Wednesday, October 7, 2009

We must be ever-vigilant about the moralistic fallacy

As a review, the moralistic fallacy is the mental error which causes one to think that because a certain proposition is "good" or "right" or "moral", it must also be true/natural. (This is opposed to the naturalistic fallacy, which conversely states that what is natural must inherently be good) It has been stated most succinctly as: What ought to be, is.

Of course, we think of the moralistic fallacy primarily in two contexts: One is the fallacious justification of a belief in God because "religion makes people happy" -- a premise whose truth or falsity I am not yet convinced of either way, but in any case, the conclusion does not follow from it anyway. The other context where you often hear the moralistic fallacy is in regards to human nature, where, for example, it is insisted for political reasons that there is no biological differences in the brains of men and women, a claim which is demonstrably false.

As a side note, a danger of the moralistic fallacy in the latter context is that we can lose track of the real reason why what ought to be ought to be. In the example I gave above, men and women should still be evaluated on equal terms1 because a) individual variations are broad enough that judging by generalization rather than case-by-case is woefully inefficient, and b) in any case most of us (including me) would perceive it as grossly unfair to judge an individual based on generalizations. Hinging our justification for equal treatment of women on the false idea that there are no biological gender differences is dangerous to say the least.

But that's not what I want to talk about. What I want to talk about is the possibility of nontheists and skeptics employing the moralistic fallacy, something we don't usually think about. The reason I want to talk about this is because two events in the past twenty-four hours reminded me that we can be just as guilty of this fallacy as anyone.

The first was a post at Bruce Hood's blog where he discusses a new paper in PLoS by Sam Harris, et al., that happens to mention Bruce's SuperSense theory. (I still have not read the book, and now I'm bogged down in Guns, Germs, and Steel!) I'll quote Bruce here:

However, Harris and colleagues’s discussion of my hypothesis (never a theory till proven) in the current paper that beliefs are a combination of intuitive reasoning embedded in culture is somewhat misrepresented...I was pleased that Harris and colleagues acknowledge the supersense hypothesis but a bit dismayed when they dismissed it with the straw man statement, “Whatever the evolutionary underpinnings of religion, it seems unlikely that there is a genetic explanation for the why the French, Swedes, and Japanese tend not to believe in the God of Abraham while Americans, Saudis, and Somalis do.”

Well dah. Come on Sam, I am not like the others. You didn’t read the book-did you? I made it perfectly clear that just as any child is innately endowed to acquire a language, there is no genetic basis for French. What we need to know is why some people believe and some don’t even when they are raised in the same exact environment. That cannot just be culture.

Now this may not quite be the moralistic fallacy in action -- it is possible that Harris et al grossly misinterpreted Bruce's work out of sloppiness or something. But given some of the nasty responses regarding SuperSense, I suspect that there is a tendency on the part of nontheists and antireligionists -- yes, even luminaries like Harris -- to think, "Well, religion is bad, therefore it cannot be natural!" Surely Harris did not articulate it to himself as such, but I wonder if some similar impulse drove him to dismiss the SuperSense hypothesis without due consideration.

I admit that I myself engage in a more guarded version of this, not so much in regards to the question of whether religion is "natural", but in regards to whether people "need" comforting illusions. I take the position that, until I see convincing proof that people need these illusions, I will give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that adults are capable of living with reality. I may turn out to be wrong, but this is my default position in the absence of highly convincing proof.

The second event that got me to think was a guy over in some of the comment threads at Orac's blog -- whom I later suspected to be a troll, but he got me thinking anyway -- who was going on this huge attack about how "new atheists" are irrational, despite proclaiming to be an "old-school" atheist himself. His central point was rather bizarre: he spent at least half a day arguing that memes are bullshit, that everyone knows memes are bullshit, that even Dawkins knows memes are bullshit but that he employs them in anti-theistic arguments anyway, and that therefore any atheist who admired Dawkins for anything other than his strict biological work is just as irrational as any theist.

It's probably true that people of all stripes -- skeptics and atheists included -- are indeed rather irrational a shocking amount of the time... and judging by the reaction of folks who have read SuperSense, I suspect when I finally get around to reading it, I may be rather disturbed at just how much. Or maybe I already have an idea... In any case, I don't dispute that point. But I think the troll's argument is still a bit whack, and in any case, it is my feeling that the "new atheists" at least put a high value on rationality, and that even if we don't always succeed, that has to count for something.

I also mentioned to the troll that I thought another important difference was that atheists don't typically go around executing homosexuals, lopping off girls' clitorises, and crashing planes into buildings. His response had me really scratching my head:

scientific studies have shown that religion has been shown to be a NEGATIVE predictor of violence and terrorism

He didn't bother to back this up with any links or citations, and I have a really, really, really hard time believing that religious belief is a negative predictor of terrorism (the only secular terrorist I can think of off the top of my head is McVeigh.. and I suppose maybe Che Guevera and his ilk). I do know some studies have shown religion to be a negative predictor of violence, but my impression has been that the data is mixed on this point (and in any case, as we all know, correlation does not prove causality, and I have heard it speculated that many of the apparent statistical benefits of religious belief only apply if your beliefs are the same as the norm in the society in which you inhabit, i.e. suggesting that the causality is more associated with the benefits of "going with the flow" than they are with religion per se).

But the troll's comment got me thinking anyway. I like to believe that atheism can be a positive and liberating philosophy. I look around at all the religiously-motivated violence, all of the spiritually-motivated quackery, etc., and I feel like I am right. But am I engaging in the moralistic fallacy here? I admit that I have a rather strong distaste not only for religious delusions, but for the trappings of religion themselves. Am I letting this distaste cloud my judgment? Is there a part of me saying to myself, "Atheism ought to be a better way to live one's life than theism, therefore it is?"

I'm not at all sure. And I think this is something we all ought to reflect on. The falsity of religious belief is not in doubt. But when we talk about the costs and benefits of religious belief, we should be careful not to let ourselves fall victim to the moralistic fallacy.

1The one defensible exception is in regards to competitive sports, where biological differences give men such an innate advantage in sports relying on muscle strength, body size, etc., that a gender-neutral league would preclude many talented women from participating. Even in that case, I generally favor a gender-neutral league running parallel to a women-only league, as opposed to there ever being a men-only league, thus still allowing women on the extremes of the bell curve to be judged as individuals and participate in the gender-neutral league. In addition, it allows sports with a lot of variation in the physical requirements of each position to invite more women into the gender-neutral league, e.g. while I think even in a society perfectly unbiased about gender we would still rarely if ever see a female offensive guard in the NFL (the men who play this position are already on the very extreme ends of the bell curve for their gender in regards to body mass), I would not be surprised to see a female kicker in the NFL within the next couple of decades, and someday probably even female wide receivers, quarterbacks, defensive backs, maybe even situational tight ends and running backs. Anyway, this is all a huge digression and not what I wanted to talk about!


  1. I don't know if there are any studies of religiosity vs. violence on the level of individuals. (Except for statistics showing people in prison are more likely to claim a religion than people in general, and I don't find that meaningful unless you could find out if the prisoners were "religious" before going to prison.)

    But there was some study comparing various countries: various measures of religiosity vs. various measures of social dis-function, including things like violence, discrimination, teen pregnancy, divorce, etc. Result: the more religious a country was, the worse it was on each of the measures.
    Correlation is not causation (in either direction) but one interesting hypothesis I heard was that the worse the society was, the less control an individual has over his/her own life, and hence the more an individual is likely to hang on to religion.

    I've also heard that the same applies within the US: red states (and cities) are both more religious and more violent than blue states (and cities). I never checked the statistics and don't know if they were cherry-picked.

  2. I just read a blog post about that recently... I thought it was at Epiphenom, but I can't seem to find it now.

    I also can't remember where I found this, but I had at one point heard that, looking at individuals, people tended to be happier, etc., if they were a member of the dominant religion in their country. Argh, I can't find that either...!

    On a side note, I have to say this is one point on which I am disappointed in Dawkins.. when asked whether religion is a good thing, he always sidesteps the question by pointing out that that is an entirely separate question from its veracity. He is right, of course, but the question of whether religion is a good thing is actually quite an important one!

    I also understand why he sidesteps it, because the answer is far from clear... but in the long term, it will be important. It may well turn out -- and I am assuming for the time being this is not the case, but who knows -- that some sort of "de-weaponized" supernatural belief system is a necessity. And if that were the case, then that shifts the focus slightly from speaking out against religion to speaking out in favor of more liberalized religion.

  3. "The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one." -- George Bernard Shaw

    I've never been impressed by claims about religious people being happier than non-religious people. Even if true, it wouldn't mean that joining a religion makes a person happier, but that people who are unthinkingly happy tend to go along with whatever the mainstream culture expects of them.

    If they need to join some kind of club to be happy, that's fine. But their right to do what makes them happy ends where my life, my liberty, and my pursuit of happiness begins. They have no right to pursue their happiness in beating up homosexuals, enslaving women, and intellectually maiming children. The problem with religion is that it tells its followers that it OK to take away the rights of non-followers.

  4. Even if true, it wouldn't mean that joining a religion makes a person happier, but that people who are unthinkingly happy tend to go along with whatever the mainstream culture expects of them.

    Heh, so my wife really likes watching Eighteen and Counting for some reason, the reality show about the Duggar family, who is part of the Quiverfull movement that believes (roughly) that Christians should pop out as many babies as possible in order to win the culture wars by sheer number.

    Your comment reminded me of some of my reactions to seeing their family. To all appearances, they seem remarkably happy and well-adjusted, particularly for a family of that size. They are always smiling and being nice to each other.

    And yet, they are willfully ignorant (YECs, gak!), they engage in subtle but deeply misogynist behavior (the man always walks half a step in front of the woman, the women are always wearing ankle-length dresses, never pants, etc.), and while I don't personally subscribe to the "having babies is selfish" view, I definitely think that in light of overpopulation issues, having EIGHTEEN babies is most definitely selfish -- especially if you are doing it for the reasons they are.

    So I just don't know what to make of the Duggars. Are they really happy? Is it just a facade? Or maybe the way they are raised makes them dumb&happy? Or, as I suspect, maybe genetic and early developmental factors have made them capable of achieving happiness inside this restrictive framework, whereas for folks like me it wouldn't even work if we tried. (e.g. even if I decided I didn't give a whit about the ignorance, misogyny, and social irresponsibility, I suspect I still couldn't have been happy in that life because of aspects of my personality that were determined prior to my upbringing)

    Who knows! But the Duggars are definitely a conundrum for me...

    If they need to join some kind of club to be happy, that's fine.

    This is what I think is the interesting question, though... do people need to join some kind of (delusional) club to be happy, or do they just think they do? Could a club that wasn't delusional serve the same purpose? Or are a few basic delusions (e.g. an external purpose to the universe) necessary? Or maybe people really don't need this at all, and they just need to realize that?

    I absolutely agree with you that people's right to participate in these clubs ought to be granted either way as long as they don't infringe on our rights, but I think there is also an interesting question of the long-term utility of religion.

  5. Found it!!!

    Times article on the religion/social dysfunction research:

    And this must be the original research paper:

  6. A thought-provoking blog for sure. Thank you James. I will definitely meditate on this topic.

    Sorry I don't have much to add to the discussion.

  7. Not all religions are bad! Clear proof: Be a pastafarian and feel his noodley appendage put some hair on yer chest!

  8. Bah! I don't object to liberal-minded Pastafarians per se, but unfortunately they seem to inadvertently provide political cover for Pastafarian fundamentalists and extremists.

    Haven't you heard about the FSM fundies in Maine who are trying to pass a ballot proposition to deny the right to same-sex pirating? And don't get me started about that Pastafarian-domiated schoolboard in Pennsylvania, who tried to get a sticker put in the front of all culinary textbooks warning that the boiling method of cooking noodles was "just a theory" and that students should consider all sides of the debate, including the idea that the only explanation for well-cooked spaghetti is Intelligent Al Dente...

    If Pastafarianism -- even the moderate, liberal-minded sects -- weren't so prevalent in our culture, we'd laugh these people all the way to the loony bin. But nooo... if you try to point out just how stupid their noodly ideas are, it pisses off all the moderate FSMers too, and the next thing you know, people are accusing you of being an anti-Pastite!