Is there an Obligation of Self-Defense

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It is generally accepted that people have a moral right to self-defense. That is, if someone is unjustly attacked or threatened, then it is morally acceptable for her to act in her own self-protection. While there are moral limits on the actions a person may take, violence is generally considered morally acceptable in the right condition.

This right to self-defense does seem to provide a philosophical foundation for the right to the means of self-defense. After all, as Hobbes argued, a right without the means to exercise that right is effectively no right at all. Not surprisingly, I consider the right to own weapons to be grounded on the right of self-defense. However, my concern here is not with the right of self-defense. Rather, I will focus on the question of whether or not there is an obligation of self-defense.

The right to self-defense (if there is such a right) gives a person the liberty to protect herself. If it is only a liberty, then the person has the right to not act in self-defense and thus be a perfect victim. A person might, of course, elect to do so for practical reasons (perhaps to avoid a worse harm) or for moral reasons (perhaps from a commitment to pacifism). However, if there is an obligation of self-defense, then failing to act on this obligation would seem to be a moral failing. The obvious challenge is to show that there is such an obligation.

On the face of it, it would seem that self-defense is merely a liberty. However, some consideration of the matter will suggest that this is not so obvious.  In the Leviathan, Hobbes presents what he takes to be the Law of Nature (lex naturalis): “a precept or general rule, found by reason, that forbids a man to do what is destructive of his life or takes away the means of preserving it and to omit that by which he thinks it may be best preserved.” Hobbes goes on to note that “right consists in liberty to do or to forbear” and “law determines and binds.” If Hobbes is correct, then people would seem to have both a right and an obligation to self-defense.

John Locke and Thomas Aquinas also contend that life is to be preserved and if they are right, then this would seem to impose an obligation of self-defense. Of course, this notion could be countered by contending that all it requires is for a person to seek protection from possible threats and doing so could involve relying on the protection of others (typically the state) rather than one’s self. However, there are at least three arguments against this.

The first is a practical argument. While the modern Western state projects its coercive force and spying eyes into society, the state’s agents cannot (yet) observe all that occurs nor can they always be close at hand in times of danger. As such, relying solely on the state would seem to put a person at risk—after all, he would be helpless in the face of danger. If a person relies on other individuals, then unless she is guarded at all times, then she also faces the real risk of being a helpless victim. This would, at the very least, seem imprudent.

This argument can be used as the basis for a moral argument. If a person is morally obligated to preserve life (including his own) and the arms of others cannot be reliably depended on, then it would seem that she would have an obligation of self-defense.

The third argument is also a moral argument. One favorite joke of some folks who carry concealed weapons is to respond, when asked why they carry a gun, with the witty remark “because cops are too heavy.” While this is humor, it does point towards an important moral concern regarding relying on others.

A person who relies on the protection of others is expecting those people to risk being hurt or killed to protect her. In the case of those who are incapable of acting in effective self-defense, this can be a morally acceptable situation. After all, it is reasonable for infants and the badly injured to rely on the protection of others since they cannot act in their own defense.  However, a person who could be competent in self-defense but declines to do so in favor of expecting others to die for her would seem to be a morally selfish person. As such, it would seem that people have an obligation of self-defense—at least if they wish to avoid being parasites.

An obvious counter is that people do rely on others for self-defense. After all, civilians wisely allow the police and military to handle armed threats whenever possible. Since the police and military are armed and trained for such tasks, it makes sense practically and morally to rely on them.

However, as noted in the first argument, a person will not always be under the watchful protection of others. Even if others are available to risk themselves, there is still the moral concern regarding of expecting others to take risks to protect one when one is not willing to do the same for himself. That seems to be cowardice and selfishness and thus morally reprehensible. This is not, of course, to say that accepting the protection of the police and military is always a moral failing—however, a person must be willing to accept the obligation of self-defense and not rely entirely on others.

This raises the matter of the extent to which a person is obligated to be competent at self-defense and when it would be acceptable to rely on others in this matter. It would, of course, be an unreasonable expectation to morally require that people train for hours each day in self-defense. However, it does seem reasonable to expect that people become at least competent at protecting themselves, thus being able to at least act on the obligation of self-preservation with some chance of success. This obligation of self-preservation would also seem to obligate people to maintain a degree of physical fitness and health, but that is a matter for another time.

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95 Comments.

  1. My first reaction to this is to note that the capability of self-defense permits an increase in liberty to act, in as much as a relative freedom from fear allows one to be pro-active in pursuing personal goals that might be sharply limited either by the fact of harms or the fear of harms where help may not be readily available. For example, two of my children have found relief from debilitating anxieties in taking martial arts classes. That suggests the possibility that in a society that holds personal liberty in high regard there may actually be an implied obligation to self defense.

  2. This argument demonstrates the often huge divide between hypothetical or philosophical questions and reality because any person or society so completely preoccupied with self-defense is by definition and in any practical sense, paranoid. It is reasonable to say that everyone has the right to protect their life, yes: but when that is reduced to the absurd, you have trouble. It becomes a matter of nitpicking, as in quality of life, an important consideration, but dangerous in the question of self-defense. As in, “my neighbor’s loud music was affecting my quality of life, so I shot him”. Or, “he looked of kind of funny, behavior was odd, so I thought he meant to hurt me”, etc.. People who have lost faith in society’s ability to protect them are either failed in some way, or their society is. Traditionally, women have
    not been given protection from men, husbands or boyfriends, and many have been and still are killed and injured. This problem is grounded in unjust and even cruel attitudes about male/female relationships that societies have nurtured in their laws and religious institutions. The urgency of the question of self defense points to the need to change these attitudes both in domestic situations and in relationships between and within states. The imperialistic and hegemonic bent of international politics sets the tone: what is moral is determined by the stronger, or winners .Extreme economic disparity and competition sets the same negative standards and projects the idea that weak is bad, and “every person for him/herself” is actually moral!!!

  3. “It would, of course, be an unreasonable expectation to morally require that people train for hours each day in self-defense. However, it does seem reasonable to expect that people become at least competent at protecting themselves”

    It is by no means clear to me that someone can become competent at protecting themselves without great effort. Given that a criminal is likely to expend significant effort in preparing himself to commit a crime (e.g. a lifetime of getting into fights and winning), a victim would need to do better.

  4. Mike, still clingin’ to that gun of yours….Locke, Hobbes, and double barrel.

    Former Navy Seal sniper Chris Kyle shot dead at Texas gun range…….If only he had had a gun…..If only he had been trained in self-defense.

    “However, as noted in the first argument, a person will not always be under the watchful protection of others. ”

    Ronald Reagan was under the watchful protection of others. John Hinckley was still able to shoot him. In fact all the American presidents who have been shot have been under the watchful eyes of others.

    Had Garfield, Lincoln, McKinley, Kennedy, Reagan been packin’ heat, would they still have been shot? POTUS the most dangerous job in the world.

    Just as an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, is not a sound basis for law and justice, neither is a gun that much use defending against a gun.

    I think it’s uncontroversial to say guns do actually kill people. If a person is under an obligation to defend themselves, what do they do. Do they go the path of escalation – they arm themselves – with a gun or other weapon. Or do they take the other path, and set about removing the threat of weapons from the environment. Which statistically works – what does the science say?

    In the UK you are not allowed arm yourself with a gun for self-defense. In the UK there have been 35 gun deaths in the last year. In the US, where you are allowed carry a gun like a cowboy, there have been over 12,000 gun related homicides, over 20,000 serious gun injuries, and thousands of suicide by gun. The numbers speak for themselves really.

    “One favorite joke of some folks who carry concealed weapons is to respond, when asked why they carry a gun, with the witty remark “because cops are too heavy.” While this is humor, it does point towards an important moral concern regarding relying on others.”

    I would be concerned, that guy is a little bit of a nut. That we might have a few drinks. I’ll make a joke he takes objection to, and then he may shoot me. Someone carrying a gun in public, strikes me as paranoid, a little on edge, a little crazy. A British comedian used to make a joke, that while he was on tour in the US, if he was heckled, instead of giving a smart answer back he’d say “sorry..please, don’t shoot me”. There is a serious side to that. A friend was in a bar in Kentucky a few months back. He gets in an argument with a drunken loony – and at certain point he see the loony is carrying a gun.

    The law abiding gun owner, carrying a gun for the defense of the good and the innocent doesn’t really hold. The NRA, whose supporters will believe anything ….absolutely anything, have been telling fibs about an explosion in rape and violence in the UK since 1998. This just isn’t true. But an interesting story. An American friend of mine was raped at gun point. The attacker was known to her. She called the police when she escaped. The police arrived at the rapists house. Yes, he had a gun, a legally held gun for “self-defense”. Now, at this point, in Europe you’re going to jail; a hard time, for a long time. This is not what happened. He claimed the sex was consensual, and they had a row afterwards. Since there were no signs of “legitimate rape” he was only charged with a misdemeanor. And then my friend finds out, he’s done this before. And he will probably do it again. But they won’t take his gun.

    Unless someone has committed a crime in the US, there is nothing to prohibit them from purchasing a gun if they have evil intentions. No one has a defense against someone with a clean record purchasing a small arsenal for the purpose of committing and atrocity, or that may fall into the wrong hands. Adam Lanza used legally owned weapons. Was it Nancy Lanza’s fault she didn’t sleep with a gun on under her pillow, and then be faster off the draw then her son.

    Escalation does not work. knifes are another problem. Having a knife will not defend you against a knife. I have seen knife attacks, and the person is usually stabbed several times before anyone even sees the blade. Escalation in knife carrying leads to an escalation in knife deaths. As someone I know who has lost family members to knife violence explained to me. The young men in her area, as a result of knife threats, began carrying knifes. These were hotheaded and stupid young men. The result was instead of defending themselves they killed each other – often close friends. No feuds, just silly spats that spiraled out of control – literally in a seconds – hot headed young men will have fights over nothing. Of a small group of young men, six died in two years – the knife incidents led to an escalation in knife carrying, with led to an escalation in death.

    I know carrying a knife will be no defense against a knife attack. So all I can do in terms of self-defense – is do my bit to encourage the penalties for knife carrying are high, which is the best deterrent.

  5. Dennis Sceviour

    A question raised here is whether the state can claim that people have no right to defend themselves. Such a claim may be considered tyrannical and dictatorial. The first question then is whether people have an obligation to defend themselves against a repressive state. The answer provided by the second amendment is yes.

    “This obligation of self-preservation would also seem to obligate people to maintain a degree of physical fitness and health…” is an interesting observation. One could go all the way back to Aristotle and the training of Greek youths for comparisons. However, a more recent issue of self-defense that needs some review is the Boy Scout movement started by Lord Baden-Powell in the last century. Scouting was intended, like the re-introduction of the Olympics, as a revival of ancient Greek methods of turning children into soldiers. The benefits of personal self-defense are obvious. There is membership in an organized group. There are knives and weapons that can be carried. There is marching. The Boy Scout movement was quickly adapted by the German state that required all their children to enter the Hitler youth. Then, events turn full circle and the thing that was to benefit the German state became a part of its demise. The point is that self-defense methods are useful until abused by the state.

    Can a person rely on the state for protection? The answer is no. The state only looks after itself. The self-interest of state may have a side effect by removing those aggressive persons who also attack state representatives, but the issue looks too complex to come to any significant conclusion. The percentage may be very low, and does not justify the state claiming it is protecting people by protecting itself. On the other hand, state self-preservation can be useful when dealing with aggressive foreign interests.

    Another question is whether people have an obligation to defend themselves against an attack instigated by a person who is not a representative of the state. Here, the word obligation does not seem to apply. The article tries to use arguments from John Locke and Thomas Aquinas that preservation of life would imply an obligation of self-defense. These obligatory arguments tend to be founded in old-world concepts such as religious immortality, and they pay no attention to either consequentialism or moral particularity.

    “While there are moral limits on the actions a person may take…” for self-defense is an important and neglected topic. There is an interesting approach to considering the moral limits. In the last century, Professor Ueshiba from Japan developed a system of self-defense called Aikido. It is typical for Japanese martial arts instructors to prefer teaching martial arts only to university students. This also has the effect of making martial-arts look like secret knowledge. One of the purposes of Aikido was to demonstrate that self-defense could be reduced to the simplicity of neutralization of attack. That is, there is no need to harm an attacker. Once this philosophy is accepted, then a person can apply it to daily life and larger political issues.

    The issue of relying on others (and not the state) for self-defense does not seem that important, or that it does not fall under the category of state and obligation. The community has always protected children, everywhere. Depending on the culture, the elderly can also receive favoritism and can rely on others for self-defense. However, in some cultures, the elderly do not have the status of deserving protection. That issue could be addressed in a separate article about abusive family relationships.

  6. Julian,

    I’ve taught self-defense classes and also have taught people how to shoot. While getting a high level of combat skill requires extensive training (years), getting someone from being uneducated in self-defense to a level at which they can engage in some basic defense can be done fairly quickly. To use an obvious analogy, I could get an average person trained to complete a 5K fairly quickly, but it would take a lot of effort to get that person to the point where s/he’d be taking home trophies.

    While some criminals are “combat criminals”, people often face threats from folks who are not skilled at combat. As such, some basic training could be very useful. After all, most defensive training is not about making a person a killing machine, rather it is about teaching them how to avoid and evade trouble-or at least put up some resistance so they can still be alive when the police arrive. I’ve only had to actually physically defend myself twice-and they were very short encounters (once a person attacked me while I was on a run-I decisively blocked his roundhouse swing and he ran away, rather scared and yelling for me not to hurt him). Mostly I rely on avoiding problem situations.

  7. Lee,

    Capability in self-defense does just that. While a person should not be overconfident or foolish, knowing that one is not a mere helpless target does help a great deal. I’m careful at all times, but not afraid (nor foolish).

  8. JMRC,

    Being armed, as you note, is not a perfect defense. And the capacity for quick and effective violence that weapons provide can be lethal when combined with (as you note) poor emotional control, evil, or mental illness. People provide the motives and the weapons provide an easier means than killing with one’s own hands.

    Interestingly, the statistics for people killed with guns (by police or civilians) while they were committing crimes often do not enter into the discussion. I have heard folks claim that people who have guns are more likely to hurt themselves or others by accident than they are to save themselves from an attacker. If so, then guns would not be a wise choice for one who wishes to avoid being harmed.Because of the harms, then perhaps guns should be banned.

    Of course, allowing people to own cars would, by this sort of principle, also be a bad idea-people driving cars kill more people than do people firing guns (even in the US). As such, if we justify getting rid of weapons on the basis of the harm they do, then cars should go. As should unhealthy food, tobacco and alcohol. Plus lots of other stuff.

    I’d be fine with all this. I don’t smoke, I have one drink a week, I can run long distances carrying moderate loads, and I am a large male who has decades of training in unarmed combat. I’d do just fine in such a world. Others might not be happy with it, but they would be safer.

  9. Mike, there are some serious problems philosophically with your argument (or lack of argument). If the point of philosophical thinking is to arrive at the best answer, then the first step is to leave your prejudices out of the argument and consider all possible solutions. You have failed to do this, as is clear in the responses to criticism you have penned.
    Your argument that we do have an obligation with regard to self defence is too narrow. You must start with an argument supporting the notion that we have to preserve life (as Hobbes, Locke and Aquinas more clearly put it). It seems clear we do.
    A proper philosophical argument would then examine the ways in which all societies and individuals have protected themselves from harm and preserved life. Once you have studied those various efforts it would be prudent to make a rational decision on which of those societies seems to have done the best job of preserving life (from all the indignities possible).
    At this point it would become clear that your notion of self defence and preserving life (as is currently being promoted by the right to bear arms crowd, the NRA and you) is archaic and not in fact the best way to preserve life. JMRC clearly listed several other places where life is better preserved. Your notion of self defence is not a contributor to those society’s higher (than the US) level of personal and group security.
    It is then clear that the way that preservation of life has been practiced in the US is not the best way. Part of that way of preserving life has been the “right to bear arms” as loosely interpreted by the NRA (as opposed to true constitutional scholars). Therefore the NRA interpretation (and yours), and the resulting argument is likely a bad argument for the best way to fulfill the obligation that each of us, and therefore society, has to preserve life.

  10. The possibilities of needing a weapon for self-defense seem remote.

    I’ve spent years (I’m 66) walking the streets, having no car, on 3 continents and I’ve been robbed twice by armed youths. I quickly and politely handed over my money in both cases and calmly asked them to let me keep my papers, which they did.

    No one likes to lose money, but neither robbery was a trauma and if I had resisted, it could have been worse.

    On the other hand, I’ve been robbed by banks, internet companies, telephone companies, real estate companies, pension fund operators, dental clinics, supermarkets and so many other institutions with a respectable fachade.

    I don’t think that my experience of being robbed more frequently and for more money by corporate criminals than by street gangs is unique and I suggest that more emphasis be given to defending the common person against thieves with a respectable fachade and expensive suits than against those with their hair cut like football players.

  11. GJDavis,

    “Your argument that we do have an obligation with regard to self defence is too narrow. You must start with an argument supporting the notion that we have to preserve life (as Hobbes, Locke and Aquinas more clearly put it). It seems clear we do.”

    You’ll note that I do start with that: “In the Leviathan, Hobbes presents what he takes to be the Law of Nature (lex naturalis): “a precept or general rule, found by reason, that forbids a man to do what is destructive of his life or takes away the means of preserving it and to omit that by which he thinks it may be best preserved…John Locke and Thomas Aquinas also contend that life is to be preserved and if they are right, then this would seem to impose an obligation of self-defense.”

    “A proper philosophical argument would then examine the ways in which all societies and individuals have protected themselves from harm and preserved life. Once you have studied those various efforts it would be prudent to make a rational decision on which of those societies seems to have done the best job of preserving life (from all the indignities possible).”

    You’ll also note that I do consider this: “John Locke and Thomas Aquinas also contend that life is to be preserved and if they are right, then this would seem to impose an obligation of self-defense. Of course, this notion could be countered by contending that all it requires is for a person to seek protection from possible threats and doing so could involve relying on the protection of others (typically the state) rather than one’s self.”

    “At this point it would become clear that your notion of self defence and preserving life (as is currently being promoted by the right to bear arms crowd, the NRA and you) is archaic and not in fact the best way to preserve life. JMRC clearly listed several other places where life is better preserved. Your notion of self defence is not a contributor to those society’s higher (than the US) level of personal and group security.”

    This is, of course, a factual matter. In the US, this would require determining the effect of self-defense using weapons as well as their deterrence value and weigh that against the cost of having guns. Naturally, a proper calculation would require estimating the effect of removing guns-after all, if people would (for example) just commit harms using other means, then the removal of guns would only change the causal chain and not the significant effects.

    “It is then clear that the way that preservation of life has been practiced in the US is not the best way. Part of that way of preserving life has been the “right to bear arms” as loosely interpreted by the NRA (as opposed to true constitutional scholars). Therefore the NRA interpretation (and yours), and the resulting argument is likely a bad argument for the best way to fulfill the obligation that each of us, and therefore society, has to preserve life.”

    Like Locke and Hobbes I prefer the state of society as a means of survival. However, like Locke I note that we cannot always be under the protection of the state.

    Naturally, if it can be shown that being rid of guns would result in a better world, then I would be for it. I’ve never raised a gun against anyone else and would prefer to go my whole life without ever doing so. Unlike the more zealous NRA members, I do not have a zealous devotion to guns and would do without them if doing so would actually make a better world. I’d also be happy to see the use of personal cars restricted-many people die for what generally amounts to a mere convenience.

  12. Swallerstein,

    True-most of us get robbed by perfectly legal means and we are, by in large, ill equipped to defend against their actions.

    There are, of course, cases in which people have saved themselves by the use of weapons. Also, we do rely on armed people to protect us (the police and the military)-so we do seem to accept that we need armed protection. One could argue that we are merely exercising our right to armed self defense by the use of armed people rather than arming ourselves. But, weapons are still in the picture and are still there to protect (or kill) us. So it would mainly seem to be a matter of who will be defending us rather than a matter of whether or not there will be weapons available to the defenders.

  13. I say: “A proper philosophical argument would then examine the ways in which all societies and individuals have protected themselves from harm and preserved life. Once you have studied those various efforts it would be prudent to make a rational decision on which of those societies seems to have done the best job of preserving life (from all the indignities possible).”

    You say: “You’ll also note that I do consider this: “John Locke and Thomas Aquinas also contend that life is to be preserved and if they are right, then this would seem to impose an obligation of self-defense. Of course, this notion could be countered by contending that all it requires is for a person to seek protection from possible threats and doing so could involve relying on the protection of others (typically the state) rather than one’s self.” But infact you don’t compare any other society’s ways of preserving life.

    I said that “At this point it would become clear that your notion of self defence and preserving life (as is currently being promoted by the right to bear arms crowd, the NRA and you) is archaic and not in fact the best way to preserve life.”

    You replied with: ” This is, of course, a factual matter. In the US, this would require determining the effect of self-defense using weapons… yadda yadda yadda” But the simple fact is that there is less threat to a citizen’s life almost everywhere else in the civilized world. The US apparently has it wrong.

    Granted the current situation in the US is hard to reverse, but that was never part of the argument. We were simply discussing the right way to meet the obligation of preservation of life.

    You said: “Like Locke and Hobbes I prefer the state of society as a means of survival.” That doesn’t make any sense to me. What do you mean?

    You said: “Naturally, if it can be shown that being rid of guns would result in a better world, then I would be for it”. It has been shown. Decisively! Most civilized countries around the world are safer from violence by guns than the US. Not by getting rid of guns (that was never the gist), but by sensible gun control laws regarding the use and possession of a reasonable amount of sensible guns.

    Step away from your preconceived and encultured notions about your “right to bear arms” and protection against tyrannical governments and think about the question with no baggage. Try not to think like an American.

    Clearly the US position on firearms needs some adjustment.

    PS Full disclosure: Although I am not American, I am a firearms owner. I also spent 30 years in the military. I lived for several years in Colorado. I am “gun smart.”

  14. “Hobbes goes on to note that “right consists in liberty to do or to forbear” and “law determines and binds.” If Hobbes is correct, then people would seem to have both a right and an obligation to self-defense.”

    I imagine I’m missing something but from the passage cited, Hobbes seems to (me to) be saying that right consists in liberty to do x or not do x and that this is incompatible with having an obligation to (not) do x:

    “..‘right’ consisteth in liberty to do or to forbear, whereas ‘law’ determineth and bindeth to one of them; so that law and right differ as much as obligation and liberty; which in one and the same matter are inconsistent.”

  15. Mike:

    When I recall the 2 times when I was robbed by people with weapons on the street, I’m genuinely happy that no one was harmed, neither me nor the young men who robbed me.

    If the police had intervened, perhaps the young men would have been harmed or perhaps they would have harmed a police officer.

    That would have been tragic.

    The money which I lost is much less important to me, especially when I think of it with the distance of years, than the possibility of another person, even a robber, being harmed.

    The phrase “the distance of years” is the key here. Anyone, if robbed or even frustrated, will feel like striking back or even killing, but so many situations, which given the presence of arms, lead to blood, if treated with a sense of perspective and humor,
    are only passing anecdotes.

    I’m not a pacifist and there are occasions when armed police are necessary, but in most tense life situations, a bit of psychology and a calm spirit works better.

    Rather than training people in self-defense and the use of arms, it would be better to train them in basic psychology and in maintaining their calm in dangerous situations.

    My son was bothered by bullies in his school. I gave him the usual advice, which my father had given me: Hit back as hard you can. Every bully is a coward.

    However, my son did not want to fight back and so we studied the psychology of bullies together, their use of space and how to anticipate problems. Instead of explaining that bullies are cowards, I explained to him that bullies think more slowly and have more primitive reasoning processes than he does and that it is not difficult to guess what their mental codes are.

    Not a perfect method, but self-defense techniques are not perfect either.

  16. Mike LaBossiere,

    “Being armed, as you note, is not a perfect defense. And the capacity for quick and effective violence that weapons provide can be lethal when combined with (as you note) poor emotional control, evil, or mental illness. ”

    Poor emotional control. And this is a very important point. I have fired guns – they are fun but incredibly difficult to use. And what I mean by difficult, is calmly firing on a range is nowhere near the high tension, high adrenaline situation of being in the position where you have to use a gun to defend yourself. A point I will get back to in a second. Having a gun in your hand that is shaking all over the place could prove to be very lethal. If you were on a gun range, teaching someone how to shoot – and they were so nervous the gun was waving all over the place, you would take the gun from them, wouldn’t you.

    To quote the bard and philosopher, Willie Nelson, Barbarossa, 1982.

    Always stand still until you’re done shooting. Nothin’ scares a man more than for you to be standin’ still when you should be runnin’ like a spotted assed ape.

    And in the film, when Willie Nelson is being shot at, he stands perfectly still – the shooter is so freaked out they can’t get a shot. The slightest shake with a handgun and you fire metres wide.

    Charles De Gaulle knew this to be true – as I will explain in a moment.

    “People provide the motives and the weapons provide an easier means than killing with one’s own hands.”

    An interesting thing about the human and ape species, something that sets us aside from other beasts, is apes and humans will intentionally kill members of their own species. Other animals will fight their own species for territory and mates, but killing is usually unintentional – it’s hard wired not to intentionally kill your own species. Barehanded killing is not as easy as it sounds – A British soldier who fought in the Falklands war, who I heard interviewed had something interesting to say. He had no problem firing a rifle, but when he had to kill at close quarters with a bayonet, he found the experience incredibly difficult – as if something was weakening his arms, he had to draw on all his strength to do it – it should have been instantaneous but something was slowing him down. But I have heard very similar things – it’s easy to push a button. Generally, only psychopaths find killing easy. Estimates on war I’ve heard; 90% of the killing is done by 2% of the soldiers (and those soldiers are psychopaths) the rest of the time soldiers are firing high.

    A lot of the button pressing and formalism in modern warfare is to get people to kill, who would not. It’s a perverse use of Stanley Milgram’s research – but that is what it is. Though, American drone pilots – who are based in the US – are experiencing PTSD. And I think this could be a reason so many soldiers are killing themselves (more American soldiers die of suicide than combat). Something interesting I saw – the tape of drone kill in Afghanistan. On the audio, the senior officers are not giving the order to kill – they’re giving the clear to kill order to the junior soldier. But the way they’re doing it is very clear in that they are putting the full responsibility on the soldier – and washing their hands at the same time. The senior officers are not calling the kill. On the tape I heard, the young soldier sounds stressed and disorientated – the targeting has already been done by computer – all he needs to do is press the button.


    Interestingly, the statistics for people killed with guns (by police or civilians) while they were committing crimes often do not enter into the discussion.”

    This is the point I was coming back to. It’s not in the discussion in the US, because it’s nearly impossible to publicly have this discussion without being branded a lesbian communist from Kenya, who wants to send everyone to the gulags, while giving them affordable universal health care, and tortures like maternity leave.

    But, this is a point in Europe. Ordinary people, in a high tension, high adrenaline situation, cannot shoot straight. And this even goes for determined killers. In 1962, French fascists, The OAS, attempted to assassinate Charles De Gaulle. He threw his wife on his lap and sat up straight and still – 140 bullets and they couldn’t get a shot. But the police can be worse – as in New York recently where a number of bystanders were shot by police trying to stop a gun man. This has happened in Europe – the police have such little use for their guns, that when an event does come, they have a habit of shooting bystanders – or over reacting (Harry Stanley was shot in London in 1999 – he had the leg of a chair in a plastic bag, the police thought it was a gun – and shooters prerogative; a nervous armed police man, meant Harry was killed). So, in Europe, people would prefer an armed robber was allowed escape, than the entire staff and customers of a bank being shot – which has happened too.


    I have heard folks claim that people who have guns are more likely to hurt themselves or others by accident than they are to save themselves from an attacker.”

    This is true. Guns are very dangerous. And even responsible gun owners do stupid things – like look down the barrel of a gun while their cleaning it, wondering why something seems to be stuck in there.

    “If so, then guns would not be a wise choice for one who wishes to avoid being harmed.Because of the harms, then perhaps guns should be banned.”

    No. This is the way the NRA frame it – it’s either a complete free for all or no guns. In most of Europe you are allowed have guns. But nothing like the US, where everyone can get their hands on one. Do you know where the paramilitaries in Northern Ireland got most of their guns – although there was a bit, it wasn’t some rogue nation state. They went to Florida.

    ” Of course, allowing people to own cars would, by this sort of principle, also be a bad idea-people driving cars kill more people than do people firing guns (even in the US). As such, if we justify getting rid of weapons on the basis of the harm they do, then cars should go. As should unhealthy food, tobacco and alcohol. Plus lots of other stuff. ”

    But this is the NRA false option; either all or nothing. Greater road safety can be achieved without getting rid of cars. Healthier diets can be achieved without banning foods, and too much nannying – and that can be done through better education; even many health nuts don’t have a clue about diet (you know even food educators often don’t have a clue what they’re on about). There are already controls over tobacco and alcohol. The NRA present control as prohibition.

    “I’d be fine with all this. I don’t smoke, I have one drink a week, I can run long distances carrying moderate loads, and I am a large male who has decades of training in unarmed combat. I’d do just fine in such a world. Others might not be happy with it, but they would be safer.”

    Willie Nelson again “Well, old Sam Colt makes everybody just about the same size.”

    A kind of problem you have in the US, that you don’t have in Europe “That little guy up ahead…he’s little…but does he have a gun?”.

  17. Dennis Sceviour

    So it would mainly seem to be a matter of who will be defending us rather than a matter of whether or not there will be weapons available to the defenders.

    Who is that?

    The argument is going in circles. This suggests “who” might be chosen based on democratic means. However, as others have pointed out, the purpose of the second amendment would be to prevent a democratic government from being repressive.
    On the other hand, perhaps “who” refers to people specially trained in defense techniques. The educational bar has been tried before, and the correlation between education and morality is unpredictable. Philosophers just use longer words.

  18. This has degenerated into a street discussion about guns rather than a philosophical discussion about the merits of the argument presented in the paper (which clearly are lacking).
    You can’t argue with yanks about guns it’s like “mud wrestling with pigs… .”

  19. JMRC,

    Just to be clear, your view is that just as we can tolerate X number of car deaths per year (although we should try to reduce them) rather than banning cars, we should also tolerate X number of gun deaths per year (although we should try to reduce them) rather than banning them?

    What should X be? That is, what is what is a rough and general level of harm that we can and should tolerate when it comes to cars, guns, and such?

    Now, I do agree that each right and freedom comes with risks and a cost. Even running results in the occasional heart attack death-though I would certainly not ban running. People are hurt each year by toilets-but I would not ban them. After all, reality…hurts.

  20. GJDavis,

    Hardly a street discussion about guns-unless it is a street outside a college. While you say the merits are clearly lacking, you don’t actually show a lack of merit (see my reply below).

    You can argue with yanks about guns, but it is better to do it without comparing us to pigs.

  21. Mike LaBossiere,

    “You can argue with yanks about guns, but it is better to do it without comparing us to pigs.”

    No. It’s a saying – a certain kind of argument you do not get involved in. Never mud wrestle a pig…you can’t win…you’ll both get dirty, but the pig will enjoy it.

  22. JMRC,

    I’m familiar with the saying-but I suspect that that there might be a comparison between yanks and pigs at play here. I could be wrong though-I think this brutal semester is making me a bit pigish. :)

  23. “Arguing with your Boss is like wrestling with a pig in mud. After a while you realize that while you are getting dirty, the pig is actually enjoying it.” Bernard Shaw (maybe, if you can believe the internet)

    I pointed out initially the lack of merit at several points in your argument with no real response.

    Now you have (with distinct lack of originality) started comparing guns with cars. That is just stupid. Guns are made to kill things with and cars are not. It is like comparing apples and guns (Apples can kill too). Finally, none of this has anything to do with the validity and soundness of the original argument.

    The thesis of the argument you originally posted (of course your thesis is not clearly stated, but that is another point) is, is self defence (in your case violent self defence) morally obligatory? You are way off topic, and you never did prove the argument one way or the other anyway. Street, not college. Originality and focus count in college.

  24. Mike LaBossiere,

    “What should X be? That is, what is what is a rough and general level of harm that we can and should tolerate when it comes to cars, guns, and such?”

    And the answer is, in and around, 200 gun deaths.

    The car comparison is not really that good. In Northern Ireland at the height of the troubles. Your chances of dying in a road traffic accident were some times higher than getting killed in a terror incident – but of course it was not that simple. You had to be careful where you were, you had to pay attention. You really had no idea what you were walking yourself into. With traffic, you can look both ways before you cross the street – but with terrorism, what do you look out for? So the Nordies went slowly mad…defending their psyches by chain smoking and pretending everything was happening somewhere else – but the civilians would move through the streets like they were soldiers. It was unnerving, you’d go into a pub with a Nordy – they would pause and look around the room picking a seat – head moving from door, to place to place, to door again – what they’re looking for is the safest spot to sit, in case a gunman were to burst in through the door and do a random retaliation, for some other random act of mayhem somewhere else. Concentrating on safe driving is nowhere near as stressful. (and being in a car with a Nordy was something else – they would start their cars with their heads ducked below the window frame – and you would want to ask “are you worried someone might be about to shoot us”)

    But there is something similar in the US. Some old urban centres that should be buzzing with life have been abandoned. The Fall of Saigon…..Everyone they can, has been evacuated to ships in the suburbs and they’re just pushing helicopters into the sea as they arrive and can offload the refugees. The urban landscape of America has been shaped by the gun.

    The problem is not insoluble. But you know what is really galling. That whole 2nd Amendment brigade – right to bear arms – they’re the same people wanting laws controlling what people do with their penises and vaginas in the privacy of their own homes. Have these people ever heard of private property….Get your goddamn guberment hands off…

  25. The obligation to defend yourself does not follow logically or morally from the right to defend yourself. The first implies reasonable steps: staying in shape, which also helps defend you against avoidable falls and scrapes as well as human adversaries, and under special and warranted circumstances, taking further measures which might include equipment such as a gun, mace, tear gas, etc,: the latter, or obligation to defend yourself, implies taking steps almost without limit and under all circumstances. One involves reasonable precautions, the other paranoia. End of argument as far as I can see it.

  26. GJDavis,

    I did reply to your reply. See below.

    In regards to the core principle, guns and cars can be compared in a strong argument from analogy. After all, if the principle used to limit gun ownership is based on the harms done by a machine owned by people, then this would seem to apply as well to cars as guns.

    While guns are designed to cause harm and cars are not, what would seem to matter is the harm done rather than the designed intent. So, if our objective is to reduce harms and we accept that limiting ownership and use are acceptable means of limiting harms, then the arguments used to limit guns would apply to other harmful things, such as cars.

    As such, the analogy would seem to hold. Interestingly, people do not show the same concern for cars as they do guns, though cars kill more people in the US each year. And cars are not even designed to kill.

  27. Well, whatever Hobbes meant, isn’t “x has an obligation to defend herself” incompatible with “x has a right to defend herself”?

  28. JMRC,

    You are right to point out the inconsistency on the part of some who profess a staunch defense of freedom while acting in direct violation of the principle of freedom.

    There is a certain irony in the NRA blaming movies and video games and pushing for restrictions on the first amendment right while they profess an eternal devotion to the second.

    I’ve written elsewhere about the NRA and movies and video games.

  29. One could have both an obligation and a right to do the same thing. In Hobbes’s case, a person would be obligated to preserve herself but would also have the freedom to do so. Crudely put, she not only can do so, she must do so ( or die trying).

    This could be seen a bit like what is necessary and what is possible. What is necessary is also possible ( in that since it must be, it surely can be).

    But, I could be wrong. :)

  30. I don’t imagine you are :razz:

    If you don’t have the freedom to (attempt to) do x then you can’t be morally obliged to do it and if we equate freedom with ‘right’ then maybe that makes sense (and Hobbes seems to equate ‘right’ with ‘freedom’ at least sometimes).

    Still, it does seem odd to me to say Thomas not only a right to do x but also has a duty to do x – unless the right and duty ‘spring from different places’… Hmm…

  31. I wonder what Hobbes made of Socrates’ failure to do a runner rather than drink the hemlock…

  32. “As such, the analogy would seem to hold. Interestingly, people do not show the same concern for cars as they do guns, though cars kill more people in the US each year. And cars are not even designed to kill.”

    The gun/car analogy fails because cars and car drivers are highly regulated and controlled. If guns were subject to the same degree of control and regulation as cars, then the analogy would be better. Without comparing all the circumstances surrounding both items the analogy fails.

    Regarding the right, freedom and obligation to do something (which is a better discussion than the gun BS), simply because you have the right to do something no way implies that you are obligated (or have a duty) to do it. For example, you have a right to learn to swim, but no duty to learn to swim.

    Having the right to do something also does not imply that you have the freedom to do it. You may have the right to quit your job, but your freedom to quit is limited by your obligations to others (family, state, etc.)

    Fundamentally, you have a right to choose which of your rights you wish to exercise or assert. You are not ever obligated to assert all your rights. Rights and obligations are not related that way.

    Your rights and freedoms may be limited by contracts with, or obligations to others. You are never obligated, however, to exercise a right or a freedom. I can even imagine some cases where exercising your right may be morally repugnant. For example, you have the right to run out of a burning building (self preservation), but if there are children in there and you leave them to burn, exercising your right becomes somewhat repugnant.

  33. Self-defence is far above the law. The law can barely keep up with it. So don’t talk about government granted ‘rights’.

    Self-defence in its meaning is to break down barriers. The best defence is not simply more offence and misunderstandings, by its own definition. Self defence ends in a hand-shake, and a knowing or understanding.

  34. “a person must be willing to accept the obligation of self-defense and not rely entirely on others”

    And yet it seems to me that part of the contract we have with our own society is that we forego our ‘right’ to beat one another, in return for the police (or even the army) providing us with adequate protection. Have I got this all wrong?

  35. This matter so far as I am concerned is not especially difficult to answer. It has been asked, is there an obligation to self defence? I do not think this actually addresses the issue. Most animals are born with four innate propensities. These are fleeing, feeding, reproduction, and fighting. It is the latter which is being addressed here, and I suggest fighting is in many circumstances a natural response, not an obligation, to an attack from any one or more of the world’s creatures. There will be many instances where fleeing is the best option. When I did Judo we were instructed when in the public domain to avoid trouble, better to flee than fight, if it is a feasible option. If you have to fight then do your best and get out of the situation as soon as reasonably possible. So I ask what is the problem? There will be occasions where we have no option but fight back, or even invite to fight assuming we are not physically or mentally handicapped from so doing. The question remains in what circumstances do we offer our ability to fight on behalf of others. Possibly to try to protect one’s family; however if you don’t think you can win somehow or the other, then play for time. As I have said Fighting is an innate propensity, and as such is not always under the control of reason, so one never knows, one may surprise oneself one day. My Judo days were terminated by an accidental leg injury from an opponent, which became life threatening. It still troubles me somewhat to this day but is not incapacitating. So whether you are fighting for fun or in earnest be careful.

  36. Mike,

    I find it difficult to respond without making the same comments as I’ve made on other posts. There seem to be so many presuppositions of morality here.

    If you want to show any moral implications for any your points you need to go deeper into why you think there are such moral implications. Without any evidence or argument to support moral implications then any claim to there being moral implications is just so much hot air.

    It seems empirically the case that moral claims are indeed mere hot air. There have been many practices that have been labelled at one time as seriously immoral which are now found to be morally acceptable, vice versa. There exist so many different moral opinions right now on so many subjects. There is no evidence to support a claim that there are objective moral codes out there or God given. The whole moral enterprise seems in a hopeless state.

    Your piece pretty much demonstrates this by being so loaded with conditionals.

    “The right to self-defense (if there is such a right) … ” – Is there?
    “However, if there is an obligation of self-defense …” – Is there?
    If a person is morally obligated to preserve life (including his own)…” – Are they?
    If Hobbes is correct…” – Is he?
    “John Locke and Thomas Aquinas … and if they are right …” – Are they?

    Can you give any reason why we should accept any of the conditionals you have presented?

    “It is generally accepted that people have a moral… [whatever]”

    This is nothing more than a statement of the state of moral thinking now, generally, as handed down and maintained by theologians and some philosophers.

    Morality has no foundation in anything but empirical observations: physics, biology, evolution, cultural contractual obligation through custom and law. We are driven by physics, biology, evolution, and we culturally build up customs and laws that we think will help us in some way.

    The unexplained step, the bit that various groups take to be truths ‘out there’ or God given, is where these customs and laws take on moral meaning. Moral meaning is just an arbitrary cultural invention. Whereas customs and laws can be seen to have some practical use the degree to which different people attach moral meaning to them is quite arbitrary and hopelessly useless, and even divisive, and confounding of reason.

    If humans are going to get anywhere with our attempts to interact pleasantly and safely (and by all means question these desires) we need to get past outdated quaint philosophical notions like ‘Law of Nature’ of Hobbes. Most human endeavours move on; but not at all it seems in theology, and rather reluctantly in philosophy.

    We need to move away from the judgemental moralising.
    ———————–
    Mike,

    Hobbes’s Natural Law is his own imaginative invention – unless anyone can provide evidence for it. The only ‘natural law’ in this regard is the inherited instinct for survival – and not all animals show that instinct all the time. A gazelle will run from a lion, but will eventually give up any struggle when caught. Humans are known to give up too, and some individuals may struggle to the last breath – so there’s no general rule. By empirical observation it seems to be a matter of personal biological and psychological temperament that may be influenced by circumstances.

    “John Locke and Thomas Aquinas also contend that life is to be preserved and if they are right…”

    Why on earth wold a modern philosopher suppose they are right? Wouldn’t you want to challenge their thinking? What influence did their religious views have on the matter of obligation? What possible argument suggests that we should accept this conditional?

    “Of course, this notion could be countered by …”

    It can be countered much more easily by asking where the evidence or reason is for the notion of self-defence being a moral obligation.

  37. Mike,

    One sequence of paragraphs seems confused…

    1) Wanting to be defended by others but not doing so yourself makes you a moral parasite.
    2) An obvious counter is that people do rely on others for self-defense … military and police …
    3) However, as noted in the first argument, a person will not always be under the watchful protection…

    You supposedly make a case in (1), and give a counter in (2). But (2) is in fact:

    a) An example of how (1) is ignored, so such citizens are parasites according to (1).

    b) An example of where citizens cannot defend themselves and so are not parasites.

    So, (2) isn’t an argument against (1) but an example of it, or an example of it not applying. So, (2) is not a counter to (1).

    And (3) is irrelevant for or against (1) because it is a situation where specifically there are not others present to protect the victims and the victims who are therefore not being parasitic.

    A counter to (1) is as follows: You have not shown any moral implication for being a parasite. You have not shown that wanting to be defended by others is necessarily parasitic. You could show that someone is parasitic, but that need have no moral implication – a parasite but not a moral parasite.

  38. Mike,

    “This raises the matter of the extent to which a person is obligated to be competent at self-defense …”

    Your are raising a question to which the answer must be ‘you are not so obligated’. Because you have not presented any argument to support it. You have presented many conditionals, and some examples that show that actual people do or don’t meet the outcome of the conditionals – but that isn’t demonstrating that the conditionals hold.

    “However, it does seem reasonable to expect that people become at least competent at protecting themselves …”

    Why? You have not given any reasoned argument for this expectation.

    If I want to live a life of non-violent pacifism, and accept the risk that in choosing not to defend myself, then it is no business of anyone else. Any moral proscriptions handed out are mere opinions.

    If I want to be parasitic (as many citizens clearly do, in hiring police and professional armed forces) then it is up to anyone else to choose not to defend me if they don’t want to. The police motto “Protect and Serve” seems to me to be a statement of their intent and is quite independent of any parasitic intent of mine. If a US citizen doesn’t want arms in the house, and sees that they are about to be assailed by armed robbers trying to break in, then the police want them to call 911. The police would generally advise againts armed confrontation if possible: leave it to the professionals.

    I would suspect that most police don’t want any citizens, criminal or victim, to be armed. Except under the current pragmatic conditions that exist in the US today. It is quite reasonable that a policeman would want his home-alone partner to be armed for self-protection, given the state of affairs today. But that’s different from the political and philosophical case for citizens being armed in the first place. Do you imagine police thinking, “I wish this parasitic citizen victim had defended himslef instead of calling on me to endanger my life in his defence!”

    In times of all-out war conscription might be used. This is the state making the decision, as elected representatives, to enforce self-defence action on its citizens. Any citizen is free to decline. Of course the state, i.e. all its other citizens, are just as free to lock up the free loader, or in unhealthier times execute them. Conscription in war is a pragmatic issue of balancing desires and opinions. And moralising about it is philosophically pointless, though a propaganda convenience for the state perhaps.

    This is all pragmatic politics. Any additional moral implications are slapped on top like religious bumper stickers containing words that simply make moral asseertions without explanation or justification.

    “This obligation of self-preservation would also seem to obligate people to maintain a degree of physical fitness and health”

    You are taking one asserted obligation, of self-preservation, and inferring another, that people should maintain a degree of physical fitness and health.

    There is no obligation to self-preservation in any moral sense that you are implying. The only driver for self-preservation is evolutionary biology. Many suicides demonstrate that this is so in that their psychological state, which is a behavioural display of their neurological state, has overcome that otherwise stronger biological self-preserving drive.

    You have presented many conditionals, and some examples that show that actual people do or don’t meet the outcome of the conditionals – but that isn’t demonstrating that the conditionals hold.

  39. Mike makes a point above about the true nature of self-defense that is worth repeating. Laypeople cannot be expected to become expert in self defense for the purpose of defeating an assailant. But as someone who was trained in self-defense techniques appropriate to dealing with a prison population, I can attest that the training was not intended to make me victorious in dealing with strong, violent people. It was to keep me alive and minimally injured until help could arrive. Numerous posts in this thread seem to indicate a belief that even this minimal level of readiness is somehow foolish, but what is a standard response time for authorities where you live? Commonly in cities it is fifteen minutes or more. In rural areas it can reach to more than thirty minutes.

  40. Lee,

    I wouldn’t think there is anything foolish in learning self-defence; and if anything probably a wise thing to do. But the OP was bout the moral obligation to do so, for which I see none.

  41. Ron Murphy:

    I don’t think that there’s anything foolish in learning unarmed self-defense either, but the thing about this post is that it’s in the context of a series of posts about gun rights.

    I get the impression that “self-defense” in this conversation is not only about blocking blows with your forearm, etc., but about owning, using and carrying firearms. Hence, the joke in the post about cops being too heavy to carry around with one.

    Others, judging from the comments above, seem to have the same impression about the OP.

    I also have the impression that if I concede the right (and I share your skepticism about the metaphysical status of rights and obligations) to self-defense, my concession will be used to not speak in favor of karate courses (I studied a few months of karate myself), but in favor of letting civilians carry firearms (besides hunting and target-shooting).

  42. Mike;

    Regarding the car/gun analogy, it seems to me not very accurate. It is based on “machines” “things” that produce harm, and the reasoning goes if we ban the use/consumption of 1 thing that produces harm we should ban the other too. A consistent application of the principle.
    I have several problems with the argument:

    1.- Cars are much more frequently used than guns. I drive my car to work everyday, I do not shoot a gun every day. Therefore the claim cars produce more deaths than guns is very weak, you need to take into account how much people use cars and guns. Now, by simple reasoning we can deduce that whenever you use a gun you are very likely to hurt someone (not taking into account target practice, which will equal to car driving practice). But that is not the case of using a car. I can safely guess that if you divide the car deaths by car usage, the number will be very small, and certainly smaller if I compare it to the ratio of gun deaths to gun usage.

    2.- There are a lot of things that potentially produce harm as a by product of its real function. In fact anything can do this, food, cars, tools, anything. Guns are specifically design to hurt people or living beings.

    3.- In society we kind off agree -the majority of us- that relinquishing the function of defending ourselves to the police and the military is a safer way to live. The alternative would be something like the wild west or a place with no law but the law of the gun. I do not see cars producing this effect.

    Just my too cents, anyway I always enjoy your posts.

  43. Dennis Sceviour

    State self-preservation was mentioned above but an interesting question not asked is – Does a state have an obligation for self-defense? If so, then a condition exists for obligation of self-defense.

  44. Concerning the comparison between car deaths and gun deaths it seems to me that the vast majority of car deaths are accidental whilst the vast majority of gun deaths are deliberate. So in that connection one is not comparing like with like.

  45. It would seem that self defense is more about restoring a balance that went sideways or needs to be corrected. How it’s balanced is another question, such as your eye for an eye is one route, bringing it to different level is another.

  46. You can reduce the question a step further…do you have a right to life and/or liberty? If the answer is yes, you must also have the right to defend them. Otherwise it’s a privilege granted by whomever is responsible for providing said defense and not a right at all.

    So calling self defense an obligation may be questionable (after all people may well choose to give up rights voluntarily) and dependent on social norms, calling self defense a right should be less controversial. To me, the real question is where do we draw the line? At what point is it ethical to respond to violence with force? Not everyone will have the same answer.

  47. Shawn,

    I agree there is a practical issue of limits, but there is no need to think in terms of morals, just mutually conferred rights and agreed laws.

    It might be generally agreed, and vaguely enshrined in law under terms such as ‘reasonable force’ (e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Martin_(farmer)) that you can shoot an intruder under some circumstances but not others. The difficulty is in the case-by-case detail, which is what courts are used for.

    But a particular society can agree, through the political process, that firearms should be owned or held (or not), under strictly (or not) enforce limits.

    The practicality of the matter in the US is two-fold. First, it is legal to own all sorts of firearms. Second, the first case makes it easy for those with criminal intent, or those non-criminals with psychologically uncharacteristic intent, or those who are law abiding but clumsy, to use them illegally or accidentally. The proliferation of firearms is pretty much statistically guaranteed to lead to many innocent deaths by firearms. The problem is that the limits in the US aren’t that limiting.

    In the UK there are deaths by firearms – such as the Tony Martin case and a few others. They tend to be from the criminal illegal ownership of banned firearms, or the misuse of legal firearms. In the latter case it’s the sport and hunting shot-gun that’s the most common problem, from misuse and accident. But the generally strict gun control limits deaths.

    Just try this list:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_firearm-related_death_rate

    The US is in among what, with all due respect, would be considered to be the less stable countries. Some of these states have been through recent turmoil, and some continue to do so. Even in states where gun ownership is supposedly strictly controlled there may be practical matters that prevent this. More details here: http://www.gunpolicy.org/firearms/region.

    The US is supposed to be a safe modern stable democracy. This is the pragmatics of US tradition, and the state of current gun law.

  48. There are so many possible threats in life that from a practical standpoint
    ‘preparedness’ is an illusion.

  49. Curtis Graham,

    Surely there are degrees of preparedness and that being prepared for likely events can pay off.

  50. Ron Murphy,

    It seems empirically the case that moral claims are indeed mere hot air.

    Are you taking the position of moral nihilism (that is, moral claims are empty/without any truth value)? If so, then you would naturally reject any and all moral argumentation as being talk about nothing. However, accepting moral nihilism leads to some interesting challenges when trying to settle what people should or should not do. This is not to say that this shows that moral nihilism is false, of course.

    There have been many practices that have been labelled at one time as seriously immoral which are now found to be morally acceptable, vice versa. There exist so many different moral opinions right now on so many subjects. There is no evidence to support a claim that there are objective moral codes out there or God given. The whole moral enterprise seems in a hopeless state.

    While there is considerable diversity in ethics, this is not prove that ethics is not an objective matter. After all, the history of science is also full of rejected views and this would not seem to entail that science does not deal with objective matters. Also, there is great diversity in scientific views (just consider the debates over string theory, dark matter and so on) but these do not entail a lack of objectivity.

    Naturally, it is simple enough to be a scientific nihilist-one could embrace solipsism and note that talk about planet, biology, and so on is all talk about nothing. Nothing can, of course, disprove solipsism. After all, any “proof” that appears to me is utterly consistent with me being the only thing in existence. Even painful “proof.”

    As far as objectivity in ethics, Mill, Plato and Aristotle provide some rather good reasons to buy into an objective system of ethics. These seem much better than the arguments for relativism, subjectivism and nihilism.

  51. Jim p Houston,

    As far as Socrates and Hobbes, Hobbes’ theory would seem to require that 1) Socrates keep his covenants and drink the hemlock (as Socrates himself argued) and 2) that Socrates should endeavor to preserve himself. These do seem to be inconsistent. Perhaps a Hobbes scholar could sort it out?

  52. Mike,

    Moral nihilism is a bit vague and comes in some varieties, so I’m not entirely happy with the label. And some of the positions of a moral realist could be interpreted as applying to moral nihilism. So, in the sense that there are no moral truths ‘out there’ or God given, then yes I’m a moral nihilist. Killing a person, for whatever reason, is inherently neither good or bad. But, as a result of our inherited biological drives, including empathy, and as a result of our cultural development, personally subjective and culturally subjective values emerge – i.e. behaviours we value. So, I am quite willing to go along with some culturally agreed codes of practice. All I would wish to avoid is any pretence that there is any stronger objective foundation than that.

    I accept that some moral realists would want to ground morality on a scientific understanding of the brain, such as Sam Harris. But our brains could have evolved, and our cultures could have developed, quite different moral values. Had we had a close evolutionary connection to the big cats we may have encoded their infanticide of the young of new mates into a moral practice that insist that, on re-marrying, a divorced or widowed mother’s children must leave the household. That sounds odd to us as a principle, but step-families often experience friction that results in the children leaving. We look on this as a failure of some sort, but it could so easily have been a virtuous and expected act, for children to leave their mother so she could make a new life with new children. So, even some ‘objective’ moral realisms turn out to be contingent on human evolution and culture and not that objective after all.

    I don’t accept that moral nihilism has any more challenges than any other perspective. Could you give examples? In practice even those that are strong moral realists disagree so much on specific moral cases that there is no easy route for anyone considering our ‘morals’ seriously. Of course the easy option is to declare some moral position as the word of God; but I see this as an abdication of responsibility.

    I agree morality is an objective matter; but only in the context of moral nihilism, given the explanation above. It’s as objective as any understanding of human behaviour. And presently, culturally, it’s an objective matter of deciding, essentially voting in a democracy, what we personally value, what codes of practice we are going to subject ourselves to, and what rights we are going to confer upon each other. The objectivity emerges as collective opinion enshrined in law and custom.

    The problem is that the current language of morality is so heavily loaded with strong moral realism that it becomes a match of claim and counter claim: who has the most powerful and dictatorial God, how much one can persuade others that a specific moral value is written in the stars. It’s all unevidenced assertion. You only have to watch the nature of the rhetoric in debates between atheists and Muslims to see how loaded with irrationality these views are; they invent ‘proofs’ that are easily knocked down.

    “Naturally, it is simple enough to be a scientific nihilist-one could embrace solipsism … Nothing can, of course, disprove solipsism.”

    I agree. I go to some length to make this very point: http://ronmurp.net/thinking/

    But you miss a couple of points about materialist empiricism, and consequently in this context how important is the lack of evidence for objective moral values outside of the human evolved and culturally developed objectivity.

    First, it’s not a matter of proof but the persistent slap in the face nature of the material world that makes any alternative like solipsism irrelevant. My current existence could be the result of my materialist existence in this material world, with other material beings such as yourself. Or, it could be, as you say, my lone solipsist experience (mine, note; not yours!). The point is that they are apparently indistinguishable. How can you tell which it is? You can’t. But there’s another interesting point. If my solipsist existence looks like a material existence to such an extent as it does, why bother trying to live as if there is some hidden layer, or as if the things I experience are only figments of my solipsist imagination? It’s not a matter of disproving solipsism, but instead, why bother? Solipsism has its own problems that the material empirical perspective avoids: is it my solipsism or yours; am I a figment of your solipsist imagination or you of mine; and why should we care?

    Second, the material understanding of the world, through physics, biology, evolution, tells us that our brains are fallible, easily fooled, not least by ourselves. Any notion that relies on pure thought, or any notion of idealism, solipsism, theism, and much traditional philosophy, is so subject to personal error, imagination, fantasy, false belief, bias, indoctrination, … (the list goes on in ways in which the ‘mind’ can be wrong). Materialist empiricism, as developed most rigorously as science, is all about being as nearly right as possible, using collective and repeatable methodologies that are the best we can do to overcome the individual mental fallibilities. It’s approximate, tentative, contingent, subject to change in the light of better evidence – but it’s the best we can do with the tools we have, our brains and our sensory interface to the world.

    So, I quite disagree with “These [reasons to buy into an objective system of ethics] seem much better than the arguments for relativism, subjectivism and nihilism.” The objective reasons are just pie in the sky wishful thinking born out of pure reason. And they are no less subjective for being claimed to be objective. The objective nature of objective ethics is a fiction. And there is more evidence that this is so, from the very variety of ‘objective’ moral views expressed, than there is evidence that there are truly objective morals, of which there is zero. Unless you can point to some objective morality out there, somewhere, beyond the rainbow perhaps?

  53. Since you said that talk of morality seems to be hot air, I took you to be a stock moral nihilist. That is, your view of morality is analogous to the atheists view of theology: when people talk about it, they are talking about nothing.

    You seem to be endorsing cultural moral relativism, with the newer twist of including references to biology. Is that fair? If that is the case, why should a person go along with those agreed upon values? What makes them preferable to their opposites or no values at all?

  54. Ron Murphy,

    “Had we had a close evolutionary connection to the big cats we may have encoded their infanticide of the young of new mates into a moral practice that insist that, on re-marrying, a divorced or widowed mother’s children must leave the household.”

    A few points. It is believed that early hunter gathers practiced infanticide to control their populations. Apes, our closest relatives, practice infanticide. When a junior ape defeats a dominant ape and takes their mate, they kill the defeated apes progeny.

    And I can tell you, up to relatively recently in Ireland (about 40 years ago), when a spouse died, the surviving spouse was literally forced to put their children in an orphanage, and remarry – start afresh. This was the Irish Catholic church’s idea of wholesome world order. The institutions the children ended up in were hellish.

    Morality is the glue that holds society together. Not everyone is good, but without morality nothing in our world could function. If the root of morality is biological – if it is an evolutionary adaptation – that’s unimportant. We have complex societies with complex moralities. I think the biological reductions are toxic – “don’t blame me, my selfish genes made me do it”.

  55. Mike:

    Why should someone follow the agreed upon values?

    Laws, social pressure, internalized values (the bite of conscience), self-esteem, etc.

    Why follow them and not others?

    Because we’re social animals and not only want the approval of our peers, but also want to be like our peers.

  56. Mike,

    Talk about objective morality, like talk of God by theists, is hot air; not because there is nothing there, but because it has not been shown that there is anything there that they can talk about with any authority. They have no evidence at all to support their speculative and arbitrary claims that there is some objective morality, or objective God.

    So, no, theists are not necessarily talking about nothing, but they cannot show that they have anything useful to say any particular something, should that something actually be there. In so talking about what they have no evidence for they can say pretty much anything – and they do. You only have to throw up some question about why God allows such and such, and you’ll get a dozen or more quite incompatible explanations, all without a jot of evidence, and often made up on the spot.

    In a similar way, any talk of objective morality is hot air.

    “You seem to be endorsing cultural moral relativism, with the newer twist of including references to biology. Is that fair?”

    Do you mean is cultural moral relativism plus biology fair, or is my argument in this respect fair?

    For the former, no it’s not fair, but so what? Nature and our place in it is what it is, fair or not. The term ‘cultural moral relativism’ plus biology, is observably the case. We have some common biological drives which determine to some extent our feelings on matters of interaction; and we also have some variety in our cultures, and even variability in us as individuals that can change over time. We can be quite inconsistent in the application of our principles. Fairness is something that seems to be one of the principles that comes out of our biology and culture, along with selfishness and all manners of unfairness. Our individual and collective lives are compromises and inconsistencies, fair and not. Many a criminal that has no regard for strangers can still love his mother.

    I’m not endorsing moral relativism, merely observing it. I endorse only my particular moral views, as developed in me by what I value and what I experience. They are a compromise of personal values and the toleration of some variation according to how far alternatives are from mine. I find female genital mutilation to be abhorrent. I see no absolute objective moral argument against it, but I see a humanist value argument against it. See below for a comment on value.

    Is my argument fair? I think so, as I’ve explained it.

    “If that is the case, why should a person go along with those agreed upon values?”

    Ultimately no reason whatsoever. And some people clearly don’t. But part of the success (if we want to call it that) of the human species has come through co-operation. It’s hard to say how cultural co-operation developed hand-in-hand with biological traits like empathy. Perhaps each drove the other causally as statically successful survival traits.

    “What makes them preferable to their opposites…?”

    Only the mere popularity – which of course is determined to some extent by the effectiveness of persuasion, indoctrination, propaganda, as well as reasoned rhetoric. The means by which we have acquired some of our moral codes haven’t been particularly ‘moral’. I’m sure the Spanish Inquisition thought they were doing a very worthy and virtuous job.

    “… or no values at all?”

    I’m not aware that humans can operate without values. Antonio Damassio makes quite a point of humans valuing. In fact he thinks that having value in something is of primary importance to all forms of life. We value food, so we seek it. We value comfort. Biologically ‘value’ is the expression of the requirement life has for homeostasis. When cells are in homeostasis they are in balance and need nothing; but the processes of life consume energy and so homeostasis is a never ending goal. Biologically we value what is required to achieve homeostasis – at various levels, from the simple cell, to organs, systems, up to the whole organism. And, apparently, to our cultural groups, our societies.

    Our moral values are just more of the same – biologically driven values expressed in the wider context of culture. We generally want to do our own thing, to control our own lives, and to do so in groups of convenience. We can only do that, we can only achieve what we value, by compromise. And that in turn drives us to construct group values, moral codes.

    Our developed moral systems seem a little out of hand, a little irrational. I don’t find it rational to believe in objective moral codes without evidence for them, especially when evolutionary biology and the brain sciences are telling us so much about human behaviour that we got quite wrong. And I find belief in God irrational because there is clearly nothing to tell us anything about any God, should there be one. God is a God of the gaps, and objective morality is a morality of the gaps. They are poor attempts to fill in gaps of our understanding. And of course they have their sinister side. Some individuals and groups see their own values as being necessarily enforced, to achieve their own perception of societal homeostasis, and they are prepared to inflict their codes of practice on everyone else, often without compromise.

    Where on earth or in the stars is the evidence that morals have any objective basis other than human value?

  57. JMRC,

    My point about the bid cats was merely to make the point by being so obviously objectionable to modern sensibilities. My point was to illustrate how a different evolutionary history could introduce traits that we might have found more acceptable, or which might evolve into some cultural practice. The point was to illustrate the arbitrariness of evolution: what we are, biologically, culturally, morally, is not what we necessarily had to be.

    “Morality is the glue that holds society together.”

    That’s one point of view. It’s also divisive when taken to be some absolute to which one particular group is privy. Personally I think it’s the collective agreement to live by laws and customs that hold us together. You don’t need God or any other objective morals for that, just some common values.

    “Not everyone is good, but without morality nothing in our world could function.”

    You’re already loading your perspective with the label ‘good’, as if there is something objective against which behaviour can be judged. Humans decide what is good and what is not, based on personal and collectively agreed values. Some humans decide that what they find good or not just happens to coincide with what their favourite deity thinks, and then they try to use that notion as justification for imposing their views on everyone else. Historically it may have worked that way, but our laws and customs are becoming more liberal. There is no sign of objective morality.

    “If the root of morality is biological – if it is an evolutionary adaptation – that’s unimportant.”

    I agree that it is unimportant now, as a guide for how to be ‘moral’. But if it is a description of the source of our values, then as such it can help us to understand better how our values come about. And in the context of how we also see how diverse human behaviour is, even within the confines of these biological beginnings, this perspective should make us realise that the traditional claims to moral good and bad, such as those claims made by the Roman Catholic Church, are clearly inadequately evidenced.

    “I think the biological reductions are toxic – “don’t blame me, my selfish genes made me do it”"

    Well I think you have that all wrong. First, the ‘selfish gene’ ploy was invented by anti-evolutionists. No evolutionary biologists would think that way. If a sociopath has been genetically predisposed to become a killer, and then actually becomes one, then he’s still a killer and has to be stopped. Our genes may be an explanation, but they need not be an excuse. But, there’s a tendency for those predisposed to sociopathy to become dangerous mostly if they have themselves had a difficult childhood. The good news in that direction is not that we start to let sociopathic killers off the hook, but that one day we may be able to recognise the conditions and prevent the killing in the first place. Isn’t that a much better outlook than the religious retributional one that is less interested in cure and more in punishment for sin? I find the religious perspective far more toxic.

    And perhaps you don’t get the value of reductionism. We all use reductionism all the time. It’s how we break down complex problems into manageable parts, understand the parts, and then build up a better understanding of the whole. Watch an artist at work analysing his subject – he’s using reductionism. Listen to a priest break down a passage from the bible and give his interpretation of it – he’s using reductionism (just not very well). Biological reductions have driven all of modern medicine. We’d be still in the dark ages without it.

  58. Ron Murphy,

    I mean is that a fair description of your view.

  59. Re:- Ron Murphy Feb 8th.
    “Well I think you have that all wrong. First, the ‘selfish gene’ ploy was invented by anti-evolutionists.”

    I understand “The Selfish Gene” was an invention of Richard Dawkins who is, outside of his Atheist leanings, an ethologist and evolutionary biologist, certainly not an anti-evolutionist. Like you I do not do Morals and additionally am mistrustful of what others call Truth. I prefer to deal with explanations, and in my opinion The Selfish gene is one of the best explanations. I may well be misunderstanding what you are saying here, which is unusual because generally I am in agreement with what you say and wish I had more time to write something very similar, if not so lucidly as yourself. Had you said ‘selfish gene ploy’ I might have understood it as some corruption of the Selfish Gene as per Dawkins, but why would anti-evolutionists introduce genes at all into their arguments?

  60. Mike,

    OK. No. I realise you asked and didn’t assert the following, but the same mistaken points seem to be made quite often, and I’m puzzled as to why the message doesn’t get through:

    1) A moral nihilist in claiming there is no evidence for any objective morality is mistakenly assumed to value nothing.

    2) A person observing that moral relativism holds in practice is mistakenly taken to be endorsing moral relativism as a practice.

    As I said, I don’t endorse moral relativism, but I do observe it to be the case. What I endorse is each of us making our own minds up about what we value. Luckily the majority seem to value much of what I do, whatever they think the source of those values might be – the mutual conferring of rights and privileges, but also the taking on of responsibilities. But I value these in the most liberal context possible that works. So I don’t endorse the over-prescriptive and over-proscriptive rules that many religions, for example.

    Of course had I lived at various times in history, or even in some places now, I wouldn’t have much luck bringing those endorsements to fruition. As I’ve said earlier and on other posts, what I value and therefore want to be the case is very much dependent on the power to pull it off. The bare bones implementation of what I endorse has already been hard won for me throughout European history: democracy. I value it, as flawed as its implementation is, as the best we can do, so far, even though it needs improving.

    So, the golden rule, supported by democracy, and law is pretty much all I endorse in ethics. Many subjects that are sometimes viewed from a moral perspective I see only as a pragmatic process of balancing values, compromising, custom.

    In the context of the OP I see no obligation whatsoever to develop self-defence of any kind.

    The collective self-defence instituted in the police and military is just a pragmatic way of ensuring our values are maintained by sustaining the democracy through power. Without that power democracy, and so our values, would not be maintained, because there are those that also see morality as a non-issue but who see their particular values outweighing ours, and would see no problem in using force to satisfy their own values. I see Nazi Germany and the Roman Catholic Church as just two examples of non-democratic systems using power to manipulate others. One failed outright; the reign of the other is being reined in, slowly, over centuries.

  61. Why endorse the golden rule? That is, why accept it over, for example, doing unto others as you wish and before they do unto you?

  62. Don,

    The ‘selfish-gene’ of the book was a metaphor. Dawkins stands by the metaphor, but has often lamented how it has been taken out of context by anti-evolutionists to imply the more literal teleological meaning. So, in that sense the ‘ploy’ of using the phrase ‘selfish-gene’ in that way does come from anti-evolutionists: ID-ers and Creationists primarily. But it’s not unlike even the moderately religious to jump on the bandwagon when it suits their defence of religion.

  63. Mike,

    There is no absolute or objective moral distinction between those positions. Clearly in history many powerful people have followed the latter.

    I personally endorse the former as a pragmatic means by which we can all survive and still achieve much what we want, though not all of what we want. Compromise is the best we can do collectively, and our best attempt at compromise seems to have at its minimum the golden rule in the political context of democracy.

    If I as an average individual now were to endorse the latter, where would it get me? Probably dead, with a painful precursor. Isn’t that the empirical end to many criminals and dictators? Only a few get to the top and survive. Apparently some judge the risk worthwhile.

    But on top of that pragmatic reason for avoiding the latter, I’m also biologically driven, it seems, not to want to inflict suffering on others. My empathy puts me in their shoes. So, from both pragmatic and biologically driven emotional perspectives I reason that the golden rule in a strong democracy is just about the best we can do, for now.

    I wonder if you are still looking for moral reasons behind my endorsement?

  64. Ron Murphy,

    “My point was to illustrate how a different evolutionary history could introduce traits that we might have found more acceptable, or which might evolve into some cultural practice.”

    There is no biological organism on earth anywhere near humanity. This is billions of years of evolution. Our specific traits – a lucky set of mutations – are probably the only traits that could create culture. There may be no room for much variation.

    A very annoying thing in anthropology is projecting the narratives of human society onto different animals (often narratives that satisfy some ideological desire or need), and then reading back the narrative as some explanation of human society. If I hear another boorish oaf bleat on about Alpha males in human society, I’ll scream. It’s very obvious in human society that there is nothing like alpha males that you will find in groups of mammals.

    We live in a world, where people with feeble intellects and physical characteristics verging on pathetic can become our “leaders”, in business and politics – and people with immense physical strength, cunning, intelligence, and aggression – all useful traits for climbing to the top of a monkey troupe – go through their entire lives in poverty and powerlessness.

    In reality. Human societies are so complex and removed from nature that I don’t even need to qualify the distinct between humanity and nature. GW Bush did not become POTUS through some genetic superiority – the process was far more flukish, like snakes and ladders. The man was pathetic. Kruschev became premier of the Soviet Union, not because he was a cunning alpha male – Stalin just believed him to be too stupid to ever be a threat, so he never had him killed – it was not a cunning disguise, Kruschev was stupid. This tactic is not a trait we have inherited from the animal kingdom – where a feeble adult destroys a healthy child before it can become a threat. Survival of the feeblest doesn’t sound like a greater evolutionary strategy.

    Simplistic but plausible social narratives, that allude to biology and the natural world as their basis is really just ideology using myth as foundation and justification. It’s ideology.

    I’ll get to your other points, but I’ll keep this one separate.

  65. JMRC:

    I’ll scream in chorus with you.

    However, I read Khrushchev’s autobiography and I didn’t find him to be stupid. Not an intellectual or a great philosopher, but cunning, astute and undoubtedly, insightful about others.

    His dealing with the Cuban Missile Crisis was not that of a stupid person.

    Khruschev was also smart enough to lead the Soviet Union away from the worst aspects of Stalinism into a more benign authoritarian system.

  66. swallerstein,

    No, Khrushchev wasn’t stupid. But he looked stupid, and pretended to be stupider than he was. This not only spared him from Stalin, but rivals didn’t see him as their number one threat.

    “His dealing with the Cuban Missile Crisis was not that of a stupid person.”

    There is the opinion, that he caused the crisis – took a massive risk for no good purpose. There was very nearly a global nuclear war. It was really on a knife edge. Tape recordings from Washington at the time, show that they really could have pressed the button at any minute, and there would have been no time for negotiations.

    “Khruschev was also smart enough to lead the Soviet Union away from the worst aspects of Stalinism into a more benign authoritarian system.”

    Much of the evidence seems to suggest, Stalin was a psychopath. To repeat Stalinism, you’d need another Stalin. Germany is a good comparison. Nearly as soon as Hitler was dead, the craziness vanished.

  67. Ron,
    But why accept pragmatism? Why not the opposite or some other option? Why select one system of values over another?

  68. JMRC,

    I see we have another simplistic misrepresentation. Let’s add it to the list:

    1) A moral nihilist in claiming there is no evidence for any objective morality is mistakenly assumed to value nothing.

    2) A person observing that moral relativism holds in practice is mistakenly taken to be endorsing moral relativism as a practice.

    3) And evolutionary biologist in seeing the animal origins or human traits that emerge as moral opinion is mistakenly taken to be saying that pre-human animal behaviour is all that humans have.

    I agree with pretty much everything you said regarding the complexity of human society, and specifically how culture, personal interests and all sorts of factors can override our animal behaviour. But that does not mean that our animal behaviour has gone away.

    There are a couple of aspects to traditional historic narrative of human behaviour that are problematic.

    One is that until science, and in particular evolutionary biology, discovered our place in the animal kingdom the most that could be said of humans was they are perhaps some sort of animal with native drives. There was plenty of room for the misunderstanding and even denial of this. So Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke and others had some simplistic notion of the ‘state of nature’; and even later the consequences of early evolutionary thought was of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’. But despite these pre-scientific attempts to compare humans and other animals science has very clearly shown that we are animals.

    Another problematic aspect has arisen in the historical context of the first. We have a traditional perception of humans being so different from other animals that we thought of ourselves as so special as to be totally unrelated. And we raised ourselves on such a pedestal that we promoted ourselves to the special interest of the divine.

    So, a very annoying thing in theological anthropology is projecting the narratives of human society onto God (often narratives that satisfy some ideological desire or need), and then reading back the narrative as some explanation of human society.

    I don’t recall mentioning Alpha Males. But since you did let’s go there. Yes, in much of the animal kingdom there is little intellect at work, and so it is usually the strongest that dominate and become alpha males (or alpha females, depending on the species). But there are examples in animals where some degree of psychological domination works too. There are many species where the dominant party wins their place by threat alone. In the more intellectual species a weak old male can still hold onto his position for some time before being ousted. It doesn’t take much watching of the other apes to see that there are psychological aspects to their social interaction.

    In humans I agree it’s more complicated. Because of the way we organise pur societies mere strength isn’t enough. I agree that often weak idiots become presidents, but there are a number of complex explanations for this. One is that they can become the patsy of other dominant males, or groups, that don’t want their domination made obvious in what is supposed to be a democracy. Another, and we see this often in business, is that luck favours the brave and a whole enterprise can become strong and yet may contain all sorts of cretins in higher management because the management at the top doesn’t spot the rot, or succumbs to the self-delusional bragging of sycophantic idiots. Because society is complex skills that are quite irrelevant in a wild environment become useful – as when self-important officious bureaucrats make life hell for even intellectually superior others.

    But again, none of this means that our animal traits have gone away. You only have to look at the continued subsumed status of women to see that animal male domination still wins over social equality – and no more so than in many religious communities. Just look at the irrationality of jealous rage – how is that not an animal instinct?

    And there is serious work that suggests that we have lots of potential sociopaths running our economies. The alpha males often have specific psychological characteristics.

    Try Jim Fallon on psychopaths, which includes a genetic element but does not require your bogus ‘selfish-gene’. Again, this is by way of explanation, is not ‘excusing’ behaviour:
    http://youtu.be/u2V0vOFexY4 (TED talk. Think about the alpha male principle when he refers to the consequences in the Middle East).
    http://youtu.be/Vx8RxRn6dWU (More detail. Interesting takes on the 1 pill fits all, and on Libertarians)
    http://youtu.be/cnV4RnWcmWo

    An important distinction here is that in other animals that don’t have the neocortex we have there might be neither the neurology to sociopathic tendency, nor the intellectual skill, to pull it off as a tool of domination. Psychopathy may exist and become dominant only in species that have the appropriate brains. So yes it’s all very complicated.

    Frans de Waal: Moral behaviour in animals as precursors to human morality:
    http://www.ted.com/talks/frans_de_waal_do_animals_have_morals.html
    “Human morality is more than this, but if you removed these two pillars (reciprocity, empathy) there would not be much remaining.”

    Try David Eaglemann:
    http://youtu.be/7KsAFALdp2w – Here on situational factors. Again, not excusing behaviour but looking for explanations.
    http://www.eagleman.com/incognito – His site. I recommend the book.

    Robert D Hare
    http://www.amazon.com/Snakes-Suits-When-Psychopaths-Work/dp/0061147893 – Book on psychopaths in business. Alpha male is now a sociopath?

    We need to be careful of the God of the gaps moves here; or unevidenced philosophy of the gaps. Whatever intermediate species existed between modern humans our common ancestors with the other apes have long gone. We have no means of demonstrating directly the comparative behaviours and moral precursors in these intermediate species. The gap between us and other animals, even other apes, looks superficially insurmountable.

    But that’s a naive or motivated (often by religious human speciality) ignorance. The science is very clear. We are animals. The parts of the brain that are still similar to those of other species still work in the same way and do the same things. They control our basic desires and drives. That’s why science on mice can be used to tell us a lot about humans.

    It’s only the development of the neocortex that seems to be the significant differentiator. But as significant as it is, it doesn’t mean we have the free-will to override our biological drives as easily as we would like. If we could then there would have been no rise of religion to tell us how sinful we are – we’d all be rationally behaving in co-operative social groups without any difficulty. Our messy human societies are partly the result of the fact that we have not shaken off our animal nature. It’s the basis for what we both love and hate about humans. It’s the source of human love, and of human hate, and of human c-operation.

  69. Mike,

    Why choose pragmatism? Why not? My brain makes me do it? Literally. My brain contains the information that persuades my brain that traditional morality is actually inhibiting progress, and that there is no evidence for any objective morality anyway. Reasoning about this information is what my brain does and it reaches the tentative conclusion that pragmatism is a better approach.

    Why not the opposite or some other option? Which opposite? Irrationality? There are enough people believing in unevidenced gods and objective moral codes written in the stars. And history shows these beliefs to be of little help and to be quite divisive. My biological empathetic sensibilities are irritated when I see them at work.

    Why select one system of values over another? Because my brain makes me do it. The combined biological and sociological factors that bring me to where I am now result in my reasoned opinion being that all humans have desires, that I have no objective special privilege, that I have empathetic drives that tend to outweigh my selfish ones on matters of human social organisation (though my more immediate selfish drives might make me take the last donut).

    It seems that the religious are just as much the product of their brains and their brains’ environmental experiential histories. I have no special privilege over them that I can discover. But my brain drives me to engage in debates about these issues.

    Again my pragmatic brain does this because I am motivated to make my values have their say. My brain is disturbed by what I see as the irrational privilege given to irrational ideas. These affect me directly and indirectly. I pay taxes, only to have some of them give to religious organisations. I see religious leaders given undue reverence in public debate and in political influence. And I see their moralising to be particularly irrational and hypocritical in its application.

  70. Ron Murphy,

    Are you claiming that your views are determined (or reducible to) deterministic processes in your nervous system? That is, you just believe what you do because of your bio-chemical make-up and there is no matter of you choosing one set of values over another?

  71. Ron Murphy,

    “1) A moral nihilist in claiming there is no evidence for any objective morality is mistakenly assumed to value nothing.”

    To make a claim to moral nihilism on the basis of there being no evidence to the existence of objective morality is fallacious. I believe the quest for objective morality is a dead end. Instead what I believe we have and always have had as the functional social and personal morality is dialectical morality.

    You claim to have values – which I believe you do. I believe the basis of your system of values is the product of dialectical morality – and an ongoing dialectical process.

    For the same reason I don’t believe true nihilism is possible – it has to be arrived at through a dialectic. And then it engages the world through dialectics. The result is dialectic morality – and using nihilism as a basis can’t really lead to anything positive.

    “2) A person observing that moral relativism holds in practice is mistakenly taken to be endorsing moral relativism as a practice.”

    Moral relativism is the greatest cop out of all time. It is simply a way of abdicating moral responsibility, either because of cowardice or some malevolent intent – it’s all bath water with no baby.

    The term is borrowed from Einstein (special relativity – and it borrows heavily). Here I will borrow from quantum physics, though I’m not going to state the formulation. I propose Moral Entanglement, and even Moral Spooky Action at a distance. From Quantum Field Theory; Moral Field Theory.

  72. Mike,

    “… you just believe what you do because of your bio-chemical make-up and there is no matter of you choosing one set of values over another?”

    I see no evidence to the contrary, on that specific point of me, my brain, making decisions. Through science we seem happy to attribute material causes to everything else in the universe, and we subscribe to the theory of evolution and that tells us that we are evolved from non-brained creatures, and at the beginning of life the only viable explanation is that all life is innate matter interacting dynamically to form molecules, complex molecules, cells, organisms. Is there really anything else on the table, or just philosophical and theological speculative alternatives, like free will?

    From our perspective can we tell if the sun rises and goes around the earth, or does the earth spin in front of the sun? Don’t they both feel the same? Science tells us that one is an illusion.

    What would it feel like if our decisions were physically determined, and yet our experience of making decisions could not detect the physical causes of our decisions; or alternatively what would it feel like if we had real free will, free of these physical processes? Would we be able to tell the difference? Science tells us that the former seems most likely, and that there is no evidence of the latter.

    The personal introspective subjective perspective seems to persuade lots of people that their will is free. But free in what way? Free of what? And they insist that this one perspective is convincing. With optical illusions we can see a different perspective if we which and expose the illusion: http://richardwiseman.wordpress.com/2013/02/07/want-to-see-an-impossible-chair/. Why do some people insist that the introspective perspective tells them the true story about free will? Why is the mental illusion so hard to shake off?

    Do you have any evidence that our brains/minds work in any other way? Or are you sticking with the ancient philosophical guess, or the theological assertion, or the introspective appearance, that our will is actually free of these material processes?

    Do you suppose that some people are persuaded that we have free will not from any evidential or deductive reasoning but simply because without free will their many other ideas are screwed?

  73. JMRC,

    “To make a claim to moral nihilism on the basis of there being no evidence to the existence of objective morality is fallacious.”

    Can you explain why?

    As it happens I have already made the point that moral nihilism, as a lebel, can be misleading. It may be that some moral nihilists flat out deny there are any morals. But my position in (1) was “A moral nihilist in claiming there is no evidence for any objective morality…”, so at that point the claim was about the lack of evidence for objective morality, not being certain that there isn’t any. That’s why I’ve asked what evidence for objective morality there might be.

    I tend to agree that a search for objective morality (outside the human context) is a dead end, both because over the centuries no evidence has been provided, an no real argument, and there is good evidence that all moral ideas that humans have a biological source. But we don’t know what we might uncover in the future.

    “Instead what I believe we have and always have had as the functional social and personal morality is dialectical morality.”

    I’m not sure what you mean here. Could you expand. If you simply mean that we’ve had endless supposedly logical debates about morality, then I agree. But I’d say even when the arguments are valid they lack solid premises upon which to make them sound arguments, and so the dialectic is endless. That’s the beef I have with rationalism, idealism, pure reason: endless arguments that can’t be resolved because no side can prove their premises. That’s why material empirical science is the best we can do. That’s why evidence is the great decider – even if it changes over time.

    “I believe the basis of your system of values is the product of dialectical morality – and an on-going dialectical process.”

    Well yes. But influenced by the evidence of all that suggests the biological source, and no evidence of any wider objective morality.

    “For the same reason I don’t believe true nihilism is possible – it has to be arrived at through a dialectic. And then it engages the world through dialectics. The result is dialectic morality – and using nihilism as a basis can’t really lead to anything positive.”

    Couple of things here. First, can you explain why you don’t believe true nihilism is possible, and maybe say what you think true nihilism is. I don’t see the explanation in what you follow with. Second, I don’t get your point that using nihilism as a basis can’t really lead to anything positive – was it supposed to? Moral nihilism, at its simplest, simply denies any objective morality. In that sense I’m a moral nihilist, but because of the reasons I’ve given regarding evidence. But I also see the point Damassio makes that ‘value’ is important to humans, physiologically, which in the complex unfolding of evolutionary processes leaves humans with traits like empathy, fear, disgust and so on. So I am quite happy with humans valuing, having values, prioritising their values, socialising them into laws. I see all that as just the way the world is, for humans. While I attribute positive and negative value according to the pleasure and pain, emotional comfort and discomfort, and so on, I don’t see anything objectively positive is to be found or required any more than I see objective morality. Maybe I’ve misunderstood what you were getting at.

  74. It seems that if a couple of perceptive psychologists and social psychologists were to spend a few hours asking me about my education, my friends, the books I’ve read, my family structure, the women I’ve loved, etc., and were to administer one or two basic personality tests, I suspect that they would be able to determine with a great degree of accuracy all my ethical values, whether in a technical sense, I’ve “chosen” them or not.

    That is, they would be able to know without asking directly what values I would “chose” among the values that differing tendencies, philosophies, religions and political ideologies offer.

    In general, people are not much interested in others and so they don’t take the time to study them, but when they do take the time and are reasonably perceptive, they see that most of us are very predictable in our values.

  75. Ron Murphy,

    This would seem to be Hobbes’ view and runs into a similar challenge: if we are deterministic machines, then dispute is merely gears colliding and agreement is merely gears meshing smoothly-so discussion is but the noise of the machine.

  76. Mike,

    I don’t see “if we are deterministic machines, then dispute is merely gears colliding and agreement is merely gears meshing smoothly-so discussion is but the noise of the machine” as a challenge, more an observation of the consequences. In what way do you think it is a challenge? I would expect a challenge to give good reason or evidence to suggest it is wrong.

    Again, consider what our perception of the difference would be were it true or not. Would you expect any apparent difference.

  77. Ron Murphy,

    “I’m not sure what you mean here. Could you expand. If you simply mean that we’ve had endless supposedly logical debates about morality, then I agree. But I’d say even when the arguments are valid they lack solid premises upon which to make them sound arguments, and so the dialectic is endless.”

    Yes, correct, the dialectic is endless. It’s a little ugly, and not really satisfying, but ultimately that may be all there is – and it is productive in the sense it can lead to a better world (also a worse one). Binary logic is inadequate because we do not live in a binary world. It’s just about adequate enough to allow computers to function. The rest of the physical world cannot be described in binary alone.

    This an argument between Lenin and Trotsky. Trotsky believed the dialectic reached an end in a permanent revolution. Lenin believed the only permancy was the dialectic itself. And every wealthy conservative who proposes an End of History, funnyily just where it suits them, is at the same game as Trotsky.

    I dislike the word, nihilism. I don’t like where it can lead. To give you an example of the inadequacy of logic, and where a nihilistic interpretation leads. Nietzsche’s Master/Slave morality. The Master believes in Good and Bad, the Slave believes in Good and Evil. Nietzsche is presenting a problem with no logical solution. The nihilistic interpretation would be Slave morality is absurd. This leads to the NAZIS killing millions of people because they believe what they are ultimately doing is Good, and Evil doesn’t come into it, there is only Good and Bad – pure binary logic – if they do not kill millions then they are being Bad. Nietzsche was demonstrating a weakness in logic, not proposing a new system of moral evaluation.

  78. JMRC,

    “Binary logic is inadequate because we do not live in a binary world. It’s just about adequate enough to allow computers to function. The rest of the physical world cannot be described in binary alone.”

    I’d be interested to know why you think that. Not according to some current ideas. Try Information Theory from Luciano Floridi, and Digital Physics, or “It from bit” of John Wheeler. Though these are speculative, amounting to a speculative metaphysics, I don’t know as there is any good refutation of them.

    “Trotsky believed … ”

    Personally I don’t think it really matters what he believed in the context of this discussion. These are very much free floating political philosophical ideas that don’t have much to do with anything but the revolutionary context in which they were formed.

    I don’t mind the word nihilism. In its various applications it represents some interesting ideas, but none I find I can pin down particularly. Moral nihilism seems quite straight forward in its simple sense of not seeing any objective morality outside the human context of biology and culture, but it is easily expanded into less meaningful philosophical notions that don’t really go anywhere. But my biggest problem with it is that declaring oneself to be a moral nihilist one can easily be misunderstood to be a general nihilist that holds to an extreme form of scepticism that denies all existence. As a materialist moral nihilist, if I accept that label, simply means that I’m a materialist (I don’t deny all existence) and I don’t accept the objective morality, but I still hold to what can be conceived of as moral values, though they derive from the physiological values that human animals experience, and some of the cultural values that we construct.

    “… where a nihilistic interpretation leads. Nietzsche’s Master/Slave morality… ”

    It doesn’t necessarily lead there. It only goes there if some philosopher tries to lead you there by giving you what they think nihilism is; or perhaps if the reader mistakenly takes it to lead down a particular road. That was the point of my point (1): A moral nihilist in claiming there is no evidence for any objective morality is mistakenly assumed to value nothing. A moral nihilist may have values, just not ones based on an objective morality.

    And, many philosophical ideas have no logical solution because they are so much hot air. They are not founded on anything but some philosophical notion of the author, and from there proceed to be ‘proved’ by many twists and turns of rhetoric that don’t really get to be backed up by anything as practical as evidence.

    “they believe what they are ultimately doing is Good, and Evil doesn’t come into it, there is only Good and Bad – pure binary logic”

    I would agree that in politics, religion and much philosophy there are many false dichotomies erected.

    “Nietzsche was demonstrating a weakness in logic”

    If that’s what he really thought then he was on the wrong track. Logic is simple and has no inherent meaning that can be right or wrong. That humans like to construct a right-wrong dichotomy where not appropriate is a flaw in human reasoning, not in logic itself. If he was demonstrating an abuse of logic then he was maybe right.

  79. Ron Murphy,

    Let’s try not to go down the wormhole of theoretical physics. It’s a subject I’m interested in, but I’m struggling enough with it as it is. Schroedinger’s cat: Is it alive, is it dead – the accepted interpretation is it is both alive and dead. Simultaneously true and false. But let’s not go there.

    Why Trotsky is relevant. Trotsky believed the dialectic had a logical conclusion.

    Nietzsche’s Master/Slave morality is a Gotcha!!. The Good in Good and Evil, is not equivalent to the Good, in Good and Bad. If you want to stick to logic for evaluating moral questions, if you pick either binary combination (as you must pick a binary combination for logic), Good and Evil or Good and Bad, you come unstuck quickly. Elsewhere Nietzsche will openly criticise logic, or denounce it – and it’s this kind of thing that gets him the label of being an irrationalist, or nihilistic depending on how you would like to interpret him.

    But he was right. Ayn Rand referred to herself as a rationalist.

    “(1): A moral nihilist in claiming there is no evidence for any objective morality is mistakenly assumed to value nothing. A moral nihilist may have values, just not ones based on an objective morality.”

    Then shouldn’t you be using the term, moral agnostic to be logically consistent. In the same way you can’t claim to be an atheist, if can’t prove God/gods/SphagettiMonster, doesn’t exist. You have to be an agnostic.

    Moral agnostic, just doesn’t sound as sexy as moral nihilist. Like agnostic just sounds a little wet in comparison to atheist.

    If you want to avoid the confusions just call yourself a moral agnostic.

  80. JMRC,

    Binary logic can cover any degree of complexity according to the number of bits. So a 3-bit system can represent 8 states. So I’m not sure what point you are making, or what the relevence of Trotsky is to the OP.

    With so little (zero) evidence for God the term ‘agnosticism’ doesn’t capture the same degree of this failing. It gives the impression that theism has greater credibility than it deserves. Many theists insist that they suffer doubt about their beliefs, so are they agnostics, and would both atheists and theist calling themselves agnostics express the differentiation of belief?

    Are you agnostic about fairies? Do you declare youself as such?

    I’ve already explained my reservations about the term ‘moral nihilism’. But do I really have to use the clumsy pedantic term ‘agnostic’ to describe my position about objective morality? I don’t think it expresses how little credence I give to it.

  81. Ron Murphy,

    “Binary logic can cover any degree of complexity according to the number of bits. So a 3-bit system can represent 8 states.”

    Your fudging. Binary logic is predicated on two possible states; true or false. This is why it is called binary.

    “So I’m not sure what point you are making, or what the relevence of Trotsky is to the OP.”

    Trotsky was wedded to logic. And I believe Hegel too. That all the logical arguments would converge to a single stable state – a logical conclusion. Laplace’s notion of a mechanical deterministic universe, that if there were a Laplacian demon, a demon with perfect knowledge of the motion of all bodies in the universe, at any one time they could tell both the past and predict the future. This is not true. Revolting as it sounds, god roles dice. Laplace’s demon would just have dice, and every time they rolled the result would be different.

    The funny thing here. Is when Newton was working on the orbits of the planets, he came close but there were niggling bits of their procession he couldn’t figure out – so his explanation was God gave the planets a little nudge. Laplace figured out Newton’s error. But when he was presenting his work to Napoleon, as the story goes, Napoleon asked where does God come into all this. To which Laplace replied, “I have no need for that hypothesis”. People interpreted Laplace’s statement to mean he was an atheist – which upset him, as he wasn’t. Just because he had proved Newton wrong, did not mean he had disproved the existence of God.

    “With so little (zero) evidence for God the term ‘agnosticism’ doesn’t capture the same degree of this failing.”

    It’s too wet for you.

    “It gives the impression that theism has greater credibility than it deserves.”

    This is due to a cultural misinterpretation of the word agnostic – not what the word means. It’s etymology is not from the Greek for “Well I’m not really sure, you believe your unprovable fairytales and I’ll believe mine”. It’s “I do not know” – or you do not posses the knowledge. And this is highly consistent with the scientific method – as infuriating as it sounds; absence of evidence isn’t proof of absence. (Yes, I know theists take that as some kind of proof, when it isn’t).

    I have heard Dawkins agree to the term agnostic as being correct – but his use of atheist is to be aggressive because he feels agnostic lacks aggression – not that it isn’t the correct term.

    There is an important reason for agnosticism in science – the experience has been declarations based on lack of proof can come back to bite you in the ass. It also lays the foundations for bad theory. The early pioneers of the germ theory of infectious diseases were laughed out of it by thigh slapping smug bastards (who also believed in the most absurd things there was no proof for – humours). These germs were like fairies – no one had ever seen them. Ignaz Semmelweis found himself trundled into an insane asylum.

    The idiots believed in the miasma theory – bad air – malaria. Without any evidence to suggest what it was that was bad about bad air in the first place.

    There are people who are derisive as regards to the possible existence of God, but are quite willing to entertain the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum physics. A theory that is impossible to either prove or disprove. And if it were true, in an infinite number of those universes, God would exist. We could be in one of the universes where he does exist, or maybe in one where he doesn’t.

    Dawkins supporters are just as smug and certain as the bible bashers – and it has to be said, it’s gotten the point where they are equally as irritating. The vast majority are not basing their beliefs in Dawkins on the basis of their own scientific knowledge. They are in a culture that places scientists on a pedstal – just like holy men. Their certainties are based on religious faith in science, not their own personal scientific knowledge – the same people believe all kinds of other rubbish for the same cultural reasons.

    “Are you agnostic about fairies? Do you declare youself as such?”

    I don’t believe in them, because I’ve never seen any evidence to suggest they do exist. I would be agnostic as to their existence. can I say it’s a scientific fact that they do not exist?….No, I can only say it’s a scientific fact we do not know if they exist.

    “I’ve already explained my reservations about the term ‘moral nihilism’. But do I really have to use the clumsy pedantic term ‘agnostic’ to describe my position about objective morality? ”

    Can you prove objective morality does not exist, in a way that is consistent with your beliefs in logic?

    You can’t just pick and choose terminology because you do or don’t like the sound of things.

  82. JMRC,

    Not sure what this has to do with the OP, but …….

    We use multiple bits to describe things, when encoding them digitally. The whole universe isn’t simply true or false depending on the existence and state of a single bit. You are mistaking the representational base system for values of a system that can be represented using that base system.

    A dialectic is reaching a conclusion by the exchange of logical arguments. They are not necessarily binary.

    Here’s a binary one:

    The best traffic light colour red! True or False binary conclusion:

    Person A:
    - Well, because ….
    - And because green and amber are rubbish
    - And given that in this country there is no red+amber
    - …
    - Therefore it is true.

    Person B:
    - I disagree, because …
    - …
    - So I conclude green is best.
    - Therefore the statement is false.

    Person C:
    - Since …
    - …
    - So I conclude amber is best.
    - Therefore the statement is false;

    Here’s a non-binary one:

    What is the best traffic light colour, red, green, amber, red+amber? Four possible outcomes:

    Person A:
    - Well, because …
    - …
    - Therefore the best colour is red.

    Person B:
    - I disagree, because …
    - …
    - Therefore the best colour is green.

    Person C:
    - Since …
    - …
    - Therefore the best colour is amber.

    Now in the context of this: “The dialectical method is discourse between two or more people holding different points of view about a subject, who wish to establish the truth of the matter guided by reasoned arguments.” (from here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialectic) the ‘truth of the matter’ does not have to correpond with a two-state question or a two-possible-tate conclusion.

    Even the definition of ‘dialectic’ isn’t two-state binary but has many possible definitions.

    “… all the logical arguments would converge to a single stable state – a logical conclusion…”

    Even if this bunk were true it’s still a logical conclusion, not a binary one. The ‘stable state’ could be anything from a single bit (true/false) to many possible bits. State machines are a means of representing the many possible outcomes of a system by a number of states; and if these were encoded in binary they would need some number of bits to represent those states. And logic is a process that can use any number base system. It could use tertiary logic instead of binary. Binary is merely and convenently the lowest base that can be used.

    But Trotsky, Hegel, Laplace, … Newton, … what on earth has any of this to do with the OP? You’ve totally lost me.

  83. JMRC,

    I still don’t know what this has to do with the OP but…

    “I don’t believe in them [fairies], because I’ve never seen any evidence to suggest they do exist. I would be agnostic as to their existence. can I say it’s a scientific fact that they do not exist?….No, I can only say it’s a scientific fact we do not know if they exist.”

    You said you are agnostic about fairies, but you still had to go on to explain to what extent you are agnostic and why.

    “It’s too wet for you.” It is a totally useless term. Far easier to say you’re an a-fairiest, because you don’t positively believe in them.

    I am an a-theist, because I don’t positively believe there is a God. I only positively believe things exist when there is sufficient evidence of reason to suppose they do. I don’t actually know black holes exist, but I’m not an a-black-hole-ist and I am not agnostic towards the existence of black holes, because science has given enough supporting evidence and theory to strongly suggest they do. We don’t have each and every fossil of every creature that ever lived, and so we cannot piece together full chain of fossils from us back to our ape-like ancestors, but I am not an a-evolutionist and I am not agnostic towards evolution.

    When, as fallible humans, we can’t know anything with absolute certainty what possible utility is the term agnostic if we have to start every discussion with it:

    Friend: “Ron, would you like a cup of tea?”

    Me: “Well, I’m actually agnostic about cups of tea because …. I seem to think so maybe I am … solipsism …”

    “Can you prove objective morality does not exist, in a way that is consistent with your beliefs in logic?”

    I thought we’d already been through this. You’ve pretty much used the same answer about fairies above. Why do you so pedantically want to use a label of agnostic when the uncertainty is already stated in other ways which describe the nature of the uncertainty far better?

    “You can’t just pick and choose terminology because you do or don’t like the sound of things.”

    That’s precisely what you are doing. The terms atheism and moral nihilism are very straight forward terms that describe very well the position of atheists and moral nihilists, though the latter term is often misrepresented because the singular term ‘nihilism’ is construed to mean more than is meant by moral nihilism. But, you don’t like those terms and you use extremely unnecessary pedantic explanations as to why; and even run off into all sorts of obscure meaningless philosophy to support your case.

  84. JMRC,

    “Dawkins supporters are just as smug and certain as the bible bashers …”

    This is a patently false assertion. Smug? Maybe. Certain? [Almost] certainly not. Anyone who reads any of Dawkins stuff would have to do just as much selective reading as theists do to miss the contingency he expresses about knowledge.

    “The vast majority are not basing their beliefs in Dawkins …”

    What a strange notion, ‘belief in Dawkins’. If you think people believe in Dawkins in some dogmatic way you should try reading what many atheists had to say to him on his response to the ‘Elevatorgate’ issue: http://www.conservapedia.com/Elevatorgate.

    “They are in a culture that places scientists on a pedestal – just like holy men”

    Not at all like holy men. Holy men urge people to have faith, to believe. And the sheep submit to their authority. Dawkins regularly suggests people should think for themselves. And here’s another, Hitchens:
    http://www.pangeaprogress.com/1/post/2010/11/hitchens-take-the-risk-of-thinking-for-yourself.html

    See the title? Think for yourself? Does that sound like a holy man? And note his inherent agnosticism when he says he doesn’t know stuff, and relishes it.

    Where on earth do you get the idea that the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens are holy men? The people that admire them quite rightly admire them for their work, for what they write and say. But if they write stuff that their thinking-for-themselves admirers disagree with then the admirers will not admire those points. How about the otehr New Atheist Sam Harris. He receives a lot of criticism from fellow atheists, even ones that admire him. And Dan Dennett, the other Horseman of the Apocalypse? I disagree with a few things he has to say too.

    You seem to have a very skewed view of these people and the people that admire them.

    “Their certainties are based on religious faith in science, not their own personal scientific knowledge…”

    This misrepresents the role of science. No living person can possibly know all the details of all science. Science is a system of trust, not of faith. That’s why science successfully changes. Sure, those who don’t practice evolutionary biology professionally rely on the work of those that do. This is no different that you relying on a car mechanic to fix your car. If one time you go to a mechanic and he does a bad job, is that it for you? Do you repair your own car, make new tyres and car batteries; do you grow your own food, make your own clothes? How paranoid would you have to be not to trust others to do their job? That’s as far as the trust in science goes, sort of; except in science it’s better than that. The systems, the rigor the methodologies, the reviews, they all contribute to greater trust.

    Does it go wrong sometimes? Sure it does. Just follow https://twitter.com/bengoldacre if you want to find some examples. Or look for individual cases:

    http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/33464/title/A-Decade-of-Misconduct/:
    “A joint investigation carried out over the course of 2 years by the ORI and the UK found that Eric Smart, who studied the molecular mechanisms behind cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, had falsified or fabricated a total of 45 figures-mostly images of Western blots, a technique used to identify proteins-in seven grant applications, three progress reports, and 10 published papers, some of which were cited more than 100 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.”

    Any system of trust, where individuals, both scientists and non-scientists alike, trust other people, other scientists, it will go wrong. We are human beings. That’s the whole point of the methodologies of science, to compensate for that as best we can.

    “…the same people believe all kinds of other rubbish for the same cultural reasons.”

    You do realise you’re tarring yourself with your own brush here. You are making assertions about what atheists that admire some scientists think, assertions about their certainties, without the appearance of the slightest understanding of the inherent contingency that all science proponents maintain, including atheists that come to their atheism through critical thinking and evidence. You make a big fuss about being agnostic, when that is already a given for all science proponents. You even tell me how “There is an important reason for agnosticism in science…” as if atheist science proponents don’t know this.

    Are you one of ‘the same people believe all kinds of other rubbish for the same cultural reasons’; are you, for cultural reasons, finding you dislike some atheist for some reason? How about ignoring whether you like them or not and just engage with the arguments.

  85. The New Atheists are not as certain as, say, the Pope is in epistemological terms.

    What’s more, in general the New Atheists are right about most everything they say.

    However, they tend to be right in such a way that I (and many others) perversely and desperately seek to find some value in what we know is wrong.

    The New Atheists, while not as certain as the Pope is, are as preachy and pontificating and that is what drives me crazy.

    Especially people who preach and pontificate when there is no need to.

    Let say I’m having a few beer and pizza with a friend and there’s this guy who comes over to our table and informs us that beer does in my liver and that pizza clogs my coronary arteries.

    He is right and undoubtedly, well intentioned.

    The first time I thank him politely, even though I’ve known for years that beer is not good for my liver nor pizza for my coronary arteries.

    The second and third and fourth and fifth time he tells me that I begin to get a bit irritated in spite of his good intentions and in spite of the fact that he is correct in his data.

    First of all, he is insulting my intelligence. If he is attentive to who I am, he should sense that I probably already know certain basic health facts and that once having been told them by him and having thanked him politely, I surely now know them.

    Second of all, he is not attentive to what I am doing. I’m not there to look out for my health, but to enjoy food and drink.

    So too the New Atheists have a tendency to preach the good word of non-belief to those who already are non-believers and have absolutely no interest in being informed for the 9999th time that the soul is not eternal.

    Now, from time to time, some of us may, for whatever weird reasons, get together to discuss Plato’s theory of the soul, because we like Plato and he’s a fascinating fellow, not because we really believe that the rest of humanity is chained in a cave and many New Atheists do not seem to sense that we’re just bullshitting about Plato for the joy of it.

    The typical New Atheist will solemnly inform us that Plato has been disproved by science.

    Once again, most of what the New Atheists have to say is correct and if they want to preach the good Word, I’d suggest that they go unto the
    Corinthians and bear witness instead of belaboring their message to life-long sophists and skeptics like myself.

  86. swallerstein,

    That would be fine, except your scenario is all wrong.

    If you went door to door trying to persuade people that pizza was the one true food; if you tried to teach the controversy in schools, that we were all created by the great pizza and that evolution is just a theory; if you insisted non-pizza eaters were destined for hell; if you tried to preach to that guy that he must eat pizza, and only your brand of pizza; if your friends flew planes into buildings in the name of your pizza; if your pizza distributor had a privileged position in government just because he distributed pizzas; … you get the message. The the other guy would be entitled to tell you exactly what he though of your pizzas.

    A few thousand years of domination by believers in woo and there’s all this whining about atheist trying to make a case as to why this privilege and deference should not continue, and in the process making the case that the woo is no grounds for that privilege and deference. And still religion dominates the lives if millions, conning them into subserviance. And still the whining.

    And yet another way your scenario is wrong: atheists don’t go into pizza huts, sorry, churches, uninvited preaching atheism. But religeous  preachers seem pretty uninhibited about where they want to lead us in prayer. Atheists are entitled to make their case.

    In this particular case the OP is about morality, and specifically the notion of obligation. Everything I’ve said has been specifically related to that, unless sidetracked by by off-topic assertions about the nature of logic, or the right to eat pizza in peace. Now if you think Plato’s theory of the soul has relevance to the OP then fine. But the OP is part of a set about very practical political issues about gun control and the rights of self-defence. Personally I don’t see how Plato’s theory of the soul fits in.

  87. Ron Murphy,

    To paraphrase the NRA; religion doesn’t con people into subservience, people do.

    Religion is used by a lot of evil bastards for their own evil ends. It always has. Someone like Ann Coulter claims to be a Christian. She doesn’t attend the services of any denomination, and when questioned on her “Christianity” she gives some glib “please punch me very hard in the face” answer, like Jesus died on the cross for her sins and she is saved, and she doesn’t have to do or say anything else. Of course she doesn’t believe in any of this crap. It’s a wonderful form of Christianity, just conservative enough to show you’re culturally conservative, but not enough that you feel compelled to live in the spirit of Gospel of luke. Christianity for dancing bastards.

    The truth is, only about 10% of Americans are believers, just like Europe – that’s the church attendance figures. And the rest who do not attend any church or service are just spouting noxious right-wing cultural bull with their claims to “Christianity”. They are not believers. They believe in belief. They believe that as long as there is conservative Christianity, then all the same social and economic injustices will remain. People like Dawkins are helping these people, by giving them an opportunity to fight back for something they don’t really believe in. He does two very wrong things. He picks fights and upsets people who are no real intellectual match for him, and who are leading harmless lives, and he helps the bastards like Coulter look good – look like defenders of the faith.

  88. swallerstein,

    If it moves like a Jehovah’s Witness, looks like a Jehovah’s Witness, talks like a Jehovah’s witness, it is a Jehovah’s witness.

    The New Atheists are a little too credulous and evangelical for my liking. Dawkin’s shows these days are like revival tent meetings – all he’s missing is the snakes.

  89. Why does not Dawkins stop wasting his time and talents and get back to doing more science? Maybe he likes the Limelight which does not always shine fully on the scientist.

  90. Don Bird:

    Maybe Dawkins has past the age of great scientific work.

    I compare him to Chomsky, who after doing very pioneering and important work in linguistics in the 60′s, dedicated himself to saving the world and to some often quite simplistic interpretations of international politics.

    Sartre is another example of the same phenomenon. In fact, worse, since Sartre’s politics from the late 60′s and 70′s are downright ridiculous, while Chomsky’s politics and Dawkins’s stuff on religion are often worth reading.

  91. JMRC,

    “The truth is, only about 10% of Americans are believers, just like Europe – that’s the church attendance figures.”

    An incredible assertion. How can you conflate the two? Just because lots of people couldn’t be arsed getting up on a Sunday morning doesn’t mean they don’t believe.

    “And the rest who do not attend any church or service are just spouting noxious right-wing cultural bull with their claims to “Christianity”.”

    An assertion. This is odd. I find I’m defending the right of people to self-proclaim to believe.

    “religion doesn’t con people into subservience, people do”

    Science, philosophy, religion, yes, all done by fallible humans.

    But religions generally aim to affirm the belief, no matter what; and often value what in science would be considered fallibilities to be accounted for and maybe compensated for, such as intuition. Religion is pretty much guaranteed to affirm the wrong conclusion if you start with the wrong premise – the latter usually being a presupposition of God. And religions use strong indoctrinating rhetoric and propaganda. See the problem?

    “People like Dawkins are helping these people…”

    The very notion that Dawkins and others should keep quiet so as not to stur up the vipers nest of religious ire is ridiculous. Just look at the increase in sceptical, secular and atheist organisations that have arisen from the work of the likes of Dawkins.

    Imagine a world without post-9/11 New Atheists, or without the angry LGBT of the seventies, or the black civil rights movement of the sixties, and the anti-war movement over Vietnam. Shutting up isn’t an option.

    “He picks fights and upsets people who are no real intellectual match for him, and who are leading harmless lives”

    Can you give examples? I only see Dawkins debating with people prepared to debate, in arenas where people freely attend. He makes a great point of not wishing to push his case with vulnerable or suffering people. As far as I know he doesn’t stand outside his local church of a Sunday with atheist leaflets. But he as just as much right to express his views in books or on speaking circuits as any theist.

    I think your antagonism towards new atheists is misplaced. Sounds like whining for no real purpose.

    And I still don’t know what this has to do with the OP.

  92. swallerstein,

    Maybe Dawkins is past the age of individual work. Isn’t that how it usually goes in academic science as new blood comes in. He’s an emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford – a retirement title usually. He’s had several roles promoting the understanding of science, which given the antagonism towards and ignorance of science within much religion puts his talks on science in perspective. And since his God Delusion book he is often invited to talk on the very issue of religion versus science, sometimes by religiously persuaded institutions.

    So I’m not sure what your issue is with Dawkins. Maybe Dawkins comes across a bit stiff an sniffy, but then maybe that’s just his personal manner. You can see it in his 1991 Christmas Lectures on Youtube. But what about Susan Jacoby, Jow Nickel, Paul Kurtz, Carl Sagan; or maybe even Matt Lowry, Rebecca Watson? It isn’t like there’s just Dawkins, or Harris, these few grand New Atheists, that are out their promoting science and reason and criticising religion.

    “those who already are non-believers and have absolutely no interest in being informed for the 9999th time that the soul is not eternal.”

    …and yet…

    “from time to time, some of us may, for whatever weird reasons, get together to discuss Plato’s theory of the soul”

    So, you only want to consider aspects of a soul that fits your pet philosopher? OK, go to it. You can always ignore anything that isn’t directed at your particular world view. There are countless religious services going on around the world. Do you listen to all those that tell you the soul is eternal? Do they bug you to the same extent as criticisms of religion by Dawkins?

    And I still don’t know what this has to do with the OP.

  93. Ron Murphy:

    Do you really want to compare the New Atheists to
    the U.S. civil rights movement or to the gay liberation movement?

    Martin Luther King was assassinated; various civil rights workers were also murdered; blacks were lynched in the U.S. south; marchers were arrested and beaten.

    Blacks were denied the right to vote, to sit down on buses, to attend state universities.

    I don’t think that the situation of atheists in any Western country is anyway near as horrid as that of blacks in the U.S. before the civil rights movement. (I’m not speaking of Islamic nations).

    Nor is religion anyway near as oppressive in general (I leave aside Muslim fundamentalism) as
    racism was in the U.S. or in apartheid South Africa.

    It is extraordinarily pretentious and ethically obscene for a group of activists, the New Atheists, who run no personal risks and often are very well paid for their evangelizing efforts, to take on the mantel of courageous people like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and so many others who risked their lives against oppression.

  94. swallerstein,

    “Do you really want to compare the New Atheists to…”

    For the purpose for which I made the comparison, yes.

    I’m not sure why you wanted to read into my comparison this other aspect of these disparate groups, when it should have been clear I was only talking about the vocal nature of the proponents of these in response to JMRC, and particularly his point that a vocal Dawkins is somehow enabling opponents.

    If we look at it in terms of analogies, as discussed on another post …

    So, my analogy could be:
    1) X (Civil Rights, as one example) and Y (New atheists) has the property of being vocal (P)
    2) X has property Z (vocal activism works and is therefore useful)
    3) Therefore Y (New Atheism) has property Z (it works and is therefore useful)

    I’ll grant that analogies are weaker than deductive proof and other kinds of inductive argument, but I think my point is demostrated by it. And I don’t see any grounds for JMRC’s point that New Atheists should not be vocal. And your twisting of it is specious.

    You seem to be suggesting:
    4) But X has property W (super important and dangerous)
    5) And Y is ~W
    6) Therefore Y should shut up (avoid P) because it doesn’t work (Z) as JMRC says?

    But despite this bogus diversion, your claim to this particular distinction isn’t that clear:

    Religious critics haven’t been killed? And atheists don’t receive death threats? And it doesn’t happen in the West? Kurt Westergaard, Salmon Rushdie, Theo van Gogh; and yes, the countless victims of Islam in Islamic states.

    “I’m not speaking of Islamic nations”

    Cherry picking fallacy? New Atheists and the wider atheist and sceptical movement do criticise Islam, and are just as exposed to threats in Western Europe or the USA or anywhere. And Christians aren’t all that Christian and tolerant of criticism – as demonstrated by white Christian racists.

    “Nor is religion anyway near as oppressive in general as racism was in the U.S. or in apartheid South Africa.”

    I agree, mostly. But so what. But racism is easy to implement and races easy to oppress. It depends on skin colour in the cases you cite. But look at the difficulty there has been of getting atheist politicians to power in the US. I think the recent few are as a direct result of vocal criticism of religious privilege over the last ten years or so. But even so, doesn’t the racism and the homophobia that is inherent in some religions make it all the more reasonable to be outspoken about religion? Dawkins raise the point of homophobia in religion, as well as his otehr criticisms.

    And you might well conveniently leave out Islam again. Dawkins is a critic of Islam, and in the UK he is particularly critical of the Islamic schools that teach creationism and anti-evolution. But he admits he focuses on Christianity because that’s what he knows most about, it being the religion he is familiar with from childhood.

    And there is a whole sceptical liberation movement which opposes all forms of discrimination that includes many outspoken activists that don’t focus on religion. The New Atheists (not their choice of label but one imposed on them by religious opponents who don’t like their religion criticised so vocally) are just as much opposed to discrimination of all kinds. You’ll find many atheists in organisations like the British Humanist Association, which is also outspoken on religious privilege.

    But only when the focus is on religion is their ‘New Atheism’ noticed, by religious opponents and, for some reason I can’t fathom, other atheists. What exactly is your beef? This complaint about how vocal they are is a bit weak.

    Anyway, Dawkins tends to refer to himself as a proponent of science and critical thinking. There comes a point where labels stick whether you want them or not.

    “who run no personal risks”

    See above. In the early days of his outspokenness Dan Dennett was strongly advised to have protection because of the potential threat. Remember that where they were often visiting was the God fearing white supremacist heartland of America, so it wasn’t at all clear that they were in no danger. Jerry Coyne’s recent tour of the South required him to have security too. Fortunately he had to suffer little more than in-your-face vitriol. But this is the problem with religious threats: religion can indoctrinate nut cases into actually carrying out the threats, and you don’t know where they are coming from. Religion is an enabler of violence in the name of God.

    ” and often are very well paid for their evangelizing efforts”

    There’s a problem with being paid for public appearances? And do you know how much Dawkins gets paid for each event? Do you know if he gets paid for all, some or none? Do you have the figures to show how well paid he is? Are you sure he isn’t paid just for his travel and accommodation expenses some times?

    ” to take on the mantel of courageous people like ”

    I wasn’t aware they took on that mantel. Isn’t that something you’ve just made up? It wasn’t even my point either. I was simply demonstrating to JMRC that vocal activism works against repressive, oppressive and dogmatic opposition. I wasn’t even commenting on how courageous Dawkins might be.

    “It is extraordinarily pretentious and ethically obscene for a group of activists …”

    This is exactly the disingenuous and specious come back to the point made that the religious often use against their critics when they can’t come up with anything better. This might be a good example for the post on authenticity.

    And on top of all this, and in the context of this OP, I don’t think it matters one bit that you have some thing about vocal atheism, because there is no moral obligation to be non-vocal that I can see. But hey, the freedom is yours too. Beef away.

    But this really is off topic. I’m happy to continue. If you’re not done you can contact me at ronmurp [at] gmail, or at http://ronmurp.net (pick any post that’s relevant).

  95. Ron Murphy:

    You’re right. We are way off topic and abusing the patience of the blog owners.

    My email is vivepablo@gmail.com

    I’ll take a look at your blog.

    I’m terribly sorry that Jerry Coyne needs security. All my solidarity for Dr. Coyne.

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