Philosophical virtues … and a diversion about the accommodationism wars

Jean Kazez has a superb post over at In Living Color, where she discusses how philosophy can help inform us intellectually and raise the standard of public discussion. I especially like her third of a series of numbered points, so I’ll quote it in full:

One of the things I like most about teaching philosophy is that in a philosophy class people with hugely different viewpoints are expected to sit in a room together and discuss matters politely and reasonably. In my animal rights class, vegans talk to hunters–without anyone going berserk. In my course on the meaning of life, religious students talk about life with atheists–all in a mode of mutual respect. In a contemporary moral problems class, if you’re skilled, you can get pro-life and pro-choice students to talk to each other calmly, and even see eye-to-eye on some issues. This is great preparation for being part of an inclusive “community of reason,” one in which nobody’s sent into exile just for the “crime” of accommodationism, thinking one way or another about sexual harassment policies, etc.

Unfortunately, I can’t quote that excellent paragraph without distancing myself from one thing – namely the business about accommodationism.

Before I get to that … how you understand some of the acrimonious debates that have taken place in the recent past within the “community of reason”, and those that continue to take place, may depend on when and how you became involved in them, how you interpreted events at the time, and so on. One of the most annoying things that can happen in these debates is when Person X calls Person Y a liar (rather than mistaken, exaggerating, getting a distorted or one-sided impression, adopting an implausible interpretation, or whatever it might be) for disagreeing with Person X’s interpretation. I’ve seen this done to people on both my side and the other side of various debates I’ve been involved in.

Of course, some people do tell outright lies, as we saw with the “Tom Johnson” story a couple of years ago, when one participant in the accommodationism wars made up a story about gross, in-your-face, real-life incivility that he had witnessed from colleagues at his university. This story went far beyond the kind of exaggeration, embellishment, and self-serving interpretation and simplification that human beings indulge in pretty much all the time, more-or-less unconsciously (something that we all need to try to check in ourselves constantly, once we’re made aware of the phenomenon). Outright lies can certainly corrupt debate, as happened on this occasion, but they are likely to be a relatively small feature of most discussions, even on the internet where so many claims cannot easily be checked.

Thus all these issues can become complicated, most people start out as fairly well-meaning, and it’s best to maintain some degree of civility even when we think our opponents are getting things badly wrong. Our own perspectives may be skewed, and most times our opponents are not consciously dishonest.

With all that said about the limitations of our perspectives, it certainly did not appear from my perspective that anyone was “sent into exile” merely for being an “accommodationist” … which means, in context, for taking the philosophical line that science and religion are compatible in some interesting sense. From here, it looked more as if there was an aggressive and heavily-resourced attack on people who rocked the boat by arguing that science and religion are, in some interesting sense, not compatible. For example, there were claims (notably by Matthew Nisbet) that Richard Dawkins’ science-based critique of religion was unethical and that Dawkins should go silent in public debate, since he was, supposedly, harming the teaching of science. At least to me, those sorts of claims, attacking the very legitimacy of someone’s speech, seem outrageous.

Much of the anti-anti-accommodationist rhetoric was aggressive, and it was published in the mainstream mass media, on blogs with very high numbers of daily views, and in books with large sales. It was, and still is, supported by accommodationist policies promulgated by prestigious science organisations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The overall tendency during the accommodationism debates was for influential players to isolate and demonise atheists who employed scientifically informed arguments to support their critiques of religion.

Then we have the example of Chris Mooney arguing that certain critiques of theistic evolutionists should not be expressed in the public square – even if expressed in a civil and thoughtful (and reasonably charitable) way. This is a view that I have consistently opposed … and, alas, Jean and I have had plenty of arguments about it.

To take another example of the demonisation of anti-accommodationist authors, consider the book Unscientific America, written by Mooney with Sheril Kirshenbaum. Among other things, this includes what appears to me to be a philosophically weak discussion of the ideas of “philosophical naturalism” and “methodological naturalism”. That discussion segues into a claim that Dawkins and others are confused about the issues, and that they are deducing the non-existence of God from science’s practice of a merely methodological naturalism, a move by Dawkins et al. that the book’s authors condemn as “an intellectual error” … or even “a nasty bullying tactic” (page 104). Notice that the “bullying tactic” under discussion in this instance is not some kind of vilification of opponents, or even incivility of language. It is merely the use of an argument that Mooney and Kirshenbaum attribute to Dawkins (falsely, I believe), and that they happen to dispute.

I do actually agree with Jean Kazez that Mooney and others were subjected to a lot of incivility and sheer abuse in 2009 and 2010, and I was responsible for some of this myself (not a lot of it, but enough to look back on with regret). But it certainly does not appear from here that it was a case of sending into exile people who argued for the compatibility of religion and science. If anything, there was a strong push – in mass-market books, mainstream media, popular blogs, and the policies of science organisations – to neutralise writers who were unwilling to follow the accommodationist line, but who expressed their scientifically-informed criticisms of religion in an appropriately civil way. This attempt to neutralise certain thinkers and their arguments then produced an angry backlash, some of which (I concede) became far too personal.

I will doubtless hear from readers who deny that Dawkins was, in fact, appropriately civil in The God Delusion and his associated efforts to engage in a wide-ranging critique of religion. Even the book’s title will be attacked as uncivil by some people. But civility does not mean dropping all use of rhetoric, humour, and satire, or, if it comes to that, all expressions of passion or frustration.

Considering the unrelenting hostility and ignorance that he has encountered from many sides, Richard Dawkins has actually seemed to me a model of courtesy and patience throughout the recent difficult debates involving the New Atheism, accommodationism, and the religion/science relationship. If we’d all managed, on all sides, to comport ourselves with no more snark per unit of involvement than Dawkins allowed himself, there would have been a much more useful, as well as civil, debate.

All that said, I support the main point that Jean Kazez is making in the paragraph that I quoted. Formal study of philosophy does have the merit of forcing people to examine opposing ideas with charity – looking for what might be strong in them, or at least what others might find intellectually attractive, rather than for an absurd interpretation or for weaknesses around the edges – and to respond in a way that treats ideas on their intellectual merits rather than insulting, smearing, vilifying, shaming, or even just plain pigeon-holing opponents. Philosophical study also inculcates an idea of the very wide range of positions that might actually be on offer in respect of any particular issue, and the many routes by which a particular position might be reached by people who do not necessarily agree in their overall views and attitudes.

It would be nice to see a more philosophical approach to current debates, with less attempting to neutralise opponents through misrepresentation, piling on, smearing, prejudicial labeling, and with fewer attempts to silence or provoke opponents with insults and expressions of anger. I don’t know how much we’re likely to see a cultural change in that direction, but many people now seem to be calling for it. I hope we can maintain some focus on this in the current debates within our community of freason, and in the ones that inevitably lie ahead.

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54 Comments.

  1. For my part, at a philosophical level, the only thing I regret about my critical remarks on that work is that I was overly charitable towards the claims that were fabricated by “Tom Johnson”. Luckily, I am in good company; if I recall correctly, Dr. Kazez was similarly misled.

    It’s worth noting that charity is supposed to function in part as a kind of “bullshit detector” (as the general purpose of charity is to hang a person if and only if they provide the rope). But it is now clear to me that charity only works if you can already assume everyone in your discussion is minimally trustworthy on prior grounds. This incident proved to be the test case which broke my assumption that charity was doing me (or anyone) any favours.

    As a result, I think I am now not quite as generous with trust as I was then. Yet, unfortunately, charity was the very thing I was indoctrinated with during philosophical training. So it seems that that narrow part of my philosophical training put me at a relative disadvantage. And I do think that the rejection of charity — the assumption that your interlocutor has all or mostly true beliefs — makes me a better philosopher.

    At any rate, the result is that I have had to unlearn the principle of charity, to some degree. However, that allowed me to form for myself an alternative set of interpretive duties to replace the gaping hole left when charity left. The duties are: candor, fidelity, integrity, humility, and dignity.

    I would resist any attempt to reintroduce charity into my philosophical toolkit. However, it is possible that charity serves as an interesting learning exercise for students of philosophy. It’s just that it must eventually be replaced by a more useful set of imperatives.

  2. That’s not how I understand the intellectual virtue/principle of being charitable. It’s not about assuming your opponent has true beliefs but merely about dealing with the strongest version of your opponent’s argument. Here’s how it’s supposed to work, on my understanding. [Edit: though I now see that the Wikipedia article has a whole lot of related principles in its article on the subject!]

    Person P, someone whom you’ll be commenting on, perhaps arguing against, puts an argument that could be understand in more than one way. If understood in sense A., it’s a highly implausible argument. If you impute this version of the argument to Person P, you have an opportunity to discredit her with your audience.

    However, if it is understood in sense B., the argument may seem to have considerable force, may be difficult to refute, and may even, if you are intellectually honest, lead you to change your mind.

    The idea is that you should impute this stronger version of the argument to Person P, and that is the version that you should grapple with intellectually.

    The thing is, if you only refute the weaker version the stronger version is still out there, unrefuted. You may win a public relations battle by ignoring it, but you also let slide an opportunity to make intellectual progress by showing what is wrong with a seemingly cogent argument, or even an opportunity to revise your own views if the argument actually is strong.

    So, if you want to make progress it’s better to impute stronger rather than weaker arguments to opponents, and likewise better to lean against imputing discrediting personal characteristics and attitudes, etc.

    It’s not an absolute trump card. Sometimes it might be plain that your opponent really did have in mind the weaker argument, and that may be of interest (though there is still more philosophical interest in dealing with the stronger one anyway). Sometimes we need to point out that certain “evidence” used by an opponent is just rumour or hearsay, and possibly facially implausible given our prior assumptions. That can be a legitimate part of grappling with an argument. It’s casting doubt on the strength of evidence, not choosing to refute a weaker version of the argument.

    In that context, we should always bear in mind that stories about specific events are likely to be embellished, reconstructed, etc. That’s just how human beings are. And some do, occasionally, lie outright, and we at least have to consider that possibility in a case like Tom Johnson. Especially when dealing with people who are anonymous, a bit of caution about dramatic claims is advisable.

    Also, it might be plain that a particular opponent is dogmatic or dismissive, and is not interested to engaging in mutual exploration of ideas, or that an opponent really does have some sinister motivation (though that might not matter if their argument is strong!). There are many things to bear in mind.

    But one of them is that we won’t make progress – and we certainly will lose opportunities to engage constructively with others and perhaps learn something – if we make a practice of putting a less charitable interpretation of those available on our opponents’ arguments, motives, etc.

  3. You’re right to point out that there are multiple, very different principles of charity. I had in mind the canonical versions espoused by Quine and Davidson, which plays a prominent role in their entire way of thinking. For them, it has to do with maximizing the number of true beliefs you attribute to a person. When you take a course on this part of the analytic tradition, or delve much into that part of the literature, you’ll have this absolutely drilled into your head by the time you’re done.

    One of the practical implications of this view is something like what you said: of minimizing the number of absurd readings of what your interlocutor says. I agree with that principle, because I don’t think anyone does anyone any favors by constructing strawmen. This minimal requirement is one instance of what I refer to as “fidelity”.

    However, minimizing absurd readings is not the same as attributing to your interlocutor the best possible form of their argument. To disambiguate, let’s call this latter move “charity+”.

    To be clear: I think charity+ is an excellent way of identifying the most productive places in any discussion whose purposes have already been established as being to achieve mutual understanding. Charity+ is to be used among the angels.

    However, when I admit this, I do not mean to give a ringing endorsement of charity+. After all, while charity+ certainly makes sense in the context where trust is presumed — e.g., in the philosophy classroom, or in the context of a discussion between familiars — it is not to say that charity+ is, or ought to be, in force and effect in all contexts.

    There are at least two ways in which one might defend charity. Either as a principle, or as a virtue.

    I don’t believe in charity+ as a principle. Luckily, neither do you; nor does Jean. You both demonstrated that in a recent thread, when you asked us why we ought to look at codes of conduct for sexual harassment with the principle of charity. If I recall correctly, you (rightly) pointed out that this was inappropriate in the context of answering to binding rules; Jean enthusiastically agreed. Well, so much for charity+ as a principle, then.

    I am also unsure whether or not charity+ is even a virtue, unless it’s situated in the appropriate (trustworthy) contexts. I say this only because it is not uncommon for me to confront the following sort of problem:
    (a) I read what someone has said, and what they have said leaves me thinking that the person has said a false thing.
    (b) I can think of many different ways in which an argument could be made in order to make that seemingly false thing come out true.
    (c) Suppose, as is the case, I have no life. If required, I will put a substantial amount of effort into trying to convince my interlocutor that their claim can only be made a certain way. Suppose, furthermore, that I think that I have given evidence that I am bound by the appropriate virtues: e.g., candor (I’ve stated the rules of the language-game as I understand them), humility (I’ve admitted I am wrong in the past), etc.
    (d) I am given no evidence to believe that my interlocutor plausibly believes in the true way of putting their ostensibly false claim. (Translation: I risk sacrificing fidelity for the sake of charity+.)
    (e) Moreover, I am given ample evidence to believe that my interlocutor has no patience or interest in being corrected, should they happen to be wrong. (Translation: I have reason to believe my partner lacks humility.)

    In these cases, charity is positively inappropriate. You do yourself a disservice, you risk confusing your interlocutor, and in the process you even risk violating Grice’s maxim of Quantity. You saw it every time anyone remotely intelligent was interviewed by (say) Bill O’Reilly during the early 2000s. They didn’t know what to say, or where to even begin. There’s just no progress there.

    That’s why I must regretfully opt out of this charity business, until the price of entry drops substantially. It is only a good when it is in the context of helping existing trust-relationships to flourish. But then, it’s not a virtue of individuals — it’s a virtue of groups of people acting together. And those aren’t really virtues at all.

    Upshot: if you really want to make progress, do not say “Be charitable”. It would be better to say, “Avoid participation in all contexts where your duties compel you to be uncharitable”.

  4. Just quickly on one point, Ben. Charity as I’ve defined it is a virtue for approaching arguments and interlocutors if you want to make progress – but I agree that it’s subject to other things. You’ve described a rather complicated scenario, and I don’t know fully what to say about it off-hand (though I’ll have a think about it). But isn’t it a special case? It’s a case where you have reason to think that the person concerned not only did not intend the stronger version of the argument but is not even interested in discussing it.

    Anyway, I really wanted to say something about rules. When it comes to interpreting rules, I actually do think that judges or other people who actually have to apply rules (non-judicial tribunals, administrators, etc.) should look for interpretations that are not absurd, and indeed for interpretations that are not unduly restrictive. Lawyers should give advice to clients that takes into account that this is likely to happen if a case reaches the courts.

    However … when people who are not acting in their capacity as judges, etc., are looking at what rules will be applied to us and others, we also need to consider the possibility of abuse or just plain oppressive use, especially if the literal words are onerous. We can’t just assume that judges, etc., will read the rules down.

    After all, their first point of resort is to read the language literally. And indeed, we know that some judges, etc., are inclined to read rules expansively so as to forbid an even wider range of conduct than an off-hand reading of the rule might suggest. Some judges, etc., are temperamentally or theoretically disinclined to read down, and are actually inclined to do the opposite. So in looking at how a rule might end up being applied you need to consider the worst-case scenario. An argument about what that worst-case scenario might be can then feed into an argument about why the rule should be modified. (I also think that we have grounds for wondering, in some instances, why the drafters appeared insouciant about possible bad scenarios that they must have foreseen.)

    Quite consistently with this, if you encounter someone’s argument in justification for the rule, you really need (well, at least prima facie) to consider the strongest (that you can see) version of their argument. After all, if you’ve only knocked down weaker versions of their argument the strongest version is left unrebutted. You might succeed in knocking down a weak argument and maybe achieving a PR victory, but for all that the rule might still be justified.

  5. Russell:

    The metaphor about accomodationists being sent into exile depends on where one feels one’s homeland is.

    If a skeptical accomodationist had imagined that his or her metaphorical homeland was a group of blogs making up the so-called online skeptical community, then he or she may well have felt banished, exiled or ostracized from the motherland.

    Now, if you see things from the point of view of the mainstream media, no one was exiled, but some of us see no home or homeland in the mainstream media.

    I for one learned that I have no home in the online skeptical community either, but in a way, the online skeptics did me a favor.

  6. As one who has been called an anti-Semite and a racist for views on Israel and Obama on this blog by a blogger apostle of ‘sweetness and light’ my tuppence worth might be good value. Immersion in certain values may induce opacity and nowhere is this to be found than in the conflict between the religious faithful and the atheist. The latter may fancy themselves as true rationalists and supported by the doctrine of Justified True Belief which they imagine is as solid as the Principle of non-Contradiction or Excluded Middle. This is one of the ways that atheists decree that there is no rational right to religious belief and that therefore it need be of no concern to a thinking person. That’s an honest if wrong view and is preferable to the humouring approach. ‘Going along to get along’ is the expression of a benign fatuity that serves no one.

    I have seen presented as solid observation that those of a philosophical bent are wont to discard religion on coming up against the Argument from Evil or lacunae in The Five Ways. No examples of this assertion were offered and I presume it remains mired in the terminally anecdotal where ‘my first cousin’s best friend knows for a fact’ , resides. A survey of atheist philosophers who have gone over to Christian Theism leads me to the conclusion that their reasons for doing so are generally non-rational.
    http://ombhurbhuva.blogspot.ie/2012/01/philosopher-swimmers.html
    So if Atheist philosophers are swayed in the much more difficult against the current direction by non-rational arguments we may presume that going with the flow is a fortiori non-rational.

    My point is that it is ok to say as Dan Dennett does – ‘I think you are playing tennis without a net’ – if that is what you really think.

  7. First thing to get out of the way–Ben remembers wrong. I was not misled by “Tom Johnson”. This is a tangled story, so it’s hard for anyone to wrap their mind around. But here’s what happened:

    X had publicly admitted to his habit of sock puppetry and then had said “Tom Johnson” was just another sock puppet. He was implicitly accusing Chris Mooney of lying, since Chris had said he had been sent a credible back-up email. Many people (like PZ Myers) went ballistic, demanding an apology from Chris, as if it were completely settled that the email didn’t exist and that the incident hadn’t occurred.

    At that point in the ballgame, I thought that was absurd and still do. The bizarre thing was that people were prepared to believe everything X was saying in his “confession”, despite his history of lying and sock puppetry. My attitude was agnosticism –about both the incident and the existence of an email.

    Next thing that happened: Chris showed me the credible back-up email. There’s no question at all (then or now) that it came from the real student, and it backed up many elements of his story. So we had a very complicated situation–X was telling the truth about his habit of sock puppetry, but lying about “TJ” being a wholesale fabrication. He was definitely not. X was making Chris look like a liar, and Chris was not a liar.

    I think it’s pretty important whether people are lying or not lying, so I wrote a blog post saying Chris had received the email and “TJ” was not a fabrication. This isn’t to say the incident actually occurred (as I stressed), but yes indeed, X was a science student, and he did go to conservation meetings, and there were religious people at these meetings, and there were “new atheist” types at the meetings, etc.

    When the dust settled, this was the score–X lied about “TJ” being a fabrication, Chris never lied about anything, X duped Chris into believing the incident occurred. There’s a big difference between being duped and being a liar, right? Of course. That’s what I as concerned about–backing up Chris on the allegation that he was lying. He wasn’t.

    ***

    Russell, Bback when all this was going on, your argument to me was that even if this email existed, Chris should have known not to believe it, because it was so wildly implausible that atheists would be so rude at meetings. So even if he was duped, he was culpable for that.

    Now, two years later, I’ve seen massive amounts of rudeness at atheist blogs, and we now know about certain kinds of rudeness at meetings too (Harriet Hall’s T-shirt, for example). People can be confrontational. All of that has actually strengthened my conviction that there was no way of knowing, a priori, that X’s story was false. Yes, atheists can behave badly, both on the internet and in person.

    One of the things I find amusing (to be honest) about the current fracas about harassment and meetings is that some of the very same people are involved in both, and they’ve changed their tune. Two years ago they were adamant about the good behavior of atheists, especially at meetings. Any accusation had to be put to a rigorous test. I was accused (amazingly enough) of “hating” atheists, because I thought it was at least possible the incident had occurred. Now there’s been an about face. Any accusation must be accepted, as long as it’s an accusation of sexist misbehavior. You can say all you want about atheist bad behavior, and no one thinks you “hate” atheists.

    I say the middle way is sensible–atheists can behave badly, like anyone. You ought to try to verify and quantify, but shouldn’t rule out, a priori, any half-way plausible allegation. I do think X’s initial story met that standard. It turned out to be false. So what? I never understood what hinged upon it in the first place. My picture of “how atheists behave” is based on lots and lots of evidence I’ve accumulated over the years. One swallow does not make a summer day…or however that goes.

    ***

    As to everything else in Russell’s post. When I say “sent into exile” I mean a level of acrimony between X and Y that stops X and Y from being able to talk directly to each other in a basically friendly fashion. I’m talking about ways of debating that fracture a community, creating little sub-communities. At some atheist blogs, accommodationists are the bad guys. You might talk about them, but you’re not going to talk politely to them. They’re not even going to show up for direct conversation, because of past demonizing, etc.

    I think people on the anti-accommodationist side do this kind of demonizing. Does the accommodationist side as well? To say, we’d have to go over lots and lots of specific incidents, and that would be tedious. I would just like to comment on one incident you discuss–the business of Chris saying Jerry Coyne shouldn’t attack accommodationists in a New Republic book review. You could certainly disagree with Chris, but I don’t see that as acrimonious or divisive. It’s just a question of taking a stand on strategy, not (as people claimed at the time) being rude and telling Jerry to shut up.

    Analogy: I sometimes wonder if Peter Singer should be involved in atheist activism, since he’s such an important figure for animal rights and poverty causes. Why not let other people do atheist stuff, and avoid alienating religious people who might be recruited to the very important work of helping animals and the poor? I think I could write a blog post to that effect without being guilty of any kind of rudeness, demonizing, or what have you.

    So I don’t find that example persuasive. But no doubt you’re right that accommodationists do some of their own demonizing, so are guilty for some of the fragmentation of communities I’m talking about. So: fair enough. I suppose I read anti-accommodationist blogs much more (my favorite blog is Jerry Coyne’s) so I’m more aware of the “sending into exile” on that side of the fence.

  8. BLS Nelson, I think the TJ affair is most instructive with respect to the in-between zone that rests between untrustworthiness on one side and philosophical discussion deserving of charity on the other.

    Honest people will have intuitions about the world which are to some extent, consciously or unconsciously, shaped to harmonize with the arguments one is inclined to make.

    For me, the lesson of the Tom Johnson is more about the in-between zone. The story matters not so much for the falsehood itself, but for how rapidly & prominently it became adopted as a salient and representative example by people participating in the accommodationism discussion.

    As a side note, I sense that there is sometimes a feeling from writers (especially Russell, but there are others) that accommodationism is a tired debate, or not worth the attention. I don’t share this feeling. The issue strikes a nerve, there are deep motivations at stake for each party and there is probably more progress to me made on discovering what those motivations are and why they create so much intellectual energy around the subject.

  9. “how rapidly & prominently it became adopted as a salient and representative example by people participating in the accommodationism discussion.”

    I really don’t follow this. Chris Mooney “adopted” the story, but apart from him who did?

  10. While I don’t think I misremembered any of the details that Dr. Kazez outlined, I gladly defer to her if she believes I described those events poorly.

    @Josef — that seems true. I haven’t much thought about the in-between zone you refer to, between trust and distrust.

    I was duped or misled into taking TJ’s account for granted in part because I have had the kinds of experiences that Dr. Kazez has. In part because I want people to confront injustice when it occurs, so there may have been an element of wishful thinking involved.

    I think the accommodationism debate is less topical than it used to be. e.g., In recent years, Chris Mooney has become more confrontational: “…liberals need to be more ‘conservative’ whenever conservatives are being unyielding, as they have so often been of late — and indeed, as they are more inclined to be. It simply makes no sense to compromise with someone who won’t compromise. It just weakens your negotiating position, especially when it is expected that atheists will be the ones who ultimately flinch in a game of chicken.” And by adopting new blog regulations, PZ Myers has ended up acting on one of Mooney’s biggest complaints about Pharyngula in his “The Blogs Shall Not Save Us” chapter.

    The accommodationism debate might hit on a nerve, but — why does it interest us so much? Is it because we have a scientific consensus on how to persuade our peers, or is it because people have differences in temperament and like to talk about their personal attitudes towards conflict? I don’t know. But whenever I get the sense that it’s the latter, I get bored.

    @Russell — you make your case for the idea of charity by arguing that charity applies for judges of the law, and not for subordinates to the law. You go on to emphasize that his notion of charity is only supposed to apply in the context of argument (where, one might say, we are all judges).

    You’ve conceded that charity does not apply as a rule for the subordinate, only for the judge. The judge has special duties to preserve the narrative coherence of past precedent. That means she has an institutional incentive to trust the legacy of the law, and hence to use a principle of charity when interpreting the law. This is consistent with my overall picture, that charity “is only a good when it is in the context of helping existing trust-relationships to flourish”, and that “it’s not a virtue of individuals — it’s a virtue of groups of people acting together”.

    Notice, though, that the judge is not bound by charity in a very different sense: she is not bound to be charitable towards the defendant. Ideally, she is not even bound to be charitable towards the prosecution. The judge is not obligated to make the best possible case for the defendant on the basis of what the defendant says; that’s just not her job. Charity plays no role there. Her duty of charity is only to the ongoing legal narrative, to the trusted club of judges and legislators. This is additional evidence that charity is only a good when held up against the background of presumed trust, and is mincemeat in all other relationships.

    In a philosophical conversation, we want to pursue the best argument for its own sake. The productiveness of philosophy (ideally, in the classroom setting) owes to the fact that it operates against a background of trust, fostered by some standards of decorum and so on. However, that does not mean that charity is a good for arguments altogether. Charity will only confuse Bill O’Reilly, for example. What you (the doting liberal) take to be the best possible form of his argument may strike him (the ignorant fogey) as a ridiculous non-sequitur. The entire idea that you can define “best” in some uncontentious way will only occur to you if you assume that you have quite a lot of common ground with your interlocutor, such that the two of you will generally agree about what is best. This is an unwarranted presumption.

  11. Jean, I really don’t want to rake over the whole Tom Johnson thing again.

    It’s main importance, to me, is that it is an example of someone who was deliberately lying, not just misinterpreting, embellishing, offering a tendentious simplification that they think of as essentially correct but is actually misleading, relying on hearsay, etc. My point was actually that human beings do all of those things all the time, that this should make us a bit suspicious about what we hear about some dramatic incident, but that we should be slow to accuse people of outright lying.

    Also, perhaps more importantly, people will often disagree in their interpretation of a complicated set of events that unfolds over time, depending on what they find most salient of what they remember (given their own values, anxieties, etc.), when they got involved, etc. I have to keep reminding myself of this every time I read what seems to me like an outrageously and exasperatingly false account of the events relating to Elevatorgate, for example – even if the person I’m reading has made what are fairly clearly factual errors about the sequence of events or their opponents’ motivations, they are probably not deliberately lying, whatever else they may be doing (they may be relying on vague impressions, or hearsay, or whatever, they may be overly influenced by certain anxieties, or by certain people, etc., etc., but none of that is the same as being a liar).

    However, it’s worth including the qualification that some people really do lie, as Tom Johnson did.

    As far as the Tom Johnson story goes, I thought at the time that it was implausible on its face. I still think that. It seemed like quite extraordinary behaviour for the sort of people he was describing at the sort of event he was describing. If he’d said that horrible things are said on atheist blogs, of course that would have been quite plausible.

    You and I have been over this before, and I don’t think we can settle it here. In the original post, I wanted to distance myself from your accommodationism/exile point in the process of mainly praising that para from blog, and hopefully nothing turns now on who was right about Tom Johnson’s story or its plausibility. For my own part, I freely acknowledge that some of my own behaviour towards Mooney was bad back at the time. E.g. in the comment where I first said to him that I found the Tom Johnson story implausible … I didn’t put it that way or give reasons. I put it in a much nastier way that didn’t invite discussion. And that was bad of me. It’s not the sort of example I’d like to be setting.

    I actually do continue to think that Mooney’s post about Jerry Coyne’s review was bad. However “nicely” it was said, it did call for certain views not to be expressed, and in a context where others were expressing closely related admonitions in the mainstream media, on popular blogs, etc., this was contributing to a, let’s say, worrying environment. If you were on the non-accommodationist side, you could feel under siege. But again, I’m not contributing that to prove a point about who was right at the time, let alone to excuse incivility toward Mooney, but just to support the point (which I think you probably agree with) about how interpretations of events can differ depending on your own prior values and anxieties, the point at which you become involved in the debate, which will usually have some deep roots, etc.

  12. OK, I guess this flare-up of Tom-Johnson-itis is just about over …. ! I think he was actually a pathological liar–someone with a serious problem. If you look at his pattern of sock puppetry, especially, it’s extremely odd. Should we conduct ourselves in ordinary debate with the thought that people among us could be pathological liars too? I think maybe not–that would be to have too high a degree of suspiciousness. But there are more ordinary types of critical thinking we should make sure we’re engaging in.

    Ben asks why the accommodationism debate is so interestting. Well, I do think it’s pretty interesting–mostly to the extent that it’s about how we should live with differences. To what extent is it my business if other people have false beliefs, and to what extent should we just “live and let live”? That’s the part of it I find interesting, more, really, than the whole issue about how science and religion are related. I’ve read Chris Mooney’s most recent book, and it’s certainly highly confrontational. I get the feeling he thinks it actually matters if Republicans are idiots, but it doesn’t matter so much if people have religious beliefs (if they have the right beliefs about poliics, science, etc.) Maybe that’s the idea.

    Anyhow…

    Thanks for the kind words about my post, Russell.

  13. It’s been a while since I tuned into the accomodationist debate (as an accomodationist), but, yes, you hit the nail on the head, Jean:
    it was (and is) about living with differences.

  14. Amos, Those were interesting times! It’s been a while. Jerry Coyne still writes a lot about accommodationism. I have to admire his persistence on the topic, even if I haven’t been converted to his viewpoint.

  15. Although we’re a few drafts away from the final one, and it won’t be published for at least a year – probably a fair bit longer – my new book co-written with Udo Schuklenk, 50 GREAT MYTHS ABOUT ATHEISM, is almost guaranteed to have quite a lot to say about the historical and philosophical relationship between science and religion. Just whetting your appetites.

  16. Hello Jean.

    Though you’ve diplomatically refrained from saying it, it’s clear that you think the “anti-accommodationist” side (for want of a better term) has been significantly worse than the other in terms of acrimony and demonizing. It may surprise you to hear this, but I agree. No offence intended here to Russell, who is not one of those reponsible, while I occasionally have been.

    For what it’s worth I would distinguish two types of accommodationism: the pragmatic sort, which is about promoting harmony between atheists and theists as people; and the philosophical sort which is about finding ways of philosophically reconciling religious belief with science. It’s only the latter sort that I find misguided. The two can sometimes be hard to separate, because philosophical reconciliation is one of the means of promoting harmony. So it may be pragmatically a good idea while being philosophically misguided.

    (BTW I’m glad I never had any involvement in the TJ affair. What a mishigas!)

  17. Richard, that may even be true if we’re only talking about actual incivility in the atheist blogosphere. But there were some pretty uncivil commenters supporting Chris Mooney, for example; also, there are other ways of corrupting open discussion apart from blatant incivility (even though there’s too much of the latter, especially when it turns into outright reputation trashing); and look what someone like Dawkins cops from the wider media, especially in the UK. Some of it is just outrageously unfair and nasty-minded.

    That said, I wasn’t wanting to put a view as to who were the nice and nasty people in those debates, just to emphasise that there can be different perspectives. I admitted to a bit of nastiness of my own during it all – and that wasn’t the only example. I’m not even going to try to add up who was gnastier to whom. I do think it’s important, though, that New Atheists and anti-accommodationists can be gnice and our opponents can get gnasty in various ways.

    In recent years, we have certainly seen a lot of argument that takes the form of misattributing motives, misrepresenting ideas and attitudes, trashing reputations in the way Sam Harris was complaining about the other day, piling on, escalating (such as when someone makes an informal comment on Twitter or on somebody’s Facebook page, and next thing it becomes the subject of actual posts attacking it on popular blogs read by thousands of people). We see a lot of these tactics (and this is not a complete list!) to bully ideas off the table and to punish individuals or intimidate them into silence.

    The philosophical approach, by contrast, is as Jean described it in the para I quoted: it involves welcoming civil objections to your views, not trying to bully interlocutors and objectors into backing down, trying to understand where they might be coming from, instead of quickly assuming the worst about them, being prepared to change your mind, or at least make concessions, if someone offers strong arguments against your position, and so on. I do think that philosophy, as a discipline, tends to teach those values, and in my own evaluation that’s a good thing. There will, of course, be exceptions, e.g. some views are so extreme that they really should be off the table for practical purposes, we have independent evidence that some people really are contemptible, and so on. We still have to make judgments. But there are pretty good reasons to lean in a certain direction, i.e. to be reluctant to abandon the philosophical virtues that we’re discussing.

    Still, I may be preaching to the converted – you probably agree with all this. I’m just clarifying the main intended thrust of the post. Often I find that a complex little point that I want to make to qualify my position ends up taking up more room than the main point I’m trying to convey!

  18. TJ … “what a mishigas” … in the middle of that business I went out to dinner with some friends and tried to explain what it was about. They looked at me liked I’d escaped from a mental hospital. Too complicated, too trivial, too many repetitions of the term “sock puppet”!

    Russell–re: trashing reputations. The funny thing about this (well, not funny) is that people in the atheosphere are prepared to trash someone’s reputation despite having held them in high regard for years. They know these people, have even met them in person, yet suddenly turn them into pariahs. I don’t get that. Enough said…

  19. “Now, two years later, I’ve seen massive amounts of rudeness at atheist blogs, and we now know about certain kinds of rudeness at meetings too (Harriet Hall’s T-shirt, for example). People can be confrontational. All of that has actually strengthened my conviction that there was no way of knowing, a priori, that X’s story was false.”

    You’re arguing that the story was declared unbelievable from the outset because of the quantity of offensiveness given by and confrontationalism of the characters in the story, yet because you have since seen even more offensive and confrontational behavior, you think that quantity of offensiveness was never a good reason to reject the story, so the near-certainty in the original declarations of disbelief was unjustified, despite the story’s eventually being shown to have been made up?

    The original story was an obviously bogus invention to many, with that judgment being based on the bizarreness of the described behavior, not the degree of confrontationalism of the characters. A story in which someone wears a shirt despite it having made someone else cry is/was believable. Particularly since it involves wanting to be disassociated with a subgroup whose behavior has made membership in a wider group potentially embarrassing.

    The following is more of a misimagination of how a confrontational atheist scientist would act than a depiction of an implausible degree of confrontationalness:

    “Many of my colleagues are fans of Dawkins, PZ, and their ilk and make a point AT CONSERVATION EVENTS to mock the religious to their face, shout forced laughter at them, and call them “stupid,” “ignorant” and the like – and these are events hosted by religious moderates where we’ve been ASKED to attend. They think it’s the way to be a good scientist, after all.”

    Please.

    “I never understood what hinged upon it in the first place.”

    One can infer the strength of a case based on what its proponents choose to highlight as their best evidence. Its status as “exhibit A” of “Counterproductive Attacks on Religion” is ironic.

  20. I always wonder why people are willing to destroy
    friendships for ideological or philosophical reasons.

    Friendship is so vital (as Aristotle and others point out) and so scarce, while ideologies and philosophies are so uncertain, so tenuous, so easy to pick up and discard.

    What’s more, so often we hold ideologies or philosophies because of what our parents told us or of what our parents did not tell us or in opposition to what our parents told us or did not tell us or because of what our friends at age 17
    held true.

    That is, ideological and philosophical commitments frequently manifest loyalties to long-gone relationships. Yet we destroy or reject current relationships in their name.

    When someone ruins a current relationship on ideological or philosophical grounds, I suspect that the basic problem between the two was something personal which never was expressed, rather than the ideology or philosophy, which was a pretext.

  21. Elit, I don’t follow. Yes, the degree of confrontationalness is one of the main things people thought made the story implausible. They also thought a bunch of other things seemed implausible, but all those things turned out to be true–the guy was a scientist, he did go to conservation meetings involving a religious organization, he did have new atheist colleagues, they did rail against religion. The confrontationalness is the sole lie in the passage, and we were supposed to know it was a lie a priori–because who does stuff like that? Well, we know better now that we did two years ago that there are a lot of very aggressive people in the world of skeptics/atheists. They do pretty weird stuff online, and some of that leaches out into the real world. I would be even less sure now, compared to 2 years ago, that any allegation of misconduct was made up.

  22. Jean Kazez wrote:
    Analogy: I sometimes wonder if Peter Singer should be involved in atheist activism, since he’s such an important figure for animal rights and poverty causes. Why not let other people do atheist stuff, and avoid alienating religious people who might be recruited to the very important work of helping animals and the poor? I think I could write a blog post to that effect without being guilty of any kind of rudeness, demonizing, or what have you.

    Singer and his views on the snuffing of defective neonates may already have alienated decent atheists. Likewise his views on charity and animal welfare may be similarily contaminated. Where’s the consistency the average thinking person may ask. Of course being a professional philosopher makes him an adept at rationalisation.

    I’ll get my coat now.

  23. Points all taken, Russell. My judgement is certainly a very subjective one, based on an accumulation of impressions, rather than hard data. That sort of judgement can easily be dominated by a few dominant memories. And of course I haven’t read the same material you have.

  24. Michael, I think that’s another perfectly good question–how loud should Singer be on infant euthanasia, considering that he has the power to make a much bigger difference on the more important problems of animals and poverty, and (1) his position on infant euthanasia will make him much less trustworthy to many, and (2) it’s a very carefully hedged, “low impact” position anyway? I think I can at least ask that without being guilty of any kind of incivility or bad behavior.

  25. Jean Kazez wrote:
    Yes, the degree of confrontationalness is one of the main things people thought made the story implausible. They also thought a bunch of other things seemed implausible, but all those things turned out to be true–the guy was a scientist, he did go to conservation meetings involving a religious organization, he did have new atheist colleagues, they did rail against religion. The confrontationalness is the sole lie in the passage, and we were supposed to know it was a lie a priori–because who does stuff like that? Well, we know better now that we did two years ago that there are a lot of very aggressive people in the world of skeptics/atheists. They do pretty weird stuff online, and some of that leaches out into the real world. I would be even less sure now, compared to 2 years ago, that any allegation of misconduct was made up.

    As the “other colleague” at that conservation event that TJ so eloquently lied about, I’d like to state for the record, once again, that TOM JOHNSON FREAKING LIED. Geez. Yes, there are angry people who say mean things. Yes, you can easily find mean words on blogs. That does not mean TJ’s story actually happened. It was my impression that we got this all sorted out a long time ago, thanks to Ophelia Benson, Jerry Coyne, and others whose specific roles I embarrassingly can’t recall right now. Hell, even Chris Mooney contacted me privately to clear up the details once I’d outed myself on Ophelia’s blog (IIRC).

    Yes, there was a Baptist-hosted conservation outreach event that TJ and I attended as Univ. Alabama grad students to show some live amphibians and reptiles from AL and talk about biodiversity in the Southeast. The hosts had set up “Creation Stations” for the kids to learn about the 7 days of creation according to Genesis. TJ and I quietly snickered about this for a minute or two, away from the ears and eyes of the attendees. Later, while waiting in the line for tasty BBQ, we chatted with a couple of the attendees about EO Wilson’s book “The Creation” and how awesome and relevant it is.

    That’s about it.

    I have no love for religion. I am an evolutionary biology grad student. I was living in Alabama at the time. I don’t like religion being in my face. But I don’t go out of my way to be nasty to friendly people with smiling faces, like all of the nice folks we met at that outreach event. In the words of Jean Kazez, who does stuff like that??

  26. Thank you Jean,
    Modest Proposal meet Low Impact.

  27. Cathy, Right, he lied. Did you think that was in question, somewhere in this thread? I think maybe you’ve only read the last couple of entries, so didn’t see the context.

    The issue we’re discussing is whether it was obvious, from the get-go, and a priori, that he was lying, or whether that only became clear after all of the facts had been unearthed.

    The fact that he was lying is being taken for granted here–nobody’s disputing that.

  28. p.s. Thanks for those details. I always wondered what exactly happened at that meeting. Those are “interesting” details (I say as someone constantly worried about when creationism will get smuggled into my kids’ science classes).

  29. I did read all of the comments before I posted, but I still could not figure out who thinks what.

  30. My general assumption about allegations of misbehaviour is that there is usually some sub-stratum of truth to them. Even when someone does outright deliberately lie, as with Tom Johnson (Cathy, I don’t think anyone doubts that point), they are likely to be weaving in some truth for verisimilitude.

    But most people don’t outright lie. They do, however, make mistakes even at the time – partly because things “happen so fast” – and they distort things in memory. Often, too, rumours that get around turn out to be badly wrong.

    So my assumption when I see an allegation of misbehaviour tends to be along the lines that the person accused very likely did something questionable, or worse, but, particularly if what is alleged is very serious, I start off with a fair bit of skepticism as to whether they are guilty exactly as charged. Sometimes, of course, they are, but in the sorts of workplace disputes, etc., that don’t involve hardened criminals it’s not usually quite like that.

    There’s a large body of academic literature about how people get things wrong. But at a practical level, anyone who has been involved in investigating, defending, or prosecuting claims of workplace misconduct knows how the evidence changes as the process goes on, how many conflicts of recollection there are, how things are usually not exactly how they first seemed once all the evidence is in, etc. I tend to assume that all this is widely known, but I’ve been discovering of late that that’s apparently not so.

  31. I also think TJ’s original story was so outlandish that it should’ve caused everyone to raise eyebrows and wonder. Because again, rare is the non-religious science student who goes out of her way — at a function where she is representing her lab and her university — to be rude and start arguments. Several of these “new atheists” (whatever that’s about) that folks are complaining about have argued again and again that they have no desire to go up to random Christians at friendly functions and start fights, despite all the insisting to the contrary.

  32. Dr. Blackford, I agree. I think the case of Tom Johnson certainly represents a rare extreme (we can hope) where, for reasons still unknown to me, a person has some desire to intentionally grossly misrepresent an event as a personal attack and/or as an attempt to garner popular support for his beliefs (that “new atheists” are bad, in this case). I would hope that most people aren’t walking around carrying that sort of vendetta.

  33. Cathy, The thing is, what I found outlandish was the whole idea of a “conservation” meeting where religion would come up. Even the word “conservation” seemed odd, as it seems to me people talk about “environmentalism” these days, not conservation. Then when I saw the email (in July 2010 I think), I realized that the religion + conservation part of his story was actually true. Getting verification for some of what he said tended to make me think the rest was possible too. I think that’s what went through Chris Mooney’s mind too–I’m pretty sure. He wanted to keep that email confidential, so it was very hard for him (and me) to explain what it was that made TJ at least temporarily seem fairly credible. It was like someone tells you a 7 foot tall man uttered some profanity, and you’re focused on someone being that tall. You then find out yes indeed, there was a 7 foot tall man. The rest of the story starts seeming less doubtful.

  34. I also think TJ’s original story was so outlandish that it should’ve caused everyone to raise eyebrows and wonder. Because again, rare is the non-religious science student who goes out of her way — at a function where she is representing her lab and her university — to be rude and start arguments.

    It’s probably worth mentioning that everybody only has their own professional experiences to draw upon. Not all of us are scientists. Here at TPM, for instance, we’re mostly philosophers or people who stand sort of downwind of philosophy. And (unfortunately enough) there are many well-known and well-respected philosophy departments that embrace a blood sport culture.

    I can think of at least one of the iconic contemporary philosophers who is a bulldog by reputation. Ostensibly, this is the kind of guy who would give the following one-sentence commentary to a paper at the APA: “I don’t know what you’re talking about; nobody here knows what you’re talking about; and you yourself probably don’t know what you’re talking about.”

    I now realize that this kind of professional conduct is, for some folks, unimaginable. Unfortunately, as far as I’m concerned and have experienced, it is both imaginable and actual. So nowadays I’m much more cognizant of the difference between blood sport philosophers and scientists.

  35. Just to echo what Ben is saying, the nearest I’ve experienced to what TJ seems to have claimed to have seen (I didn’t follow the TJ affair until it was pretty much over, so I could be getting stuff wrong here) occurred at a Joint Session of the Aristotelian Society and Mind Association in the UK (probably in 1999? – can’t remember exactly).

    The topic was evolutionary psychology, and although there was no laughing in the faces of people sympathetic to evo psych, there was definitely mockery, derision, laughter, contempt, etc, directed towards the whole discipline. (It was watching this rather unedifying scene, which included a number of gross misrepresentations of evo psych, and Darwinist explanations of human behaviour, more generally, that led to TPM contacting Richard Dawkins and asking him for an interview – which he was kind enough to grant).

  36. “looking for what might be strong in them,”

    “or at least what others might find intellectually attractive,”

    What happens when neither of these things actually motivate the believers in an idea?

  37. Patrick, could you say more about the sort of situation you have in mind? E.g. about the sort of evidence that exists that the individual is not motivated by the stronger or more plausible arguments that are available?

    I see a lot of situations where people are accused of having very unsavoury motivations – with no good evidence, and even when they’ve given an idea of what their actual arguments are. I’ve even been accused like this myself – and not just on one isolated occasion. It’s an easy trap to fall into.

    But say, for example, someone is accused of being motivated by racism for supporting Viewpoint V. Say that Viewpoint V could also be supported on some non-racist and seemingly arguable ground. (Viewpoint V. might be, for example, that it is currently too easy in the relevant jurisdiction to convict people of racist speech offences. Perhaps the offence is a strict liability one, with no mens rea element, and the person concerned is opposed to drafting criminal offences without any mens rea element. That sounds like a respectable position that someone could adopt.)

    This kind of situation actually arises all the time in public debate. How should we respond?

    Well, in some cases we might have independent evidence that the person is a racist. Perhaps the person belongs to the BNP.

    But we may not, and we may even have some reason to believe that the person supports Viewpoint V on the non-racist and seemingly arguable ground (e.g. a principled belief that offences, especially serious ones, should include mens rea as an element).

    What we must not do is brand a person as a racist with the only evidence being that he or she supports Viewpoint V.

  38. Well, just recently, Leah Libresco stated that a strong motivator of her conversion to Catholicism was that she just *felt* like “morality loved her.”

    That’s a stated view, so I’m not imputing anything to her. I don’t think there are any good arguments for Catholicism, but I certainly think there are arguments that are less obviously bad.

    So what does charity demand when, as in that example, someone claims to hold factual beliefs for aesthetic reasons that obviously don’t track truth?

  39. An analogy:

    There are several credibility problems with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion that should cause anyone wondering about its truth to reconsider, each sufficient to cause disbelief in it.

    One is the presence of the historical record of its creation by Czarists, rather than Jews. One is its obvious plagiarism from contemporary political satires published as works of fiction (which happened to not have Jews as a subject). One is that the literary style of Jewish groups never resembled that of the Protocols. One is that the beliefs ascribed to the Jews are obviously not beliefs of Jews. Finally, those beliefs are equally obviously exactly what one would expect anti-Semites to imagine a Jewish cabal would believe.

    Anyone believing in the truth of the Protocols has independently failed to think critically for each point.

    The TJ story shares the last two types of problems with the Protocols. It’s not only an obvious fabrication that does not resemble how one would expect atheist scientists to behave (the second to last point). It’s a non-randomly erroneous story. It’s exactly the kind of lie an accommodationist would mistakenly think was a plausible smear to hang on the Dawkins crowd. Undue belief in it indicates a misunderstanding of the activist atheist mindset that renders suspect accommodationist concerns of what Dawkins’ followers might do, since believers of the story have demonstrated their disconnect with this atheist subgroup’s mindset.

  40. Patrick, I think I see the problem. But really, if that’s all she said I’m not sure that her views are even worth much discussion! Why not discuss any of the many other people who have actually put arguments?

    However, my memory was that she did, somewhere amongst it, actually put some kind of moral argument for the existence of God. I may be misremembering, as we all so often do. But could she, perhaps, have said something along the lines of:

    P1. An objective moral order exists.
    P2. An objective moral order cannot exist unless God exists.
    C. God exists.

    This is deductively valid, though P2. might need some rewording to make that absolutely clear (P2., as written, entails “If an objective moral order exists then God exists” … and from there it’s a simple modus ponens argument).

    If this were, indeed, her argument, and I wanted to discuss (in a serious way) her conversion to Catholicism, I’d discuss her actual argument, perhaps patched up to fix any small errors that don’t really affect what she is getting at.

    It might then be worthwhile discussing what P1. even means, whether it is plausible (depending on what it means), whether P2. is at all plausible, perhaps why many people find such premises attractive even though, at the end of the day, their actual truth might be very doubtful. And so on.

    I would not feel the need to discuss other arguments for the existence of God that I, personally, might find more impressive, but which she hasn’t actually raised and which don’t seem to have been behind her decision.

    So, say I consider arguments based on the (alleged) fine tuning of the cosmological constants more impressive than moral arguments. I wouldn’t feel the need to go off and discuss fine-tuning arguments, just in case they influenced her despite the fact that she hasn’t mentioned them.

    But nor would I impute bad faith to her. I wouldn’t, for example, say, “She must have been a Catholic all along, and was just playing a trick on us.” Nor would I say, “She obviously joined the Catholic Church because she’s a self-hating woman, so she looked around to join the most misogynistic institution she could find.” Nor would I say, “She’s an apologist for pedophilia.” If I were at all inclined to make these sorts of character-trashing comments, I’d at least need to suggest some further reasons to support them.

  41. Russell and Patrick:
    Looked at another way Leah Libresco’s views are analogous to those of Plato i.e. all good is as a result of participation in the Good. Condescension light or heavy may be misplaced.

  42. First, to get the details right- she does believe in an objective moral order. But she’s a little more philosophically trained than the average theist, and recognizes that an objective moral order doesn’t get you to an anthropomorphized God-being. But her unshakable inner conviction that “morality loves her?” Seems to do the trick, apparently.

    So this belief of hers is 1) publicly asserted, repeatedly, in the face of other people laughing at her for it, and 2) directly related to the conclusions she draws. I’m going to conclude from this that she actually holds it.

    Does that change your answer in any way?

    Because as of right now, I think there are MASSIVE problems with your answer. Particularly this part:

    “Why not discuss any of the many other people who have actually put arguments?”

    Because if that’s the position you’re going to take, you’re just telling me that the real-world debate between religion and rationalism is outside your remit as a philosopher. If your system of “proper discourse” doesn’t accept the input of the things people I know actually believe, then I need a different system.

  43. Patrick, that last paragraph sounds to me like a very strange thing to say. Where did I ever say that debate, real-world or otherwise, between religion and rationalism is outside my remit (or yours, if it comes to that) as a philosopher?

    You asked me what one should say about this specific person who has a specific view. I gave you a response in good faith. My response was to the effect that her view, as you described it, doesn’t sound like it has enough substance to be worth much discussion. That’s entirely up to you of course, you can discuss what you like, but you did ask me for my opinion on this particular case.

    Where did I say that we shouldn’t discuss issues relating to the real-world debate between religion and philosophy? In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve written an enormous amount on exactly that subject, and have even co-edited a moderately important book largely on the subject (50 VOICES OF DISBELIEF). But my opinion, which you asked me for, was that this particular person, from what you told me, doesn’t sound like a high priority. But if she’s somehow important in your life, or in debates that you’re caught up in, of course you get to act on that fact. I’m not here to censor you.

    This is the kind of thing that can get annoying. Someone asks me for my opinion, based on certain information, on a narrow topic, and next thing I’m being accused of holding a crazy view, on something much wider, that is remote from anything I have ever said or even thought.

  44. Are you kidding me? At your request I explicitly used her as an example of someone who held a view for non-intellectual reasons. I get to generalize from your response to other similar circumstances; that’s how this works.

    “Formal study of philosophy does have the merit of forcing people to examine opposing ideas with charity – looking for what might be strong in them, or at least what others might find intellectually attractive, rather than for an absurd interpretation or for weaknesses around the edges – and to respond in a way that treats ideas on their intellectual merits rather than insulting, smearing, vilifying, shaming, or even just plain pigeon-holing opponents.”

    Ok, so I asked about situations where the things you say formal study of philosophy encourages you to address are not relevant to the people you’re addressing.

    You responded that, in the example given, I shouldn’t talk to those people. “Why not discuss any of the many other people who have actually put arguments?”

    So… formal study of philosophy teaches me to ignore the things that are important to my interlocutors. That’s not a virtue.

    Are you under some mistaken impression that belief in factual claims for aesthetic reasons is rare? If your theory of religious discourse can’t handle the input of someone who believes that beautiful sunsets prove Jesus, then its not helpful to the debate at hand.

  45. Patrick, you are getting very close to being banned from this blog if you continue to take such a hostile tone (after my friendly response to your initial questions). I am happy to have a civil, thoughtful discussion with you, but I will not reply to the substance of comments like the last two from you. You are doing (admittedly in a pretty mild way so far) exactly what this blog post was complaining about – shouting, misrepresenting, going to a meta level and making the discussion personal, etc. You keep attributing to me views that I did not express and don’t hold. That makes civil conversation impossible.

    You won’t get another warning.

  46. I see the problem as going the other direction.

    I posted about the logical consequence of combining two statements you’ve made (both of which appear to be representative of your overall argument), one in the OP, and one in direct response to a question about the OP.

    In response you argued that I unfairly attributed to you a position you don’t actually hold. Well, right. I attributed a logical consequence (as it seems to me) of two positions you actually hold (based on quoted material) to your arguments in this thread.

    “if that’s the position you’re going to take, you’re just telling me that…” was a connector between quoted material, from you (eg, the position you took) and the conclusion I think follows, for reasons that I’ve explained.

    You took it as a personal attack and fired back. I took the bait, in terms of tone, although I did limit myself to speaking about the subject matter under discussion. Whatever, I guess. Maybe you feel attacked, but I feel like my legitimate question is being being blown off in favor of speculation about my motives.

  47. I think if Russell wants to maintain the “pro-charity” line, then Libresco’s case sounds like a good test case. On my reading, Patrick has lately pointed out that the decision not to take Libresco’s view seriously is inconsistent with the demand that we go around looking for what might be intellectually strong in her view. And that sounds right to me — surely, charity presupposes engagement!

    I find it hard to empathize with the view attributed to Libresco. It would take some work to put myself in her shoes, and I’m not sure I know where to begin. (I know what morality is, and I am sure that love/sympathy is vital to it; but, that said, the connection to Catholicism escapes me.) So if I tried to make her views stronger by my lights, then I might very well come up with arguments that she would reject. Since charity asks me to interpret her at her strongest given the available information, and I don’t know how to do that without illicitly adding a lot of my own views into her own, then that indicates that charity is asking me to do something that I ought not do.

    So much the worse for charity, then.

  48. Look, let’s try to keep this under control (and as nice as possible). Ask your question again – with whatever detail you think is necessary to try to avoid misunderstandings. It actually looks like I misunderstood the question the first time, though I gave an answer in good faith to what I understood the question to be.

  49. ^That was addressed to Patrick.

  50. Russell and BLS Nelson:
    Refresh your Plato’s Republic (Book VI). As to what that has to do with Catholicism consider Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Dionysius the Areopagite, Aquinas etc. Strange waters to you I know but that’s where Libresco is swimming.

    Now, that which imparts truth to the known and the power of knowing to the knower is what I would have you term the idea of good, and this you will deem to be the cause of science, and of truth in so far as the latter becomes the subject of knowledge; beautiful too, as are both truth and knowledge, you will be right in esteeming this other nature as more beautiful than either; and, as in the previous instance, light and sight may be truly said to be like the sun, and yet not to be the sun, so in this other sphere, science and truth may be deemed to be like the good, but not the good; the good has a place of honour yet higher.

  51. Although that passage was edifying, I confess finding it difficult to empathize with Plato, too. I think I know what good things are, and I see no reason to think the good is a one-size-fits-all truth-maker.

    Anyway, I accept your point, which is that I’m hardly familiar at all with ancient theology or Neoplatonism. I’m just playing along with Patrick’s example in order to show the point he was making (and I thought he was making it pretty well).

  52. I’m still lost as to the point he was making. Originally, I thought his problem was that he might have to address the strongest argument available to Libresco, as opposed to the most charitable interpretation of what she was probably trying to say. But I obviously misunderstood.

    I still think that if there’s some reason for us to address what Libresco is saying, even though it doesn’t sound, off-hand, like it has much intellectual substance – it’s an influential view, or it will appeal to the emotions of her readership, or we find ourselves involved in debate with her already, or it actually has more substance than is immediately apparent, or whatever it is – that we should do so with whatever seems to be the appropriate level of charity (or “fidelity” in your sense, Ben, if you want to stick with that word).

    E.g., we at least don’t strawman her position or carp at inessential weaknesses of expression or formulation, or personally insult her, or vilify her in an attempt to destroy her credibility (e.g. in the ways I mentioned in comment upthread). None of this excludes satire (if she’s prominent enough to be worth satirising), statements of opposition (likewise), reductio ad absurdum arguments (aimed at what appears to be her real position, not one falsely attributed to her), trying to get her into trouble with her employer, etc. I’m still not sure what the objection to all that is supposed to be, but perhaps Patrick will come back and explain it.

  53. Greetings to all. In case you don’t recognize the name, I am the author the “curious case” blog post which culminated in the exposure of “Tom Johnson”.

    Jean, few thought that Mooney ever lied; the general perception was only that his biases got the best of him. That was certainly my assessment all along.

    While uncharitableness toward Mooney was widespread and sometimes over the top, he regularly did things to contribute to it, though sometimes unintentionally. For instance his initial response to TJ’s confession of puppeting at the Intersection was:

    “I am shocked by this, and appalled. William/”Tom Johnson” directed me the website of specific person, a Ph.D. candidate at a reputable university.”

    Notice there is no mention of an email; no mention that he did any real verification. Only that TJ showed him a website of someone.

    Those who thought Mooney’s acceptance of TJ’s story was the result of bias were apt to take the literal meaning of the message. It fit the narrative perfectly: here was a person who not only accepted TJ’s outlandish tale, but “verified” TJ’s identity by clicking on a link that TJ gave him. That’s what Mooney literally just told us.

    In his first post on the issue, Mooney said that he exchanged emails with TJ, but he did not mention it was a university email or otherwise indicate that he went through “official” channels. The wording suggested or allowed the possibility that TJ used a Yahoo account or some such. Indeed the comments which followed pointed this out. When Mooney added a comment two hours later, he ignored these questions.

    The next day Mooney posted about sock puppets, but again did not clarify the verification issue. It wasn’t until two days after the story broke that we learned that he indeed checked TJ’s identity through official means.

    This is an interesting lesson on perspective and charity. Those with anti-Mooney sentiments were led up the garden path, with each step confirming the narrative that Mooney’s bias overrode his critical faculties.

    But there’s still more to it. I didn’t know who Mooney was until after I wrote the blog post, and as events unfolded I found him to be extremely biased or at best inscrutable. To wit:

    * When I read old posts at the Intersection, I was amazed at the volume of comments coming from TJ’s puppets, and even more amazed that Mooney was never suspicious. The puppeting was completely obvious, and it wasn’t just because I was looking for it. At least one commenter noticed back in 2009,

    “Erm, Bilbo, it’s obvious that you’re using 3 different identities here.”

    I only looked at a small portion of TJ’s enormous history there; perhaps others had caught on as well.

    * Just before TJ confessed to his connection with the Intersection (TJ was not called TJ at that point), a comment was left at the Intersection asking to check IPs for puppeting, as we were already suspicious of the connection.The response was a non-answer that threw up smoke:

    “It’s actually quite difficult to figure out when someone is sock puppeting. Multiple users can share the same IP, depending on where they are posting from.”

    That’s just wrong — it is easily figured out. Why the stonewalling, and why the bogus explanation? This made me very suspicious, and I emailed TJ saying that I planned to pursue the lead. TJ confessed the next day. Note if he hadn’t confessed then the TJ revelations may have never come to light since M&K could have continued stonewalling requests for puppeting checks.

    * Why did Mooney ban Ophelia? Furthermore, any comment on his blog that contained the word “ophelia” was automatically blocked. That’s why you see references to “halo pie” (an acronym) there.

    * Why did Mooney only share the evidence (TJ’s identity plus whatever else) with TB and Jean? He rejected suggestions to include a prominent skeptical person. This didn’t make sense at all. He had an easy way to quell suspicions but wouldn’t take it.

    * When Mooney elevated TJ’s story to a separate post, he had not contacted TJ. When Mooney recounted this event after TJ’s confession, he appeared to use clever wording to hide this fact. That is, he seemed to imply that he emailed TJ and then elevated the story, but the actual order of events is reversed.

    * Five days after the TJ revelations, Mooney wrote an atrocious hit piece on Ophelia. The background was that TB had called her a liar on Mooney’s blog, and Ophelia was unable to respond because she was banned. In Ophelia’s complaint she accidentally said “bilbo” (one of TJ’s puppets) instead of “TB”. Mooney linked to the post in question and said, “See! Haha! Bilbo isn’t even there!” (not literally his words). It’s amazing because he links to TB’s accusation of lying. Comments on the hit piece were disabled.

    The last point tipped the scale in my perception of Mooney, as it went far past bias into something else.

    For good measure I will mention some bias on the other side. After TJ confessed, there were two separate issues: (1) Did Mooney verify TJ’s identity in a non-stupid manner, that is, other than just clicking on a website or emailing a Yahoo account? (2) Was there evidence that TJ’s story is not a fabrication?

    When (1) was refuted, the anti-Mooney faction seamlessly shifted to (2). There should have been apologies for assuming (1), regardless of the false positives that I outlined above. But there were no apologies at all, from what I remember. Everyone just went to (2) without blinking.

  54. Okay, but this is not really what the post is about. The comment about Tom Johnson in the original post was an almost parenthetical concession that some people do lie, as in deliberately tell falsehoods to deceive. It was mentioned for completeness.

    But part of the point of the post is that this is unusual, and that we should not normally accuse people of outright lying (as opposed to all the other things that people do unconsciously or semi-consciously, or that influence them). So can we please avoid getting bogged down in who was right or wromg, or clever or gullible, or whatever, in the Tom Johnson episode? We’ve all moved on anyway, interesting though it all was.

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