Archive for November, 2006

The Science Crusade

Science is, of course, morally and epistemically good irrespective of the methods employed or use to which it is put. Since there is no science or scientific enterprise that is bad anyone who opposes it must be in the grip of moral or epistemological confusion or possibly even both. And often these individuals are not simply hopelessly confused but also bad people; their opposition to science flows from their beastly nature. The enlightened among us should count ourselves lucky, for it only us who recognise that the goodness of science is, akin to the indubitable Cartesian knowledge of the existence of the thinking self, clear and distinct.

Now, I don’t believe this, but it seems that a certain Mr. Ed Owen at the Guardian does. The fact that the article is rhetorically entitled “The Anti-Science Brigade” is perhaps revealing of Owen’s belief in the inculpability of science; if he believed it were sometimes a good thing to oppose science he’d of had no reason to choose that particular title. Thankfully, for most people the value of science is dependent on the ends to which it is put and the methods that it employs. The fact that it is not per se normatively committed but only becomes so through practice means that potential investigations, projects and methods are subjected to ethical scrutiny and normative assessment. Perhaps Mr Owen really knows this and the above is just an instance of rhetorical fervour. Either way, this is no impressive start; on the second construal of what’s going on Owen comes out as a sophist and on the first as seriously mistaken.

So, yes, the article starts badly and I’m afraid to say that it continues on in the same baleful manner. Owen’s main bellyache is with animal rights groups and their illogical and anti-scientific position with regards vivisection. Here he is on the issue:

But extreme ideology is alive and well among peaceful groups that remain committed to a cause which defies logical and scientific analysis.

The language of mainstream animal rights groups reveals how far detached some of them are from rational debate.

Presumably the ideology is extreme because it defies logical and scientific analysis and enjoins criminal action. Indeed, this may well all be true but we are provided with no real reason why to think it so. Unsurprisingly, the only argument Owen deploys is the benefit that vivisection brings to humans. Now, as far as I’m aware some of the anti-vivisectionists are questioning precisely this fact so Owen cannot simply make the contrary claim without begging the question at issue. Here he must provide us some reason, besides appeals to common belief, another logical fallacy, that this is actually the case.

However, even if this were to be the case, Owen has also begged the crucial question. The issue of vivisection actually turns on the question of animal worth. If some animals that we currently experiment on have moral value then experimenting on them might not be justified even if doing so benefits humans. In this case it is useless to simply point to the benefits that such experiments confer on certain humans since ethical reflection is not such a simple enterprise. I cannot simply torture a thousand cats because doing so brings me some health benefits without first determining the kind of moral value, if any, that cats have.

This question, that of the moral worth of non-human animals, is precisely what needs to be determined before anyone can decide on the justifiability of vivisection. It is this question that is continually and myopically overlooked, as if it has somehow been camouflaged to evade scrutiny. But, despite the rhetorical flourishes like those of Owen, it is only by learning to recognise and address this issue that any progress will be made on the justifiability of vivisection.

The “Yuk Factor”

The “Yuk Factor” is the topic Jackie Ashley has decided to opine about in today’s Guardian. What she means by the “yuk factor” is the revolted reaction one has on being exposed to some entity or practice. The thought of being buried activates her yuk factor, whereas the thought of female circumcision and stem cell research does so in many other people.

The point of the article is to promulgate an argument for tolerance. Since these tastes are often culturally divergent and vary between individuals we should be tolerant and open minded about the distastes of other people and their attitudes to ours. And furthermore, that these emotional responses should be included into our politics in as much as we use them as an indicator to the presence of a thorny issue.

But Ashley has confused an issue of taste with an issue of morality. The fact that she recoils at the thought of being buried is an issue of taste. The fact that most of us recoil at the thought of non-consensual circumcision is not simply because we find the matter distasteful, but because we think that the infliction of a serious harm in the absence of consent is morally wrong.

The issue here is that moral issues often fundamentally intersect with the political but issues of taste do not. This is because the former have a certain logical structure that is not shared with the latter. The following proposition:

  • Women should not be circumcised in the absence of informed and freely given consent.

Is prescriptive and universalizable. It is prescriptive because it enjoins you to refrain from performing an action in certain conditions. It is universalizable because it enjoins everyone refraining from that action, in those circumstances, at any particular place or time. The following propositions:

  • I don’t like the idea of being buried.
  • Jack dislikes gherkins.

Are neither prescriptive or universalizable; nor are they beliefs. Nothing of serious political or moral interest follows from the fact that Jack does not like gherkins. Perhaps the only moral proposition that does is an injunction on forcing Jack to eat them against his will. This, however, only follows when conjoined with the normative idea that people should not be forced to do what they find distasteful in the absence of a mitigating purpose.

Moral issues often have large scale political ramifications in virtue of them having these properties. Non-consensual female circumcision should, according to most of us, be banned because it is a very serious harm and a violation of someone’s person and preferences. Legislating against such practices, a legal reification of the moral injunction, holds irrespective of the putative perpetrator and victim, place and time. As such, it is inherently a political issue.

Ashley’s feeling of revulsion at the thought of being buried or Jack’s distaste for gherkins, however, have no political consequences precisely because they differ fundamentally in structure from moral issues.

It is because of this that the yuk factor has nothing to do with tolerance or political debate. Something can only be a subject of toleration when someone believes that that action or practice is morally wrong; that there is something there to tolerate. It is senseless to speak of Ashley tolerating my burial since her distaste for burial is inherently neither prescriptive, in the requisite sense, nor universalizable.

Failing to properly distinguish between issues of taste and issues of morality is dangerous because it may lead one to treat an issue of taste as one of morality and vice versa. The case of stem cell research, as raised by Ashley, may well be such an example. Although it should be obvious that simply disliking the idea of stem cell research is not a sufficient condition for its prohibition, it may well be the case that many people oppose it on these grounds. But successfully supporting the prohibition would require evidence that such research was in violation of some moral principle, or set of, that we thought carried normative weight and not simply that some people found it distasteful.

Moreover, the presence of a plethora of moral positions is not, simpliciter, evidence for the necessity of tolerance. There are other recourses to divergence of moral opinion, force or imprisonment being a commonly practiced alternative. This is not to claim that those options are the correct recourse to moral conflict, but to remind Ashley that her argument for tolerance from diversity would be unsuccessful even if understood as not making the above conflation.

A Matter of Faith

It seems that recently one cannot open the newspaper without being immediately blasted by issues of religion and faith. These are charged and important topics since beliefs and standards of evidence in acquiring those beliefs play directly into how we live our lives and how we relate to other humans and communities. As such, it’s probably a good idea to spend some time trying to think clearly about the issues raised. This is what Grayling was trying to do whilst replying to something claimed in a report by the theology think tank Theos.

Grayling’s gripe was with a comment in the forward about atheism and faith. The authors claimed that atheism itself was a faith proposition and Grayling, in my eyes, rightly took issue with them. I think those that want faith to play a role in their lives tend to have two strategies for defending themselves against attacks mounted by non-believers. The first is an appeal to outrage and the second a tu quoque.

Perhaps one of the funniest things I’ve ever read on the issue of faith was a short passage dedicated to the subject in Jamie Whyte’s book Bad Thoughts. Here is a small chunk of it:

Rather than trying to obscure your prejudice, boldly declare it as a virtue. You have no reason to believe that you do, no evidence, no argument. Of course not. This is a matter Faith! Now you have captured the really high ground. Speak with a hushed and beseeching tone. Let the pain of your sincerity appear in small grimaces as you hold forth. Who but a philistine with no sense of the sacred, no respect for your deepest convictions, would expect you to provide evidence? (p26)

This is Plan A. You deploy Plan A if you believe something on no evidence and are unwilling to abandon the belief when presented with reason to do so. In the absence of evidence faith functions either to provide the requisite warrant for the belief or to deny that any warrant is needed in the first place. You don’t have to give up your belief because you have faith and this works either in the place of evidence or says that you can justifiably believe it without evidence. So, on being asked why you believe in an all powerful, all knowing and omnipresent being but can provide no evidence that would justifiably induce the belief in someone else, you claim it is a matter of personal faith.

But Plan A is coming under pressure from non-believers and is no longer cutting the proverbial mustard. The idea of taking things on faith has come to have scummy connotations; faith is becoming an epistemologically sinful concept. It’s time for a new course of action: Plan B. This plan is put into motion by putting the non-believers on the defensive. After all, isn’t attack the best form of defence? Yes! Here’s how it works:

Since you can’t abandon faith without also abandoning your belief in God you’re going to have to learn to live in sin. If Adam and Eve managed it then so can you. The beauty of the next move is to show that non-believers are in the same boat. To do this you’re going to be really clever and show that atheism is, unwittingly, also a faith proposition.

The fact that you have no evidence for the existence of God, yet believe in him irrespective, is constitutive of this being an issue of faith. The fact that they have no evidence against the existence of God (don’t worry about the argument from evil, just sweep it under the carpet) is going to work in the same way; it is constitutive of it being an issue of faith. Since atheists cannot reasonably induce in anyone the belief in the non-existence of God they are hoisted by their own smug petard. Smashing!

But the believer is mistaken here; this was Grayling’s original point. To be a theist is simply to lack positive evidence that would constitute grounds for a belief in the existence of God. Atheism, the belief in the non-existence of God, on the other hand, is formatted so as to be revised in the light of salient evidence. Were you to believe that there was no rhinoceros in the room, you’d certainly revise your belief, and be required to do so, on being shown one lurking in a dark corner. Just as in the above case, lack of positive reason to believe in God is a sufficient condition for not believing in his existence. But the position is not un-defeatable; it is, but only when the requisite evidence is presented, weighed and comes out on top. The fact that those of an atheistic bent are willing to revise when under epistemological pressure is exactly what makes it different from an issue of faith. To have faith is to detach belief from any evidential issue; belief becomes evidentially invariant. That is to say, no change in evidence brings about a change in belief. Atheism, by indexing belief on the evidence, does exactly the opposite.

Arbitrary Suspicion

So, here’s Former Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind proclaiming that he believes the US government intentionally delayed the verdict of the Saddam trial to coincide with their mid-term polls. He readily admits to having no evidence to support this accusation but instead seems to have based it on the idea that the timing is “deeply suspect”.

Presumably then, given the lack of any evidence, the only way the timing could be thought of as suspicious is if we’re to accept that there’s a certain kind of probability relationship between good news for the Republicans and the mid-terms. One that means that as the mid-terms grow closer the natural occurrence of this kind of news becomes significantly less likely. But, of course, there’s no sensible reason to accept that such a relationship exists; unconnected world events do not naturally align themselves to avoid occurring at times when the US happen to be holding their elections. There is simply no need for a conspiratorial explanation for this kind of phenomenon. This sort of unreasoned proclamation by a politician in the media is far from unique, but it’s less common, apart from perhaps in the religious sphere, to see such an overt and unapologetic example of irrational belief. Now, none of this is to say that the Republicans haven’t pulled this particular stunt, and I certainly wouldn’t put it past them, but if Rifkind is right, it’ll be through sheer luck rather than anything approaching intelligent thought.

Senseless on Sensibilities

Well, here’s yet another article in the Comment is Free section of the Guardian, “Think Before You Speak” by Imran Waheed. He’s the media representative of the delightful Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain. Here, he responds to where Peter Tatchell accuses Waheed’s organisation of hypocrisy in “Respect is a Two-Way Street”. I didn’t like it much.

The crux of the argument about “free speech” is not, as Peter Tatchell has suggested in his comment piece Respect is a Two-way Street, that Muslims want to censor criticism of Islam, but rather, as the late art historian Lord Clark asserted, that courtesy is the defining quality of civilisation. Most people do not need Hobbes to tell them that absolute freedom is for “newborn savages” and even Tatchell has conceded that, “A harmonious, good natured society is one where people are civil and courteous to each other.” The suggestion that causing religious offence should be a tribute to the mettle of western society is repugnant.

Now, this sets the tone for the article nicely. Tatchell, remember, pointed out that it’s hypocritical of Waheed’s organisation to demand people stop insulting Muslims while insulting Jews and gays themselves. And Waheed is going to respond to these allegations by demanding people stop insulting Muslims. Nice.

Indeed, absolute freedom may well be for newborn savages, but in saying this, Hobbes, of course, was referring to absolute freedom of action and not absolute freedom of speech. But even if he were, being as serious proponents of free speech don’t actually advocate it as an absolutist notion this still wouldn’t communicate anything relevant about the issue at hand.

It seems that it has become easy to descend the slippery slope from freedom of speech to freedom to insult and then freedom to persecute. Following the comments of Jack Straw on the veil, verbal and physical attacks on the Muslim community have increased, Muslim organisations have received threatening emails, women who wear the veil or the headscarf have been on the receiving end of verbal and physical aggression and the Imam of a mosque in Glasgow was brutally attacked.

Well, firstly, and most strikingly, the “freedom to persecute” still doesn’t exist. Each of those acts of persecution are still firmly illegal and it doesn’t seem sensible to think that they’re going to be legalised any time soon either. So, that slippery slope doesn’t seem like one we have to take all that seriously. That should hardly need saying.

But forgetting that for a moment, according to Waheed, freedom of speech means the freedom to mock the beliefs of others and what invariably follows from that is the freedom to persecute. So let’s have a look at some of the evidence provided to bolster this claim.

Firstly, have these kinds of attacks actually increased? If they have, the article Waheed links to is no evidence of it. In fact, the closest thing to such evidence I can find is, in one case, one Mohammed Shafiq of the Ramadhan Foundation simply claiming it is so. Secondly, even if we have seen an increase in reports of attacks against Muslims since Straw made his comments, it’s not as if this alone means that this increase is because of those comments. And lastly, from the way Waheed included it as evidence, the attack on the Glaswegian imam is made to sound like it was carried out by some right-wing thug. Well, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to think it was motivated by religious or racial intolerance at all. In fact, it looks more like it was carried out by a fellow Muslim who was suffering from acute mental health issues.

But OK, let’s forget all that as well. Are we to think Straw’s rather temperate comments on the veil were nothing more than an example of someone indulging in a nefarious freedom to insult? And that consequentially they were little more than an incitement to violence and persecution? Surely pushing for the prohibition of, or at least the cessation of, these sorts of comments is exactly what wanting to censor criticism of Islam might entail. If this category is so broad as to include comments as moderate as these then seeking to curtail this kind of freedom seems not only draconian but positively malevolent.

But perhaps Waheed didn’t mean that. Perhaps he meant that Straw’s comments were not merely insults, but the aforementioned slippery slope came into play, they led to insults and then led to persecution. He hasn’t said that directly, nor provided any evidence for it, but I suppose it’s possible that’s what he’s implying. Either way though, this seems to put us in the same position; because, as Waheed would have it, even these non-insulting comments would eventually transgress into persecution, but we can’t have persecution, so, again, we shouldn’t allow or should choose not to make these sorts of comments to begin with.

As someone who grew up in an Australia in the 1960s, during a period of McCarthyite-style red baiting, some would have expected that Tatchell would have recognised the growing hysteria against British Muslims in recent days. Over the last year, we have seen the furore over the Danish cartoons, the Pope quoting descriptions of Islam as “evil and inhuman”, aspects of Islam labelled an “evil ideology” by Tony Blair and the use of the term Islamo-fascism by George Bush. On the domestic arena, comments by a succession of cabinet ministers seem to have fuelled an anti-Muslim frenzy – Jack Straw has alleged that the wearing of the veil by a small number of Muslim women affects community cohesion, John Reid has suggested that Muslim parents spy on their children and Ruth Kelly has made unsubstantiated allegations that some Muslim schools are breeding isolationism and extremism.

Well, yeah, Blair and Bush described certain aspects of Islam as “evil ideology” and “Islamic fascism”, but it’s worth bearing in mind that in both cases they were referring to aspects of Islam that influence people to carry out suicide bombings on trains and commercial airliners. So, in using those terms they were, what, just attempting to whip-up hysteria against Muslims were they? And this is because those terms are inappropriate? Or is it that, yes, they are appropriate, but they should have just shut up about it anyway?

It’s strange indeed that Waheed should even mention the “furore over the Danish cartoons”. It’s not as if it were a case of Islam being sneered at and innocent Muslims being attacked as a result. In fact, it was quite the opposite. The responsibility for any bad press Islam may have received from the whole cartoon saga, I’d say, would lie with the fanatics who rioted, burned down embassies and killed innocent people. And also, with the Danish Muslim leaders who travelled to the Middle East to publicise the cartoons and added another, potentially far more offensive picture. In this case, one that was never printed by Jyllands-Posten nor even intended to be one of Mohammed. Growing hysteria indeed.

We have become accustomed to bemoaning the rise in anti-social behaviour, the loss of a sense of a community and the culture of disrespect in the classroom. However have we questioned whether the “freedom to insult” culture is contributing to these wider societal trends?

Presumably, Waheed has questioned it. And he thinks it is. Well, one unsubstantiated idea deserves another, I suppose.

Although Tatchell has “supported the right” of newspapers to publish cartoons satirising Islam, even he does not advocate free speech without restrictions, arguing for restrictions to free speech “when it involves incitement to violence or libel/defamation”. In reality there is no such thing as absolute free speech. Editors do not publish cartoons ridiculing the Holocaust, pictures of dead British soldiers in Iraq or articles promoting paedophilia. Paying someone a salary and giving them a Fleet Street office does not change the reality of what is, in all but name, censorship.

So, some editors choose to publish cartoons satirising Islam whilst choosing not to publish cartoons that ridicule the Holocaust or articles that promote paedophilia. And this shows, errr, that those editors consider an irrational belief system with some decidedly nasty elements to be a more appropriate target for ridicule than an act of mass genocide? Or acts of child abuse? Well, so what? No matter how much Waheed wants to equivocate on the term “censorship”, newspapers, in simply choosing not to publish certain things, are never going to be a meaningful example of it.

The real question is not whether Muslims should respect freedom of speech but rather whether society is able to accommodate people whose values and religious beliefs are different from our own. Those who wish to insult the beliefs of others should not hide away from robust debate under the façade of freedom of speech. However, there is a very real recognition from Muslim organisations, including Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain, for the need to intensify our engagement in discussion and dialogue with wider society.

Why is that the “real question”? I mean, that’s a fairly revolting thing to say. “Westerners value freedom of speech and Muslims [apparently, according to Waheed] value censorship – so westerners need to change”. And how exactly are people using freedom of speech to protect themselves from debate? How does that idea even work? Freedom of speech is a concept inherently at odds with that of censorship. So, how could anyone be using it to stifle debate? That’s like trying to stifle a fire by spraying paraffin onto it.

Why I Mildly Dislike Julie Bindel

Yesterday’s publication of the Guardian saw “Why I Hate Men” by Julie Bindel printed in the Comment is Free section. Depressingly the standard of the article comes as little surprise. I’m starting to think this section of the paper would be better off entitled “Comment is Free (And You Get What You Pay For)” as Ed has joked.

In the article Bindel tells us why she hates men. Well, actually, its not men she hates but:

[O]nly the men who perpetrate these crimes (rape, violence, torture, molestation and other cases of sexual harassment) against my sisters, and those who do nothing to stop it.

Now, the first part of the conjunction is something of a prosaicism since practically everyone is in agreement about the distastefulness of the behavior of those individuals who carry-out these sorts of acts; all are criminal acts punishable by law. The interesting question is why Bindel hates those that do nothing to stop these acts and why it is that only men fall prey to her contempt.

So what does “doing nothing to stop these acts” actually mean? Is she referring to men present when these acts are perpetrated but who fail to intervene or men who simply are not generally active in the attempted curtailment of these crimes? If it’s the former that are the objects of her derision then there is nothing to quibble over; if it’s the latter then there probably is. For men to be morally blameworthy here would require that the requisite activism be one of our pressing moral duties, yet that seems to be a very strong demand as it would overload us with positive duties.

Furthermore, why does this duty befall men and not women; and why does Bindel not also hate those women that do nothing to stop it? Bindel can’t exclude women who perpetrate these crimes or acquiesce in their occurrence without relying on an implicit sexist premise; the idea that culpability has something to do with being a man. But maybe this is being uncharitable; maybe these women are as much the object of her derision as the men in question. Were this to be the case, however, Bindel would again be broadcasting her sexist presuppositions as the article would have nothing to do with men or manhood, but only those people who commit these crimes and who fail to act. In which case the article should be titled “Why I Hate Those People Who Commit Terrible Crimes and Who Fail to Act in Preventing These Crimes”. Then again, it’s more than likely that such a banality would never have been published in the first place.

Sticking it to the Rationalist Man

In her article “The Sickness of SecularismSoumaya Ghannoushi claims that:

We are witnessing the rise of an arrogant secularist rhetoric founded on belief in the supremacy of reason and absolute faith in science and progress, dogmas which arouse ridicule in serious academic and intellectual circles nowadays.

Of course, since it’s obviously the case that we should resist people in the grip of dogmas that are the object of ridicule by serious academics and intellectuals it follows we should resist this perverted secularism, especially if these secularists are arrogant bastards. And they certainly are; a brief read of Dawkins and Grayling, two of the high priests of the secularist movement, will leave one with the bitter taste of epistemic intolerance.

Unsurprisingly, I think there is very little agreeable with Ghannoushi’s nugget of fallacious rhetoric. The most striking fact, I suppose, is that it is simply a monumental question beg; an assumption that in being arrogant and intolerant the relevant kind of secularism is hopelessly misguided. But this is exactly the issue since evidence that certain epistemic practices or tools are ill-conceived is, ipso facto, support for their exclusion from any adequate epistemology. Ghannoushi provides us with nothing but an argument from (misplaced) authority and an assertion that we are to disavow the methods professed by the likes of Dawkins and Grayling. But this is not enough. We want to know why we should employ epistemologies that to us seem wrongheaded. This, however, is not something we are provided with.

But maybe it’s because I’m an arrogant bastard in the grip of a secularist fever whose symptoms include epistemological hallucinations that I’m looking for a decent argument in the first place.