 in 7 of the people on Earth are starving, and something like 300 million cannot get fresh water. This is a revolting situation to pass without comment.

    And then I get on twitter and see Richard Dawkins making post after post after post belittling religions and the religious – and I just don’t know, where do these people get off? A man writes that his mother is upset because he doesn’t believe in God, and he says, “tell her to read some books”. As if she is probably an illiterate! This is outrageous. It is an insult to millions of people.

    Or take America: Obama has been launching drones against impoverished countries – two dozen Pakistan soldiers were incinerated in one accidental attack without any apology by the White House, and they say hundreds of children have died as “collateral damage” – and then I read on twitter that Richard Dawkins is actually defending Obama as someone who has to pretend to be religious to get votes, but because of this forced duplicity, he has Dawkins’ support! The whole mass murder is washed away, to score a cheap point against religion!

    This is absolutely outrageous. The White House have had to admit that they call anyone killed by a drone as a militant if they are 16 or older to avoid saying they’ve killed people by accident. This means the media report on ten “suspected militants” – and they could be no older than my kids, going to school!

    Amnesty International is furious about these assaults on humanity, and we get leading people – leading people with half a million followers on twitter – praising Obama and poking religion. Suddenly it feels like this is no time to be polite. You have to call a spade a spade – who can sit and watch this hypocrisy, this murder, this outrage being wafted through with pleasing words and not get angry?

    If they were OUR kids being charred to a crisp – and no word of apology – if they were OUR families being shot through the head by rogue marines, and their bodies then being set on fire, and we have to watch lawyers plead for understanding about the stress leading to “the alleged incident” – when the marine confessed, was caught on film, witnessed by villagers, and the bodies are still lying in the streets – my God, what is this world now, when so-called humanists are praising the man responsible? How can anyone NOT get angry? How can anyone NOT be furious?! To me, that is the thing most requiring explanation!

  36. Iain – I understand that people get angry, etc. But if one’s anger is justified, then it should be entirely possible to eviscerate the viewpoint or ideas or actions that motivate the anger without engaging in name-calling, etc.

    Indeed, I think I’d want to argue that the forensic destruction of ideas, etc., is (often) all the more effective precisely because it isn’t hindered by the distraction of displays of anger (which, frankly, are not normally of much interest to anybody other than the person who is angry).

    This isn’t to argue that there is no room for polemic, satire, anger, rhetoric in the public space – clearly there is, clearly sometimes it’s appropriate – just that it’s only very rarely going to be appropriate here (partly because we’re a philosophy blog, but also for reasons to do with blogging, etc., more generally).

  37. I sometimes think I’m in the minority getting angry about this stuff. As for humanists – well, from what I’ve seen, they should call themselves wordsmiths.

    Humanity needs more than clever words, it needs empathy, some interest taken in cleaning up this horrible mess. Sometimes I’m ashamed to say I live on this planet. The time for philosophy and comfy armchair arguments — “oooh, you used a straw man argument in your opening gambit! one point to me!” — is when we no longer live in a slaughterhouse.

    Ok, enough said – sorry for the intrusion – I’m out of here

  38. Iain, I’m having a bit of trouble seeing the connection between the war crimes of the current President, the advocacy of science, and the atheist critique of religion. As far as I can tell from your remarks, the only thing connecting these things into an explicit string of argument is that Dawkins happens to have talked about all of them on Twitter.

    Which is not to say that you can’t make broader connections. You can, and should. But all things considered, focusing on Dawkins’s Twittering doesn’t make for a strong case to that effect.

    Unless of course you assume that the folks in your audience have invested in a cult of personality around Dawkins, and are unduly deferential. Then I suppose the critique of Dawkins might be worth the effort. But I do not believe the TPM blog’s audience requires that kind of corrective. Dawkins is a guy who says stuff, and who sometimes says wrong stuff, and sometimes good stuff, etc.

  39. Iain – There’s a time and place for compassion, and a time and place for calling people on their “stuff”. Much of the pain in the world is not caused by mean words, but by the logical consequences of bad ideas or false information. Sometimes a reasoned critique isn’t enough, and you have to kick people out of their comfort zone.

    Such tactics have to be wielded with care, don’t belong in every forum, and they are bound to be abused from time to time. Those who employ these tactics have spent some time justifying them; I suggest seeking out the products of that effort before maligning the outcome.

    Your position is a little like calling war “just shooting people”, ignoring all the justifications one might bring to bear in support of armed conflict, and focusing solely on the bodies of the fallen. It’s not a perfect analogy, but I think it serves.

  40. Several regular participants in this blog have had our differences with the style of the new atheists online, although not with Dawkins personally as far as I know, and as a result, we value civility in our arguments even more.

    There is a famous quote from Spinoza:
    “Not to mock, not to lament, not to wax indignant, but to understand”.

    I’ve read that said quote was a favorite of Trotsky, a man who can be accused of multiple sins, but not of being indifferent towards injustice.

    I doubt that anger helps one to deal with injustice and Trotsky seems to agree.

  41. @Iain

    I sometimes think I’m in the minority getting angry about this stuff.

    But it isn’t about whether you’re angry – there is no prohibition here on anger or passion or anything else like that.

    It’s about what you do with the anger. This forum deals (largely) with arguments (sometimes in the service of some activist cause, but, I guess, more often not.)

    If you’re driven to fury by the USA policy on drones, then this is the place (a place) to argue against that policy, to show why it is immoral, unjustified, etc. But this isn’t the place to call people blood thirsty, for example, if they think your arguments don’t work.

  42. Well, sorry to say it but all this flowery chat makes me want to puke. We live in a cauldron. We watch innocents being roasted alive every day – not by bug eyed monsters, but by the west. By us. By weapons OUR tax dollars have paid for.

    And we sit about discussing whether this word or that would should be used. “Did we use a straw man argument? Hmm. Did we use inappropriate anger? Hmm. Let us think. What was our opening gambit? Hmm. At best disingenuous – at worst, very disingenuous.” Come on! Are we people, or talking machines?!

    My point is, anyone with a media voice in this world should be using it not to poke fun at those who choose to practice a simple faith – but to show they care about humanity, and the Hell on Earth we have brought to much of it. Men such as Dawkins will not be remembered for their opinions on religion, but for their astounding inaction at a time when the planet needs every loud voice it can muster to pull the smiling mask of pretence from the leaders who are, in fact, and right before our eyes, wrecking our world.

  43. Iain;

    Haven’t religions helped to create this mess you complain about?

    Religion has been a key driver of a long number of wars and atrocities in the name of a loving God, has it not?

    I have met loving and hatefull people that are either religious or non-religious; the hatred or love people carry in their hearts does not belong, nor has been created by any religion.

    Your complaints seem very bias to me, and by the way what have you personally done lately to stop all this mess you complain about?

  44. Well, sorry to say it but all this flowery chat makes me want to puke.

    This is natural. I used to shake in rage when I read about the institutional crimes of the Catholic Church, or the lying and betrayal of the Bush administration, for instance. I had to get up and take a walk or else I’d pound the wall. And on more than one occasion, I’ve given colleagues (and, sometimes, crowds) a verbal thrashing when they acted in such a way that could be best described as doting wallflowers.

    But somewhere along the line (I think I was a teenager) I found another way to deal with the anger, which was the realization that sometimes people hash things out, if they’re insightful and reasonable. In those contexts, what you call “flowery chat” ends up being marginally more useful and less messy than vomit.

    Still, even in the best of company, the moral horror never completely goes away. I’d rather it didn’t.

  45. I don’t see anything “flowery” here. As far as I can see, we’re speaking quite plainly, certainly as plainly as the complexity of the issues allows. You can speak plainly, and even express your outrage about something, without going beyond the bounds of civility.

  46. You see, this is what I’m talking about. YOu mention wars and people go, “oh, no, religion.” Well, we had the crusades, yes – and we had the spanish inquisition! But these were sociopaths in charge, taking the power of religion. These were hundreds of years ago. And they were the exception; wars were fought over land, slaves, gold – all the usual materialist stuff.

    But WW1 was run largely by the bankers. They fuelled Germany with raw materials via neutral countries, and extended the war by three years. The problem was that Germany could not afford to fight more than a year. So the famous quote from the financiers in WW1 was “we must not let the war end too soon.” By the time they were done, every country had quadrupled its national debt.

    There has always been a question as to why Edith Cavell was shot, for a crime that merited only a few months in prison. According to Eustace Mullins, Edith Cavell had stumbled upon some damaging information: April 15, 1915, The Nursing Mirror in London published her letter revealing that the Allied “Belgian Relief Commission” (charged with feeding Belgium) was in fact channelling thousands of tons of supplies to Germany.

    Edith Cavell should be well known to all of us in the UK. Her death doubled the signups to the army. But more important, thanks to bloodbaths such as Verdun (800,000 dead), the optimistic spirit of Christian Western Civilization, Faith in Man and God, were dealt a mortal blow. The flower of the new generation was slaughtered. “The Testament of Youth” by Vera Brittain is a moving first-hand account.

    The bankers also supported the Nazis in WW2 as Charles Higham shows in “Trading with the Enemy” (1983). For example, Rockefeller’s Standard Oil supplied petroleum to the Nazis. IBM supplied Hitler with Hollerith machines, and again finance and raw materials were channeled through neutral states. The Bush family owned a bank which funded Hitler as well. All this is documented – it had nothign to do with religion.

    The US has been responsible for, I believe, 40+ changes in government around the world with bloody coups and wars. Kissinger, an odious monster if ever there was one, decided he would bring South American countries to their knees, installing bloodthirsty psychopaths to grab and sell the resources of the country – including their labour force – to corporations in America. As the century unravelled, the US became more and more instrumental in grabbing the assets of other countries. Vietnam is still suffering from Agent Orange – a product of DOW, and of Otto Ambros – a Nazi who DOW snapped up after the little matter of Nuremburg was over.

    And it goes on: the US has just announced that corporations in America will be allowed to bid to “help locate the prime resources” of Afghanistan (inlcluding the largest Lithium supply in the world) and then extract them – the Afghans doing the dirty work, if they want – taking the loot away. This was the reason for invading in the first place – to build bases, eliminate resistance, and once again rape a country. Remember the US organised a 60 country boycott of the 1980 Russian Olympics – and why? – the USSR had invaded Afghanistan! None of this ahs anythign to do with religion. Greed, and greed alone.

    The Iraq and Afghanistan wars were a sham which 9/11 was created to justify. Even now you can see how America is heading towards martial law, and the justification is always “9/11”. The entire premise of 9/11 is absurd; one of the best films exposing 9/11 is:

    .. because it’s based on the reports of USAF staff, engineers, pilots, witnesses, ex CIA persons and so on. It’s utterly futile to blame any of these wars on religion. Spiritual people are focused on an inward journey. Most reject wealth and power because this is the advice in the scriptures! The exceptions, as usual, are the sociopaths and the materialists.

    I was able to show in my own blog, which I shouldn’t advertise here, that spiritual practices manipulate neurotransmitters, telomerase, and affect the genetics. They also increase the ability of the amygdala, thicken the cortex, and a raft of other benefits. This is what religion is all about: internal feelings. Who designed the cluster bombs, nuclear ovens, torture methods, DU bullets, White Phosphorous, artillery, drones, apache helicopters, rocket alunchers, machine guns, tanks, landmines – was it the Buddhists, Vicars, Monks, Nuns, various meditators or perhaps the Sikhs? Of course not. It was the weapons business. Designed to make money through wars, and that’s all.

    Spirituality is an inward trip. Materialism is an external one: wars are fought over slaves, oil, gold, land. Wars in the old days were fought by professional soldiers, led, it has to be admitted, by power mad warmongers, such as Napoleon, Richard the Lion Heart, Vlad the Impaler, Caligula etc. But our weapons in the 21st century would put all their horrors to shame: a nuclear bomb can roast the skin of a million people easily, and all delivered from the comfort of a bunker in America.

    Blaming it all on religion shows such a lack of critical thought. Because Bush declares himself religious, it doesn’t mask his links to the weapons and oil business! He may as well declare himself a stamp collector – it would have about the same relevance! Spirituality is useless when the individual doesn’t change their personality – it then has as much benefit as shining a beautiful light on a steaming pile of manure.

  47. Iain, that post seems to be predicated upon the assumption that it is being directed at people who blame all evil upon religion. This is false. Some people do that, but I do not.

    Terrible things happen for many reasons, usually involving inability to access vital resources. Some of those resources are material resources: rivers, forests, sheep. Some are human resources: organizations, economies, societies.

    These two kinds of resources are deeply intertwined. To get bread, you need access to the club of people who provide bread. To win friends, you need to show them you can hunt and also be friendly. It seems to me that it is pointless trying to eliminate either of them from your worldview.

    Religion is just one of the ways in which human resources are organized in order to distribute goods. Hence, it is also one of the ways it can be organized perversely, to generate great evils (for instance, up until 2010, the use of condoms was condemned by the Catholic Church). But even though it is not the only way to do evil in the world, it is still one of the ways to do it. Hence, it has to be accountable for doing its part — by changing to do better.

    As an aside, it is indeed interesting to note that some religions seem to have more moral and therapeutic (or, if you like, spiritual) credibility than others. One does not usually hear, for instance, that the Quakers have instigated genocide. So we say, “Good on you, Quakers. Shame on these other guys.”

  48. Yes, you can’t take religion away from war’s main cause: the human brain. I was responding to Juan’s comment:

    Haven’t religions helped to create this mess you complain about? Religion has been a key driver of a long number of wars and atrocities in the name of a loving God, has it not?

    Generosty, humility, gratitude and simplicty is stressed in every scripture. I went to the trouble of finding the original documents and earliest translations, even to the Aramaic of the Bible. It’s beyond dispute, so instead of admitting it, in order to discredit spirituality, you get these incredible statements.

    It’s indisputable: the dhammapada, the new testament, the vedas, the bhagavad gita, the i-ching – they all stress these qualities. The OT even says, “for the love of money is the root of all evil.” Of course the OT is full of superstition – it’s also a historic record of ancient states of mind. What would you find in ancient texts on astronomy or medicine? Of course you can find discrepancies – these were written by people. If critics don’t like the Bible, or the Koran, let them write something more inspiring! But they never do: their books go out of fashion in a few years. Why?

    The sermon on the amount is about humility, service, patience and forgiveness. Christ’s whole life was about exactly this, put into practice. How, how do people blame this document for wars? I doubt they’ve even read it! What psychopaths do with the power these sentiments convey is not the fault of scriptures.

    It would be far better to investigate the genetic causes of psychopathy, which destroys society, and of creative genius, which advances it. But when you suggest this, the condescending response is, “Oh tee hee, no, no, you idealist, you Lamarkian simpleton, you non-understander of random evolution – it’s just good and bad luck. It’s how life is.” A wave of the hand to dismiss your idea, a pat on the head and off they go on their merry way.

    If medicine had maintained such a medieval attachment to ignorance, we’d all still be dying of scurvy and fearing the plague.

  49. Iain;

    Yes, you can’t take religion away from war’s main cause: the human brain. I was responding to Juan’s comment:

    Haven’t religions helped to create this mess you complain about? Religion has been a key driver of a long number of wars and atrocities in the name of a loving God, has it not?

    I am sorry Iain, but in your answer to my comments show the same degree of fanaticism that has made religion an instrument of destruction.

    Just for you to know, even though i am not a religious person, I consider myself deeply spiritual. I have and practice buddhist meditation for more than 20 years; in my youth I was inclined towards christian spiritual practices, etc.

    Because of this, I have the blessing and luck of having encountered great teachers; that were humble, that were compassionate, that were loving. None of them talked like you. Because no honest spiritual man can disregard the evil and good that exist in religous practices.

    You blame the 21st century crisis in the economic power, but you disregard how the religious structure of society supported those financial structures. I happened to grow in a third world country, were at some time the military dictartorship with support of the church, kidnapped, tortured and killed many people. There were many pious clergymen blessing their unspeakable actions.

    Religous blindsideness, i.e religious is good and great, is close to fanaticism, where a healthy dose of self evaluation and criticism does not exist, and this currently leads and has led to evil.

  50. “One does not usually hear, for instance, that the Quakers have instigated genocide. So we say, ‘Good on you, Quakers. Shame on these other guys.’”

    A very interesting point! I would be interested to learn why that might be. How is it that Quakers have managed to achieve something all (most) religions attempt to: Peace?

  51. That’s a very interesting point of view, indeed, thanks. I did meet a woman from Brazil who had been through terrible economic hardship – she had survived a stabbing, but she never lost her faith in spirituality.

    She was one of the simplest people I ever met; for her Genesis was a literal story. She was also one of the warmest people I ever met!

    She loved Jesus, Ayrton Senna, football.. and wow, what a figure she had. I think religion is another word for, following a mass movement. Whether it’s a spiritual one or a materialist one.. it’s all part of the same trend.

    As for Quakers, if you are somehow not familiar with the genocide committed by Quakers against Native Americans, you might want to read “The earth shall weep” by James Wilson. I’m afraid Quakers have made some very blood-soaked porridge in their time, which is no disrespect to their beliefs – ony the way in which they have been manipulated in the past, by as usual, fear and greed.

    My daughter wants to be a Buddhist.. she finds all those ideas appealing. I consider myself a friend of spirituality and of religion, and it’s interesting that Sean Faircloth and R Dawkins have decided compassion would be a handy attribute to add to “Secular Humanism” so they’re pushing it hard. In one brief TV interview Faircloth mentioned it, I think, six times.

    You see, if the SHs were to completely remove religion – wipe it from the Earth – they would then need a code of conduct which would appeal not just to the elite which they represent but the working man, the farmer, the toiler, and all those along every stage, mentally, of the evolutionary path.

    They would be obliged to come up with something which looked very much lilke all the religions they had just finished destroying. In fact, without it, they would have only a battle to be cleverest – which is what you have now on the atheist pages. I spent about 11 weeks on the Dawkins website just trying to find info on DNA, genetics etc.

    In the end, the bitching and carping and one-upmanship and showboating just became impossible to tolerate. Dawkins found this himself when he changed the moderating style of the forum. And why? Because self-control, empathy, and generosity of spirit was lacking in the worst offenders.

    The problem is their culture is based on a simplification of Darwinism: the fittest suirvive. What this philosophy conveniently overlooks is that those who survive are the beneficiaries of love. Parents care for their children now matter how “fit” they are to survive. Ancient graves show disabled adults who must have been cared for from birth to adulthood. maternal love comes with survival. But this is all overlooked in the rush to eugenics – in which we try and weed out the unfit to build a super race. Eugenics is still going on in South America, as you’ll know, and is a subtle influence in many societies based on materialism. I even heard one Secular Humanist say starvation was good because it kept the population low. So he was quite happy to watch children die in the name of a better race.

    The problem of course is that without compassion you may have a fitter race which is almost completely evil.

    To make the new SH society work, you would need to cultivate those things, which have been present in every society in every age since the dawn of time. You would need an updated spiritual document; without it you would simply have a Darwinian free for all. And that embarrassing fact will become all the more obvious, the larger the movement gets!

  52. Rhetoric and spurious arguments are good examples of:

    “…self-control, empathy, and generosity of spirit lacking in the worst offenders.”

    “…if the SHs were to completely remove religion – wipe it from the Earth – they would then need a code of conduct…without it you would simply have a Darwinian free for all.”

    This slippery slope argument is of no use here. There is no support for the argument that society will break down without a religion. This would be the case if, say, all Atheists and Agnostics were conscienceless sociopaths…but this is simply not the case.

  53. Before we start the intellectual judo match – ooh, straw man argument! one point to me! and then — slippery slope opening gambit – one point to you.. disingenous at best, very disingenous at worst, etc etc…

    I didn’t say a religion. I said a system which very much resembled all the ones they’ve been ridiculing, and finally (hypothetically) managed to trample to pieces!

    You can see it happening already as they realise they need compassion. Parading the smartness is not enough, and is not going to have widespread appeal either. Faircloth grasped that immediately.

    But when they see that emotions such as generosity, compassion, empathy, gratitude, humility and confession of our faults to those we trust all generate oxytocin – a vital neurotransmitter for brain and body (and, it is theorised, genetics) – they will have to stress all these attributes, admittedly, on scientific grounds.

    When they find that meditation generates telomerase, which lengthens cell life, they may be obliged to recommend that too. When they find that meditation drastically improves the efficiency of the amygdala – they will realise meditation is an essential tool. Or “prayer”, as some ancient religions called it.

    When they find that morality has a beneficial effect on the genes – as studies of families of genius conclusively show..

    ..then sooner or later some perceptive soul will ask them to please explain why they have only just finished ridiculing, demonising, and finally tearing to shreds ancient schools of thought more or less identical to everything which they heatrily recommend now!

  54. Iain – I’ve asked you before, and after this I won’t ask you again, please tone down the rhetoric.

    There was absolutely no need for your opening paragraph. Not least, people often do invoke straw men when they argue, in which circumstance it is quite legitimate to point it out.

    No more warnings. If you want to contribute here, and I hope that you continue to do so, then you need to play by our rules (or my rules, if you prefer). This is non-negotiable.


  55. I made my point, and was quite happy to stop there.

    If someone wants to be atheist, what is it to me? If someone doesn’t have a soul, what do I care? But that’s the point at which they should leave matters of faith alone. They no longer have the right to criticise it in others.

    All this ridiculing of faith – especially by your leaders such as Dawkins “Tell your mother to read some books” and “I despise faith” is bound to incite anger. You have to expect it. I only found this site through one of his tweets, and I was already angry when I arrived; that isn’t your fault.

    Nevertheless, it was good to chat – I turned off the email notifications but I kept getting them and couldn’t resist replying. If you can turn them off, I’d appreciate it.

  56. Iain, much of the rest of your remarks are conflating spirituality with religion. Religion just is that human social thing; spirituality is a potentially individualistic thing. If you conflate them, then you’re probably not going to understand the point of what other folks are saying. The critique of religion is not necessarily a critique of spirituality. When I point out the evils that religion are complicit in, I am talking exclusively about the evils associated with mainstream Abrahamic religions.

    Thank you for your recommendation of “The Earth Shall Weep”. I am certainly no scholar on this subject. Unfortunately, I’ve glanced at the volume briefly, and do not see how it supports your point. A word search of the word “Quaker” retrieves four results: one where the Rhode Island Quakers received the testimony of concerned natives, one mention of Quakers attempting to mediate a dispute, one mention (blocked access by Google Books) of a Quaker who was deeply preoccupied with the Iroquois condition, and one mention of Quakers setting up “demonstration farms” which were set up in order to allow natives to see how Western agricultural technology worked. Which of these instances did you have in mind as grounds for claiming they took part in genocide?

  57. I should have said a cultural genocide – quakers ran schools whose spcific aim was to crush the spirit of native indians. The idea was to take indian kids from their families and do whatever it took to make them “think white”.

    One who lived through that period, Zitkala-Sa, reported that she was tied to a chair so her hair could be shorn off. She said it was a crushing blow to her, but later in life she became an advocate for Indian rights. President Grant gave many reservations over to Quakers, who were instructed to take the fight out of them by making them Quakers.

    The Canadian government, and the Catholic church in the USA have already apologised for their part in this forced cultural stuff, but the Quakers, as far as I know, never have done. This stuff might have been typical for time but it shows they were not immune to it.

    I know the Protestants exceeded all bounds in their cruel treatment of the Quakers in early America: in fact Calvin’s words sound very much like the “anti-terror” farce going on at the moment – to the effect that ‘anyone who complains about heretics being punished must be no less a heretic themselves.’ But substitute “heretic” with “terrorist” and you pretty much have the USA’s policy today.

  58. Ah, ethnocide. Fair enough.

  59. Civility and free speech | Talking Philosophy « Secularity - pingback on August 11, 2012 at 9:32 pm
  60. Am new to the site. Looking forward to the discussions… 😀

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