Thought of the day

Utilitarianism is the only approach that makes sense in government (and personal) policies. It takes into account the need for freedom and personal autonomy by virtue of those being things which increase the net good and decrease pain, but it doesn’t tie us down to ridiculous conclusions, such as libertarianism does. For example, libertarianism forces this absurd idea that fire departments don’t need to respond when the burning structure belongs to someone who owes a fee or pays taxes in a different but immediately neighboring district. These things do not happen as a result of utilitarianism.


One more time: Correcting the ignorant on utilitarianism

I wrote some time ago about Michael Hartwell’s poor grasp of philosophy. Specifically, I went into detail about why he has no idea what utilitarianism even is. However, one thing has been bothering me for quite some time and I want to address it now. Here is what I want to address from Hartwell:

Utilitarianism, in its most basic sense, is committing an evil act to counter a greater evil.

I’ve touched on my issue with this asinine statement, but I want to make sure it is out there in the open as much as possible. It just gets under my skin when someone is this monumentally wrong about something.

Utilitarianism defines what is good as that which maximizes pleasure and reduces pain. Generally, more weight is given to reducing pain, but that is getting into the details and isn’t important here. What is important is that we’re talking about an ethical theory which is in and of itself defining what is good. This cannot be anymore clear. And all the other ethical theories do the same thing. In fact, holy texts do it, too. That’s why it is often futile to argue with certain fundamentalists. Sure, by normal standards we would say it was evil of God to say rape victims had to marry their rapists, but the fundamentalist is going by the assumption that good and evil are defined by the Bible and, more specifically, God. Since God, by definition, can do no wrong, then his rape command cannot be evil. Or so the story goes. The difference, however, with Enlightenment period ethical theories is that they are based and built upon reason.

So I have two problems with saying utilitarianism is committing an evil act to counter a greater evil. First, that could just as easily be phrased, ‘Utilitarianism is committing an act of greater good in order to counter an act of lesser good.’ Talking about evil is nothing more than dishonest spin. Second and more to the point, it makes zero sense to analyze an ethical theory from within if one already has an assumption of what is good and evil. It’s possible to do that analysis looking in from the outside – we do that all the time – but one cannot simultaneously assume the perspective of a given ethical theory and an outside perspective. It would be like criticizing a hockey official because he didn’t call a touchdown when someone scored a goal.

Thought of the day

The fact is that we all get one life. Extracting the most possible pleasure from it – something which does not inherently equal selfishness – is the only sensible course.

Society and the individual

I’ve pissed off feminists in my day. The reasons they give are going to revolve around me not understanding this or that, not automatically agreeing with them in the details, etc. (‘You don’t agree with me on this issue! Sexist!’ … ‘Why?’ … ‘Because!’) Basically, nothing specific.

But the problem isn’t some deep misogyny on my part. (Disagreement about what a picture of fat people means does not somehow magically equal hating women.) The problem, instead, is one of philosophical structure.

Feminism, as I’ve argued in the past, is a philosophy of consequence. It largely ignores intention, instead focusing upon the result of an action. It’s about as advanced as libertarianism. Of course, both philosophies have value, but when they’re promoted at the expense of everything else, they’re mere ideologies which inevitably lead to absurd conclusions. The same is true of all ethical and moral systems, including the ever-so-popular utilitarianism and egalitarianism (both of which I tend towards).

I got thinking about this because of a post by PZ on the lack of women in atheist and skeptic groups.

So I’m going to try something a little different. Instead of telling you my opinion, I’m going to forgo the essential principle of blogging (which is “Me! Me!”) and just ask people, especially women, to leave links to their godless/skeptical feminist blog or make suggestions or gripe or tell me what these stupid male-dominated conventions have to do to correct the imbalance…I shall be a passive receptacle for your ideas.

I do have to make one suggestion (the testosterone compels me) for something I’d really like to see happen…

Don’t mind his suggestion here (but at his site, he says a female-run conference on atheism/skepticism would be good). Take a look at the emphasis I’ve added. He says he is compelled, inherently, by the fact of being male. This is in line with a good bit of feminism, including the caricatures that haunt the Internet, but it’s a load of bull.

This idea that someone is compelled to do this or that may have a basis in sex, but philosophy is not the way to determine that. I want hard evidence. And, depending on just what is being discussed, there is plenty of evidence that men and women will tend towards certain behaviors because of their sex. Of course, that data often comes with the compounding factor of just what influence nurture has had, and the sociologists have a say there. But philosophy is not data. Logic can tell us nothing new; logic can only interpret the data we have.

What PZ does when he says it’s his maleness that makes him act one way or another is he devalues himself. (Hell, he even goes counter to all the feminist arguments that say the individual is responsible for rape/sexual abuse and ought not blame society – something with which I agree.) It’s a devaluing of the individual to place blame on some external source – especially without evidence. We may be able to blame an act of violence by a mentally ill person on his mental illness, but that principle does not extend to most people and most actions. It isn’t some external source that is to blame for individual actions among competent people 95% of the time. It’s the individual.

That said, there certainly is value to the arguments that say society is dominated by men and that that is an impediment to true equality between the sexes. Again, that doesn’t somehow magically mean a picture of two fat women is sexual objectification, but there are plenty of incidents where that domination is a serious problem, ones we gloss over on a daily basis. Watch just about any TV show. Women will be objectified and our culture allows it. That’s not a problem with the individual, but society. But it’s ridiculous, devaluing, and plainly wrong to claim that society is the whole problem.

The individual bears responsibility.

I declare I am right!

There are a lot of bad arguments that come from Suzanne Franks and friends. These are caricature feminists who seem to almost revel in the notion of ignoring every philosophy that isn’t feminism. They see to despise the notion that intention matters (a la Kant et al). One user even said this.

Before you bring up Kant on a feminist blog, you need to read and contemplate Jane Flax’s chapter on Kant and Enlightenment thinking in “Disputed Subjects.”

The point I was raising with Kant (and others, but Kant is the most influential) is that intention matters. Feminism is largely a philosophy of consequence, but unlike, say, utilitarianism or humanism, it does not deal well with philosophies which place an emphasis on will (or, specific to Kant, Good Will).

I am unable to locate the article cited by that user, Comrade Svilova, but this piece by Ruth Dawson summarizes Flax by saying,

Jane Flax…argues that Enlightenment depends on the unspoken occlusion of women…

Again, we see an argument premised in consequence. The issues raised by Flax have little to do with the value of intention; she cares about the context of the writings and what they meant for women at that time. This line of argument is irrelevant because no one today is arguing from an 18th century perspective. The invocation of Kant (and more specifically, will/intention) has nothing to do with how past philosophers and others may have implemented particular ideas. Instead, the focus is on how we can and ought to apply these ideas in the cultural context of today. Take this article on the founding fathers and rights. While same-sex marriage was not directly discussed, I specifically had it in mind while writing the piece. The ideas of those men resonate today because they espouse a strive towards equality that many people want. That doesn’t mean any of those men would have favored same-sex marriage. The point is the ideas, not the people who wrote them.

And there are more times where some of the more prolific feminist sites will ignore intention, going so far as to set up blatant and offensive strawmen.

FAQ: What’s wrong with suggesting that women take precautions to prevent being raped?

Short answer: Because it puts the onus on women not to get themselves raped, rather than on men not to do the raping; in short, it blames the victim.

What I think this is trying to articulate is that it is wrong for people to say “She had it coming”. The article does not actually address prevention, as seen here.

Left to my own devices, I never would have been raped. The rapist was really the key component to the whole thing. I was sober; hardly scantily clad (another phrase appearing once in the article), I was wearing sweatpants and an oversized t-shirt; I was at home; my sexual history was, literally, nonexistent—I was a virgin; I struggled; I said no. There have been times since when I have been walking home, alone, after a few drinks, wearing something that might have shown a bit of leg or cleavage, and I wasn’t raped. The difference was not in what I was doing. The difference was the presence of a rapist.

This points out that the author did not have it coming and that rape is not dependent upon how a woman dresses. (While rape is generally about power, it shouldn’t be ignored that many rapists do not arbitrarily choose their victims, often instead opting for particular characteristics or traits – and that is still the fault of the rapist.) This point is not about prevention.

What is being implied here is that there are actually a significant number of people who really do think it is a woman’s fault for getting raped. Instead, the only close argument that actually gets made is that it is a good idea for women to not walk alone at night in dangerous places or that women should carry rape whistles and/or cell phones. This is not a philosophical claim that has implications of blaming anyone for anything. It’s practical advice that acknowledges there is danger out there. This would be like someone saying, “Hey, you should do X, Y, and Z if you come across a bear while hiking”, only to get the response, “What, are you saying it’s my fault if I don’t do those things?”. No, the bear is still the root of the problem and we ought to do what we can to control the population, but you shouldn’t start trekking the Appalachian Trail without knowing the dangers.

The warnings women get are misleading. They leave out the acts of the rapist himself. They focus on the situation. They also may focus on the “kind of man” the potential rapist is. If he’s a friend of a friend, or your uncle, he’s “safe.” It’s the stranger who’s the threat.

Who is disagreeing with this conclusion? Yes, non-strangers are threats, but so are strangers. Control the bear population. That doesn’t mean you should walk into a dark alley because you aren’t the one to blame.

On another FAQ, the question “What’s wrong with saying that things happen to men, too?” is asked.

Nothing in and of itself. The problem occurs when conversations about women can’t happen on unmoderated blogs without someone showing up and saying, “but [x] happens to men, too!” (also known as a “Patriarchy Hurts Men, Too” or PHMT argument, or a “What About The Mens?” or WATM argument). When this happens, it becomes disruptive of the discussion that’s trying to happen, and has the effect (intended or otherwise) of silencing women’s voices on important issues such as rape and reproductive rights.

This undoubtedly happens. In fact, it happens over and over within scientific discussions that get derailed by creationists. The difference, however, is that “derailed” means that the original topic had nothing to do with creationism. On Suzanne Franks’ blog, she specifically ‘addresses’ those who dissent. (Here, here, and here.) Once that happens, the doors are open – especially if she is pointing to specific individuals. It is fundamentally unfair to say, “Here’s why you’re wrong about X…but you can’t respond because I don’t want a discussion. I just want to tell you things.” (It also seems to fit the piss-poor definition of “mansplaining”.)

To what this point really boils is that if someone does not want a particular point of view expressed in a particular place, then that person needs to start banning people. Franks has threatened to do that to me (despite the attention she is giving to specific people on specific topics – it isn’t logically tenable to claim to not want to discuss particular issues in particular ways only to then create posts which specifically do that), and that’s fine. I expect she’ll do it in short enough order and that’s her discretion, as logically inconsistent as it may be. (On the other hand, I consistently edited Comrade Physioprof’s posts because I was attempting to discuss a particular issue whereas he was spamming and trolling. Had my post been a trolling post or spam, then it might make sense for me to allow that guy’s garbage.)

What really bites my goiter about these caricatures and the more well-articulated Fem 101 site is that actual arguments are few and far between. More often there are declarations. Ask why something is so and the result is either a “You don’t get it” sort of response or a referral to a website which is more verbose in how it declares “You don’t get it”. This sort of stuff is okay for high school and lower-level undergrad philosophy courses because it does back up certain claims with further, deeper premises, but that’s where it stops. ‘Arguments’ like these don’t make it into philosophy anthologies, however, because they fail to reach more fundamental issues. How does feminism answer the importance of intention? How does it address the arguments of libertarianism? Utilitarianism? It is not a philosophy of fundamentals but rather one of contextual consequence; it therefore must either rely on or refute the philosophies which penetrate more deeply, more universally (i.e., it could attempt to rely on utilitarianism by arguing that equality maximizes pleasure, or it could refute libertarianism by arguing that too much liberty leads to inequality and inequality undermines liberty).

What I think most reasonable people want is not to be told “You don’t get it, so go to this site”, but rather “These arguments are premised on these more fundamental ideas.” If feminist sites and supporters actually addressed substantial philosophical values (where appropriate, such as in the examples I have given), then progress could be more reasonably and effectively made for all involved.