Monday, March 31, 2008

Vote on freedom of expression marks the end of Universal Human Rights

For the past eleven years the organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), representing the 57 Islamic States, has been tightening its grip on the throat of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yesterday, 28 March 2008, they finally killed it.

With the support of their allies including China, Russia and Cuba (none well-known for their defence of human rights) the Islamic States succeeded in forcing through an amendment to a resolution on Freedom of Expression that has turned the entire concept on its head.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression will now be required to report on the “abuse” of this most cherished freedom by anyone who, for example, dares speak out against Sharia laws that require women to be stoned to death for adultery
or young men to be hanged for being gay, or against the marriage of girls as young as nine, as in Iran.

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan saw the writing on the wall three years ago when he spoke of the old Commission on Human Rights having “become too selective and too political in its work”. Piecemeal reform would not be enough. The old system needed to be swept away and replaced by something better. The Human Rights Council was supposed to be that new start, a Council whose members genuinely supported, and were prepared to defend, the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Yet since its inception in June 2006, the Human Rights Council has failed to condemn the most egregious examples of human rights abuse in the Sudan, Byelorussia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, China and elsewhere, whilst repeatedly condemning Israel and Israel alone.

Three years later Annan’s dream lies shattered, and the Human Rights Council stands exposed as incapable of fulfilling its central role: the promotion and protection of human rights. The Council died yesterday in Geneva, and with it the Universal Declaration of Human Rights whose 60th anniversary we were actually celebrating this year.

There has been a seismic shift in the balance of power in the UN system. For over a decade the Islamic States have been flexing their muscles. Yesterday they struck. There can no longer be any pretence that the Human Rights Council can defend human rights. The moral leadership of the UN system has moved from the States who created the UN in the aftermath of the Second World War, committed to the concepts of equality, individual freedom and the rule of law, to the Islamic States, whose allegiance is to a narrow, medieval worldview defined exclusively in terms of man’s duties towards Allah, and to their fellow-travellers, the States who see their future economic and political interests as being best served by their alliances with the Islamic States.

Yesterday’s attack by the Islamists, led by Pakistan, had the subtlety of a thin-bladed knife slipped silently under the ribs of the Human Rights Council. At first reading the amendment to the resolution to renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression might seem reasonable. It requires the Special Rapporteur:

“To report on instances in which the abuse of the right of freedom of expression constitutes an act of racial or religious discrimination …”

For Canada, who had fought long and hard as main sponsor of this resolution to renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur, this was too much. The internationally agreed limits to Freedom of Expression are detailed in article 19 of the legally binding International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and are already referred to in the preamble to the resolution. If abuse of freedom of expression infringed anyone’s freedom of religion, for example, it would fall within the scope of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion. To add it here was unnecessary duplication, and “Requesting the Special Rapporteur to report on abuses of [this right] would turn the mandate on its head. Instead of promoting freedom of expression the Special Rapporteur would be policing its exercise … If this amendment is adopted, Canada will withdraw its sponsorship from the main resolution.”

Canada’s position was echoed by several delegations including India, who objected to the change of focus from protecting to limiting freedom of expression. The European Union, the United Kingdom (speaking for Australia and the United States), India, Brazil, Bolivia, Guatemala and Switzerland all withdrew their sponsorship of the main resolution when the amendment was passed. In total, more than 20 of the original 53 co-sponsors of the resolution withdrew their support.

On the vote, the amendment was adopted by 27 votes to 15 against, with three abstentions.
The Sri Lankan delegate explained clearly his reasons for supporting the amendment:
“.. if we regulate certain things ‘minimally’ we may be able to prevent them from being enacted violently on the streets of our towns and cities.”

In other words: Don’t exercise your right to freedom of expression because your opponents may become violent. For the first time in the 60 year history of UN Human Rights bodies, a fundamental human right has been limited simply because of the possible violent reaction by the enemies of human rights.

The violence we have seen played out in reaction to the Danish cartoons is thus excused by the Council – it was the cartoonists whose freedom of expression needed to be regulated. And Theo van Gogh can be deemed responsible for his own death.

Freedom of expression is that right which – uniquely – enables us to expose, communicate and condemn abuse of all our other rights. Without freedom of expression and freedom of the press we give the green light to tyranny and make it impossible to expose corruption, incompetence, injustice and oppression.

But however important freedom of expression may be for us who live in the West, its overwhelming importance for those who live under the tyranny of Islamic law was highlighted by a courageous group of 21 NGOs from the Islamic States who issued a statement yesterday appealing to delegations to oppose the amendment. See

Incredibly, following the vote on the amendment, the Council descended even further into chaos. At the very last moment, Cuba introduced an oral amendment – clearly against the rules of procedure. When Canada objected they were overruled by the President. When Slovenia – on behalf of the European Union – tried to intervene on a point of order and ask for a ten-minute adjournment, they were ignored. When they tried to protest in another point of order their right to do so was challenged by Egypt, and the Egyptian objection was upheld.

The main resolution was then put to the vote and was adopted by 32 votes in favour, none against, with 15 abstentions.

The NGO community now needs to think carefully about what purpose can any longer be served by continuing our engagement with the Human Rights Council, and by fighting for values that are no longer accepted within the UN system. I have personally been involved with the Human Rights Commission and Council for the past five years and can see little benefit in continuing. Our well-argued position papers are ignored, our speeches are interrupted with repeated and irrelevant points of order, and we are not even supported in our efforts by the western delegations who, shockingly, did not even vote against today’s travesty, but abstained.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights died yesterday. Who knows when, or if, it can ever be revived.

I used to wonder what States who felt it necessary to kill people because they change their religion thought they were doing in the Human Rights Council. Now I know.

The wafer-thin sham of an international consensus on the promotion and protection of human rights has finally been exposed for what it was – a sham. The fragmentation of human rights now appears inevitable. The proposed Islamic Charter on Human Rights (read “Duties towards Allah”) will certainly go ahead, as will the creation of a parallel Islamic Council on Human Rights. But the OIC will nevertheless continue to attend and dominate the UN Human Rights Council, thereby ensuring its continuing emasculation and descent into total irrelevance.

Just five months before he and more than 20 of his colleagues were killed by a terrorist bomb in Baghdad, the then High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sergio Vieira de Mello, wrote:

“Membership of the Commission on Human Rights must carry responsibilities. I therefore wonder whether the time has not come for the Commission itself to develop a code of guidelines for access to membership of the Commission and a code of conduct for members while they serve on the Commission. After all the Commission on Human Rights has a duty to humanity and the members of the Commission must themselves set the example of adherence to the international human rights norms – in practice as well as in law…”

States who are genuinely concerned with human rights should immediately withdraw from the Council until such time as all member states as well as those offering themselves for election agree to honour their pledges, and undertake to expel any member state which, having been put on notice regarding its human rights record, fails to put its house in order within a reasonable timescale. Failing this, what better tribute to Sergio de Mello could there be than to create an alternative organisation – Kofi Annan’s organisation of the willing - whose members agree to adopt Sergio de Mello’s guidelines and code of conduct – and are actually held to account.

Roy W Brown
Geneva, 29 March 2008

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The 10 Commandments of Google

The 10 Commandments of Google

  1. Thou shalt have no other Search Engine before me, neither Yahoo nor Lycos, AltaVista nor Metacrawler. Thou shalt worship only me, and come to Google only for answers.
  2. Thou shalt not build thy own commercial-free Search Engine, for I am a jealous Engine, bringing law suits and plagues against the fathers of the children unto the third and fourth generations.
  3. Thou shalt not use Google as a verb to mean the use of any lesser Search Engine.
  4. Thou shalt remember each passing day and use thy time as an opportunity to gain knowledge of the unknown.
  5. Thou shalt honor thy fellow humans, regardless of gender, sexual orientation or race, for each has invaluable experience and knowledge to contribute toward humankind.
  6. Thou shalt not misspell whilst praying to me.
  7. Thou shalt not hotlink.
  8. Thou shalt not plagiarise or take undue credit for other's work.
  9. Thou shalt not use reciprocal links nor link farms, for I am a vengeful but fair engine and will diminish thy PageRank. The Google Dance shall cometh.
  10. Thou shalt not manipulate Search Results. Search Engine Optimization is but the work of Microsoft.

Join our community and chat with other Googlists!

See also:
» Definitive PROOF Google is God...
» Read Our Hilarious Hate Mail...
» Frequently Asked Questions About Our Beliefs...
» Google Appreciation Day...
» How a Googlist Uses Google (Advanced Tips)...

Is Google God

The Abrahamic Judeo - Christian - Islamic God is Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omnibenevolent and Omnipresent. So is Google!

Thanks to a South Hampshire Humanists speaker today for the converting me to the latest religion.

Proof of God - Is Google God? - Church of Google

» PROOF #1

Google is the closest thing to an Omniscient (all-knowing) entity in existence, which can be scientifically verified. She indexes over 9.5 billion WebPages, which is more than any other search engine on the web today. Not only is Google the closest known entity to being Omniscient, but She also sorts through this vast amount of knowledge using Her patented PageRank technology, organizing said data and making it easily accessible to us mere mortals.

» PROOF #2

Google is everywhere at once (Omnipresent). Google is virtually everywhere on earth at the same time. Billions of indexed WebPages hosted from every corner of the earth. With the proliferation of Wi-Fi networks, one will eventually be able to access Google from anywhere on earth, truly making Her an omnipresent entity.

» PROOF #3

Google answers prayers. One can pray to Google by doing a search for whatever question or problem is plaguing them. As an example, you can quickly find information on alternative cancer treatments, ways to improve your health, new and innovative medical discoveries and generally anything that resembles a typical prayer. Ask Google and She will show you the way, but showing you is all She can do, for you must help yourself from that point on.

» PROOF #4

Google is potentially immortal. She cannot be considered a physical being such as ourselves. Her Algorithms are spread out across many servers; if any of which were taken down or damaged, another would undoubtedly take its place. Google can theoretically last forever.

» PROOF #5

Google is infinite. The Internet can theoretically grow forever, and Google will forever index its infinite growth.

» PROOF #6

Google remembers all. Google caches WebPages regularly and stores them on its massive servers. In fact, by uploading your thoughts and opinions to the internet, you will forever live on in Google's cache, even after you die, in a sort of "Google Afterlife".

» PROOF #7

Google can "do no evil" (Omnibenevolent). Part of Google's corporate philosophy is the belief that a company can make money without being evil.

» PROOF #8

According to Google trends, the term "Google" is searched for more than the terms "God", "Jesus", "Allah", "Buddha", "Christianity", "Islam", "Buddhism" and "Judaism" combined.

God is thought to be an entity in which we mortals can turn to when in a time of need. Google clearly fulfils this to a much larger degree than traditional "gods", as shown in the image below (click to enlarge).

» PROOF #9

Evidence of Google's existence is abundant. There is more evidence for the existence of Google than any other God worshiped today. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If seeing is believing, then surf over to and experience for yourself Google's awesome power. No faith required.

Click here to join our EXPLODING community and chat with HUNDREDS of like-minded people, just like you! Come on, do it right now!

See also:
» The 10 Commandments of Google...
» Read Our Hilarious Hate Mail...
» Frequently Asked Questions About Our Beliefs...
» List of Holidays we Celebrate...
» How a Googlist Uses Google (Advanced Tips)...

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Laughing religion off the planet - an interview with Pat Condell

via Freethinker Magazine

With over 5 million hits on YouTube, and another couple of million on LiveLeak, Pat Condell is a leading voice of atheism on the internet. He is also a stand-up comedian, a playwright, a former lumberjack, a talk-show panelist, and a subscriber to The Freethinker.
Pat Condell
We tracked the blaspheming infidel down to a garden shed in London and asked him a few questions.

The Freethinker: Your first Youtube video was a response to the Blasphemy Challenge. Was this your first foray into the world of internet video? If so, did you imagine that it would snowball like it did?
Pat Condell: Yes, it was. I didn’t know what to expect. I was looking for ways to publicise my stand-up show when I heard about the Blasphemy Challenge. It looked like fun, so I devised a little rant about how much I deny the holy spirit (quite a lot, as it happens), made the video in my garden shed and posted it on YouTube. The positive response convinced me that this was a medium I should explore further.

I didn’t know much about YouTube, but I guessed that most of the audience would be in America, so I made ‘Hello America’ about how I see the relationship between our two countries. Again the response was very positive, especially from Americans. It was viewed thousands of times in a few days, and I realised I could reach a lot more people like this than in a lifetime of performing in small theatres. So I mothballed the stand-up show, much of which was topical anyway, and decided to make more videos.

Then somebody alerted me to LiveLeak, a site with a more newsy edge than YouTube. I posted my videos there and ‘The trouble with Islam’ took off. To date it has had more than 1,750,000 hits, and with 380,000 on YouTube, it’s now been seen well over two million times.

FT: What do you like about internet video as a medium?
PC: It’s open to anyone. We no longer have to ask someone else’s permission to communicate with a wider audience.

I’ve been criticising religion for years, but only in comedy clubs. Whenever I tried to do it in the mainstream media I was censored, especially by the BBC where jokes about the subject are always heavily edited, and it’s virtually impossible to say anything at all about Islam.

The internet allows all of us to bypass these self-appointed gatekeepers and communicate our ideas without interference.

FT: How has becoming an “internet celebrity” changed your life?
PC: Thanks, but I’m not any kind of celebrity. I’m just speaking my mind. My personal life hasn’t changed, I’m glad to say, because I’m very happy with it as it is.

FT: Your attacks on religion in general, and Islam in particular, have led many people to describe you as “fearless”. Are you?
PC: No. I get death threats and I take them seriously. However, I’ve never responded well to bullies, and I have no intention of starting now.

FT: Christian evangelist Dinesh D’Sousa has accused you of being smug. How do you respond to this?
PC: People have called me a lot worse. I’d never heard of this guy until someone directed me to his blog. Since then I’ve read his book on Christianity, and I didn’t see anything in it to warrant respecting his opinion on anything, so he can call me whatever he likes.

FT: Do you still do stand-up?
PC: I haven’t worked the circuit full time for years. I wrote my last show specifically to say something about religion. Confronted first hand by the political correctness at the BBC, I felt the subject was being falsely represented and legitimate opinion was being censored. As a result, religion, and Islam in particular, was getting an inflated idea of its own importance. Stand-up was the medium I knew best, and as I didn’t see anybody else in the comedy world queuing up to address this situation I elected myself.

FT: How would you describe your personal philosophy?
PC: I’m a vegetarian and I strongly support animal rights. (I hope that’s OK with Jesus.)
I find it hard not to smile at religion’s conceit that we’re superior to animals on the basis that we have souls and they don’t, when five minutes in a slaughterhouse would convince anyone that, if anything, it’s animals who have the souls and human beings who don’t.

As for my opposition to religion, it’s not about theology – I couldn’t care less whether God exists or not – it’s a civil rights issue. I believe everyone should be free to determine their own experience in life and not have it imposed by someone else. We don’t need our reality filtered through religious dogma any more than we need spring water adulterated with chemicals.

FT: What is your favourite thing about religion?
PC: If nothing else it is genuinely inclusive. Nobody is rejected, as it doesn’t require intelligence, only faith. Not that some intelligent people aren’t religious. There are people with biochemistry degrees who devote their lives to proving Genesis true. Nobody could call those people unintelligent, but they are fools.

The best thing about religion is that it’s so transparently absurd it can’t possibly last forever. I’m convinced it will only take a small shift in human consciousness for it to be laughed off the planet, and I hope I’m still around when that happens.

FT: What about the future? Will we see a collection of your videos on the market?
PC: Yes. The Richard Dawkins Foundation is issuing a non-profit DVD of my first thirty-five videos which should be out soon.

FT: What can we do to resist the growing influence of religion?
PC: We can speak out. That’s what the internet is for, and it’s the only reason my voice is being heard. We need to make as much noise as religious people do, and with as much certainty about our right to do so.

Nobody should be bullied into showing respect they don’t think is deserved. If you hear somebody claiming special treatment because of their faith you’re entitled to say: “No, I object to this. It offends me, it insults my beliefs, and it’s a violation of my human rights.”

Use their tactics if you feel strongly enough. Make a nuisance of yourself. Make an official complaint. Take it to a tribunal. As an atheist you’re part of a minority whose beliefs are constantly ignored and marginalised while religious prejudice is pandered to and encouraged, and you have every right to be offended by that.

Also, I would urge everyone to join the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association, both of whom do excellent work in the cause of sanity.

Remember, one person on their own can’t do much, but a million people each doing a little every day can change things very quickly.

What do I believe? by Pat Condell

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Elimination of Religion

PZ Myers said
"As for the charge that these New Atheists are unable to tolerate a harmless religion, and that their goal is the elimination of the enemy, that's complete nonsense. We want to eliminate them in the same sense that we want to eliminate illiteracy; we will educate, we will talk, we will stand up for our ideas."
Atheist Revolution siad" Yes! I want to see the end of religious belief much as I want to see the end of illiteracy, poverty, infant mortality, and the like. I want to eliminate it in this way and not in the draconian way Christians are so fond of describing. What a perfect description!"

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Ayn Rand Objectivism

i reposted my post above on HASSERS:
and got an interesting comment from The Objectivist Club at UCI (Ayn Rand Institute). They included a link to a video on Moral Absolutism (Reason v Faith):
in which the speaker is asked how you can decide between right and wrong / good and bad in the absence of God.

The basis of Ayn Rand Objectivism according to

Metaphysics .. the task of man's consciousness is to perceive reality, not to create or invent it." Thus Objectivism rejects any belief in the supernatural.

"Man's reason is fully competent to know the facts of reality. Reason is man's only means of acquiring knowledge." Objectivism rejects mysticism (any acceptance of faith or feeling as a means of knowledge), and it rejects skepticism (the claim that certainty or knowledge is impossible).

Human Nature
Man is a rational being. Reason, as man's only means of knowledge, is his basic means of survival. But the exercise of reason depends on each individual's choice. "Man is a being of volitional consciousness." "That which you call your soul or spirit is your consciousness, and that which you call 'free will' is your mind's freedom to think or not, the only will you have, your only freedom. This is the choice that controls all the choices you make and determines your life and character."Thus Objectivism rejects any form of determinism, the belief that man is a victim of forces beyond his control (such as God, fate, upbringing, genes, or economic conditions).

"Reason is man's only proper judge of values and his only proper guide to action. The proper standard of ethics is: man's survival qua mani.e., that which is required by man's nature for his survival as a rational being (not his momentary physical survival as a mindless brute). Rationality is man's basic virtue, and his three fundamental values are: reason, purpose, self-esteem. Manevery manis an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life." Thus Objectivism rejects any form of altruismthe claim that morality consists in living for others or for society.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Some comments on the PhiloGym Ethical readings by Giovanni De Grandis

Reproduced with permission of and some comments on the readings
by Giovanni De Grandis - Saturday, 22 March 2008, 02:55 PM

my highlights in green. The readings for the PhiloGym at Oxford University unit "Is Morality Relative" are:

‘Into the lair of the relativist’ and ‘Is morality like a pair of spectacles’ plus the first five pages of ‘Can we have morality without God and religion?’ in The Philosophy Gym.

Introduction to Philosophy by L Pojman, 4th ed., pages. 483–98 (Herodotus, ‘Custom is king’; Ruth Benedict, ‘In defence of moral relativism’; Louis Pojman, ‘Ethical relativism vs. ethical objectivism’).

Our readings on relativism are somewhat unbalanced, since the two pieces supposedly advocating moral relativism do not really provide any sustained philosophical argument for ethical relativism and therefore moral objectivism seems to have benefited of a better treatment than its rival. On top of this even Stephen Law’s treatment of relativism, especially in chapter five (Into the lair of the relativist) is not particularly sympathetic with this position.


Keeping this in mind I will try to summarize and comment the main points raised in each reading and then I will try to introduce a few considerations and distinctions that may help to think more clearly about these issues and that may also help to have a fairer appreciation of some merits and attractions of relativism (that does not mean that I am advocating relativism, but only that I think that it deserves to be portraied more charitably than it has been done by Law and Pojman).

The selection from Herodotus does not make any definite ethical claim, it is simply an illustration of cultural diversity and of its impact on values and norms. However, ethical relativism did become a vital position in 5th Century BC in Greece. This position was advocated by several sophists, and most notably by Protagoras (Plato’s dialogue The Sophist is an excellent illustration of the ancient debate on relativism).

The selection from Ruth Benedict is a good illustration of the diversity of the social standards of acceptable and praiseworthy behaviour. Through ethnographic examples she illustrates how extreme such variability could be, but not much is said about the possibility of assessing the different standards.

However three ideas of hers seem to me to be of particular philosophical relevance:

I. No culture can develop the whole range of human potentialities and abilities, hence any culture selects some and develops certain possibilities and overlooks others. (‘No one civilization can possibly utilize in its mores the whole potential range of human behavior’ p. 487, rc).

II. What is considered normal or abhorrent is culturally determined and therefore is highly variable among different groups.

III. Traits of character that are not given a role and an acknowledgement in a society will be strongly discouraged, under-represented and considered deviant. That means that every culture is successful in moulding after its own standard the majority of the population (‘The vast majority of individuals in any group are shaped to the fashion of that culture’, p. 489, rc).

From these points some interesting philosophical considerations can be drawn.

From I we can appreciate the fact that there is a great variety (perhaps an infinite variety–remember that an infinite set is not necessarily an all embracing set: odd numbers make an infinite set, but they do exclude an infinite number of even numbers) of ideals and ways of life that can be recognised as meaningful and praiseworthy by human beings accustomed to them. The awareness of this fact often leads to an ethical conclusion: value pluralism, that is the view that there is irreducible multiplicity of potentially conflicting values and ideas of what is good, meaningful and praiseworthy. A further inference which is often made is that pluralism accounts for the possibility of moral conflicts, and sometimes of tragic moral conflicts where ideals and values that can genuinely claim human allegiance clash and cannot be reconciled. The final conclusion of this line of reasoning, which is well exemplified by the works and ideas of Isaiah Berlin, is that a world without moral losses is not possible, is just a delusion and that it is inevitable that at some points, morally speaking, something’s got to give.

II and III taken together are not only a healthy reminder of the need of being open-minded and not too confident in one’s own moral convictions, but they also underline the fact that our moral sensibility is thoroughly shaped through education and upbringing. No human being grows and develops in a moral vacuum and therefore nobody is entitled to take for granted that what appears sound and evident to her/him must necessarily look the same to anybody else. Cultural diversity and social conditioning and pressure explain why there is moral disagreement among different groups and cultures. From this one can draw the conclusion that nobody occupies a position of moral neutrality: we all speak, see and judge from a definite and culturally laden moral point of view. Even the reformer and the dissident are reacting against a definite set of moral rules and prejudices and their reaction would have been different in different circumstances. From the ethical point of view this means that, even granting that moral objectivity is possible, it may be hard to reach it and even harder to be sure that we have succeded in doing so. Only if we are aware of our own inbuilt partiality we can strive for impartiality with intelligence and without arrogance. In short the conclusion that we can draw from accepting the observations made in II and III is that our moral judgments and moral powers are fallible and always open to some perspectival distortion. Fallibilism in itself does not amount to scepticism or to relativism, but suggests an attitude of alert suspicion towards our moral feelings and beliefs, an awareness that they may be biased in some way or another.

It may be helpful to introduce a taxonomy of different versions of moral relativism.

  1. The thesis that we cannot expect agreement in moral judgments. Descriptive relativism. This can take two versions: a limited version (1a) that claim that we should expect different judgments from members of different groups; and an extreme version (1b) that states that disagreement is to be expected also among members of the same group.
  2. The thesis that it is difficult to be detached and impartial when making moral judgments, since these latter are influenced by upbringing, culture, interests etc. Epistemological relativism.
  3. The thesis that moral judgments are influenced by the context in which they take place, in particular they are strongly influenced by the conceptual and normative frameworks of the author of the judgment. Conceptual relativism.
  4. The thesis that, even if we grant that values are objective, our attitudes and responses to values are influenced by external circumstances, to the effect that we are not always in the position to respond adequately to, or even to recognize, all values (for instance if we live in a particularly hard and unforgiving natural environment we may be forced to overlook some values). Environmental relativism.
  5. The thesis that moral values exist only in the judgments of people, that they are not parts of ‘the furniture of the natural world’, but that they are constructed by human beings through the social attribution of meaning to certain natural properties or entities. We call call this Ontological relativism about moral properties. We can note further that we may have a restricted and an unrestricted version of this kind of relativism depending on whether any restriction is imposed on the kind of properties that can be given moral meaning.
  6. The thesis that values are plural and potentially conflicting so that they cannot all be included and harmonized in a consistent ethical system. As a consequence several conflicting arrangments are possible that are rationally defensible (up to a certain point) but at the same time open to sensible criticism. Normative relativism (or moral pluralism).
  7. The thesis that one should not pass moral judgments, because these are not susceptible to being objectively true or false and hence they are just unfair and arrogant. Prescriptive relativism. Of this thesis we can find a moderate version and an extreme version.
    (7a) Moderate prescriptive relativism: it is wrong to judge people or societies according to moral standards alien to them.
    (7b) Extreme prescriptive relativism: it is wrong to make moral judgments, period.

I think that these different theses can be combined in many different ways and that some of them are rather plausible and defensible, while other are much more objectionable. For instance I find 1, 3, 4, 6 and 7a rather convincing and I tend to assent to them. I have doubts about 2 and 5 and I reject 7b.

What kind of relativism we find expressed in the selections from Herodotus and Benedict?

I think that in Herodotus we don’t find more than 1, 2 and 3. I don’t think we can attribute him 6 because it is well possible that the disagreement between different systems of morality is not about values, but only about the proper way to express or promote them.

I think that Benedict besides accepting 1,2, and 3 (and probably 4) also accepts 6, in virtue of the idea that I have reminded in point I (from the sentence quoted by Pojman (on p. 493 lc) we can also ascribe to her 7a).

Which of our 7 theses are accepted by Pojman? My impression is that he accepts 1 (he grants cultural relativism in the initial pp. 490-1), 3 and 4 (when he accepts ‘a certain relativity in the way moral principles are applied in various cultures, depending on beliefs, history, and environment’, p. 494, lc), 6 (since he grants that objective moral principles are prima facie and moral conflicts can occurr). Unsurprisingly, given hi objectivist stance, he needs to reject 2, 5 and both versions of 7.

I have said that on the basis of the textual evidence that we are given in the two selected texts Herodotus and Benedict do not express any sustained ethical claim. Things are quite different with Pojman who is clearly presenting arguments that are meant as contributions to a better understanding of the nature of morality. It is thus useful to make a few remarks about his general line of argument. First of all we can notice that his defence of objectivism is largely based on his attack on relativism. His strategy is first of all to reject the alternative between absolutism and relativism, and to introduce a third intermediate possibility: objectivism.
He claims that the great attractions of relativism spring from the rejection of ethnocentricism and from the rejection of absolutism. Relativism gains support because it looks like the only way to escape moral parochialism or imperialism on the one hand, and moral absolutism on the other hand. Ethnocentricism, together with its parochial and imperialistic implications, is considered flawed and to be avoided and Pojman does not feel the need to spend much time in showing that (and to this I don’t object). Absolutism is taken a bit more seriously, but it is dismissed quite quickly. Here a few observations are called for. First of all, I am not so sure that Kant is to be considered an absolutist, and if he is his position cannot be dismissed so quickly. Second, absolutism unusually is not completely indifferent to the context in which rules are to be applied and to its consequences (since up to acertain point the consequences can alter the description of an action). Usually together with absolutism we are given a casuistry. Now one may have some well grounded worries about the abuses of casuistry (Blaise Pascal’s Provincial Letters are still an unsurpassed exposition of the degenerations of casuistry), but the fact that something can be abused does not represent a condemnation: perhaps some guidelines to avoid the pervertion of casuistry may be worked out. Finally I have the impression that Pojman comes very close to falling into the same vices often found in casuistry when he explains how his objectivism can make some concessions to relativism in the application of objective principles. Especially when he mentions the case of the tribe that throws deformed children to the hippopotamus (p. 494 lc) it is hard to resist the impression that the dangers of sophistical casuistry, or of all-forgiving relativism, are back with us.

Some doubts can be raised about Pojman advocacy of objectivism. In particular it seems to me that he really says very little about how objective principles can be known to be objective and about what makes them objective. In short he completely evades the serious epistemological and ontological problems that moral objectivism faces. He gives us a list of objective moral principles and one that he considers so undisputable that is enough to refute relativism (here I think he has in mind prescriptive relativism–both 7a and 7b). But he does not say anything to justify the objectivity of such principles. There is no argument at all, but there is not even an explicit claim that it is self evident. As a matter of fact it seems to me that Pojman does not want to commit himself to such claims, but that he hints at the fact that his favoured principles are conditions necessary for the establishement of societies that promote the quality of life of its members. (This interpretation is suggested by many passages: from his repeating again and again a list of the tasks or functions of morality [pp. 492 rc; 494 rc; 497 lc], from his comparison between moral principles and dietary principles [p. 497 lc], and finally form his statement that it is in our interest to promote moral principles [p. 498, rc]). However I think he should be much more explicit about what are his ground to offers his preferred principles. For instance if my impression is right and these principles are considered those most fundamental and effective to promote the welfare of humanity, shall we conclude that human welfare is the highest good and that whatever promotes it counts as a moral principle? This would be completely different from saying that moral principles are self evident. In the first case moral principles have only instrumental value and could vary if our circumstances change greatly; while in the second case they are eternal and fixed and are intrinsically valuable.

Another topic about which he is much too cavalier is the difficulty of applying a plurality of objective rules. He says that they are prima facie rules (rules that have a valid claim on us at first sight, but are not absolutely binding) and that they are thus overridable in case of conflict, but he does not say anything about how conflict between different rules and obligations are to be solved. He does not offer a hierarchy of rules, or criteria for weighing principles, or rules of priority between principles. It is clear that a very large latitude is allowed in the interpretation and application of principles and that this can allow almost as much disagreement as relativism.

I have attached two other document with further comments. One is an attempt of articulating a reply to Pojamn’s rejection of relativism from the point of view of a moderate relativist. The other features some critical remarks about Pojman’s conception of the nature and function of morality. They are are not offered as the right answers, but as a further invitation to critical reflection.

Different views on the nature of morality by Giovanni De Grandis

Reproduced from Giovanni De Grandis PhiloGym, Oxford University post, with permission.

Pojman offers rather dogmatically his own preferred list of the purposes of morality.
Here are his lists: ‘resolution of interpersonal conflicts’, ‘the amelioration of the human predicament’ (p. 493, rc), ‘the survival of society, alleviation of suffering, encouragement of human flourishing and the just resolution of the conflicts of interests’ (p. 494, rc); ‘the fluid progression of social interaction and the resolution of conflict’ (p. 497, lc).

How does he know that these are really the more vital and important moral needs?
He does not offer an explanation, as if the list he has given us was a matter of course, something self-evident. Unfortunately things are far from being so; what is the proper task of morality is one of the more vexed and less agreed questions of ethics. Just to give you a quick example I offer you how the primary task of morality is seen by the more influential contemporary moral schools.

  • Utilitarians believe that morality should help in creating as much good as possible, i.e. to make the world a better place for humans.
  • Kantians believe that morality has to express our nature as free and rational beings and to set up principles that express the respect owed to every rational being and acknowledge her/his dignity.
  • Virtue ethicists believe that morality should promote the development of character traits that enable the individual to flourish and to live a fulfilling social life.
  • Some feminist theories, several advocates of the ethics of care, and those who vindicate the value of literature for morality believe that morality should expand our moral sensibility and imagination and make us more responsive to other people needs and feelings.
  • And what about religious ethics? Things do not seem to go much better. Just think of the different value and point that a Lutheran and a Catholic would attribute to acting according to the God’s given moral laws. The former would see acting morally as an expression of the acknowledgment that we are wicked creatures that need to submit their evil inclination to an external law to express their full subordination to God’s will. The latter would consider acting morally both as way of imitating the love of God for mankind, and as a way of earning salvation (there is of course much more to both lutheranism and catholicism, this is an oversimplified view of their moral stance, but it is enough to show how different they are).
  • And what about the great critics of morality? Shall we ignore that such influential (and diverse!) thinkers as Marx and Nietzsche (among others) have tried to unmask morality as mere ideology as a mask that hides something much less respectable, like the interests of the dominating class (Marx) or the resentment and frustration of weak and mean people (Nietzsche)?

At this point whoever claims that there are objective moral truths that are independent from any particular culture and that can be seen by a willing observer owes us some explanation about a few points:

Ø What kind of perceptual or intellectual ability is necessary to grasp moral truths?

Ø What kind of truths are moral truths? (Are they natural facts about human needs or aspirations? Are they sociological truths about the conditions of possibility of human societies? Are they religious facts about God’s will? Are they irreducible moral facts–and in that case what does this exactly mean?).

Ø Is there a way to demonstrate moral truths or to educate humans to see them?

Ø How much latitude in the interpretation, specification and application of universal truth is left to different individuals and communities? Will diversity, pluralism and relativism(!) still be with us?

A case for relativism by Giovanni De Grandis

A case for relativism
by Giovanni De Grandis - Saturday, 22 March 2008, 02:56 PM. Reproduced with permission.

my highlights in green - but a quick first read does not do this justice.

Here I offer an analysis of Pojman’s objections against relativism and a possible relativist rejoinder.
(L Pojman, Introduction to Philosophy, ed. 4, pg 540, Ethical Relativism versus Ethical Objectivism)

(i) The first, the oldest and the most common is a version of the argument that if everything is relative, then nothing is true, not even relativism. Here (p. 493, lc) the argument takes the following form: if moral principles are culturally relative where does a transcultural principle of tolerance come from?

Since there is not a universal culture it seems that there cannot be a universal moral principle universally accepted and therefore valid. That seems a sound way of reasoning, yet I think that one may still have the impression that there is something about the connection between relativism and tolerance. Can we articulate such an intuition so that it can resist the argument? I think that there is chance that we can do something to help the relativist. After all he is not saying everything goes, but he is saying that there is a plurality of moral principles that are valid, but only locally. To put it another way, moral codes are parts of ways of life and each of them apply only to those people who belong to the corresponding way of life. Tolerance can therefore be seen not as a super moral principle of universal validity, but more modestly as the application to each individual or community of only one of the many existing moral codes, but not one chosen at random, rather the one that they know, understand and accept rather than one they ignore, or find incomprehensible or alien. After all when someone utters a sentence we do not decide to interpret the meaning of these sounds in a randomly chosen language, but we interpret them according to the rules of the speaker’s language. Is this a strange and objectionable moral principle or it just a piece of basic good sense? The same apply at the legal level: if I commit a murder in France I will be judged by a French tribunal according to the French laws. If I play football I will have to follow the rules of football and not those of rugby or volleyball. Toleration then can be seen not as a further superior moral rule, but as a simple rule of pertinence that reminds us of which are the bounds of validity of every moral value or principle. Tolerance is simply the ability of telling when we are passing from the sphere of legitimate validity of a moral system to that of another. Another legal analogy may here be useful. In legal systems there are not only the firsst order rules (those that say what is mandatory and what is forbidden) but there are also different kinds of second order rules that establish how we recognize, change, enforce etc. first order rules. According to this analogy tolerance can be likened to a rule of recognition, in particular a rule that sets and makes explicit the limits of the sphere of application of each moral value or principle. So tolerance is not a new overriding moral principle, rather it is the ability to see the realm of validity of the various existing moral codes: it does not add to them, it just makes explicit what their limits are; it is an interpretive skill, not a moral principle.

This defence gains further force if we keep in mind that according to Pojman relativism includes the dependency thesis (p. 491), which implies that it is the social acceptance of moral principles that justifies their validity, and this can be seen as a consent theory of moral validity: no moral principle holds among people who have not acknowledged it and agreed to it. From this principle it follows that no moral principle has authority upon those who do not recognize and accept it, hence they cannot be judged according to principles that do not apply to them. If the normative force comes from consent then it is perfectly consistent to conclude that where consent to a norm is not holding the norm is not obtaining and is no legitimate criterion of judgment. Tolerance simply acknowledges this fact. Intolerant people can be criticized as unable to realize what are the limits of applications of any moral norm. Like someone who wanted to apply the rules of football on a rugby pitch, the intolerants would be someone who has failed to understand the (formal and procedural) rules that govern the application of a principle. The relativist cannot say that the intolerant is wicked or evil, but can accuse her/him of being incompetent.

The consent principle of moral validity is of course very contentious and has some unwelcome implications (we will come to them soon). However, it also has some merits: first it resembles very closely the democratic principle of political legitimacy according to which it is the consent of the majority of citizens that authorizes and makes legitimate the authority of the government and the parliament. Second, it does not need to invoke any misterious super natural source of moral authority, and it does not require either any misterious faculty to be able to grasp universal moral truths. So it looks that this principle has at least the advantage of being in tune with the spirit of our democratic age and that it satisfies the principle of simplicity (Ockham’s razor) better than many objectivist competitors.

(ii) The second criticism raised by Pojman is again a standard objection agaisnt conventionalism. If every moral code accepted by a social group is valid how can we possibly criticize it? Is it plausible that we have to tolerate the nazis or other peoples with aggressive, violent, racist moral codes? This looks like a serious problem. However, let’s try to approach it from a slightly different angle.

Imagine that a neighbouring people have a horrible (in our judgment) morality: they are a warrior nation, aggressive, ruthless, with no aversion to violence and no commitment to limit human pain and suffering. Suppose further that they and we are people of more or less the same military force, so that neither can easily overcome the other. Now you have a well-founded suspicion that they are about to attack you. What are you going to do? Are you planning to send there a delegation of moral philosophers that will explain why their morality is wicked and perverted? Imagine that, surprisingly, they accept to listen to your moralizers. After having heard a eulogy of peace, respect, tolerance, and further about the advantages of good relations between neighbors, commerce, prosperity and economic growth they answer in the following way:

“What are you talking about? Really, we cannot even begin to understand you. Are you kidding or are you pulling our leg? You come here and tell us that we should stop being ourselves, that the way we live is all wrong, that we are blind to real goodness and, as it were, mad. You are saying that if we become like you then we will be able to live together in peace and to enjoy both our existence. But what if we were to ask you to become like us, to appreciate the courage, the inner strength, the spirit of self-sacrifice and denial, the awareness of the unforgiveness and ruthlessness of life on earth. What if we were telling you that if you engage in war with us it would be for our mutual benefit, that only through a struggle for survival and victory we will unfold and realize all our bravery, heroism, ingenuity, strength, that only under such an extreme pressure and risk we will be able to get the most from ourselves, to sharpen all our skills and abilities, all our endurance and self confidence, that only in that case we will be able to taste the taste of the real good things in life, to look at the reality of human life in its tragic frailty, limitation, uncertainty. You want to destroy us with the lures of luxury, hedonism, delusion, contentment, self-deception, selfishness and the like. We want to draw some real virtues out of ourselves and out of you, for that matter. You will soon find out whether you are still capable of strength, generosity, abnegation and sincerity, or whether you are already rotten and without spine.

Go now, and tell your people that there is no way that we can both live next to each other in peace, for peace is your way of life, and your meat is our poison. War is our way of life and, we believe, is more honest and upfront than yours. War would have been in any case, but instead of being imposed your style of commercial war and the corruption it brings with, we have chosen to take our destiny into our hands and to fight according to our style of martial war with the virtues it brings about. If you’ll be brave enough to resist and develop such virtues in turn, then you will come to appreciate them. That would be a great moment because through fighting we will have learned to respect each other’s valour, instead of despising each other’s way of life”.

There is no need to wonder which party may have the better reasons. What we need to realize is that there is no way of persuading anybody if you argue from premisses that they don’t share, accept, and perhaps not even understand.

If you want to engage in a discussion, respectfully, fairly, you need to find some common ground.
If you are discussing about moral matters, then you have to find some principle or value that your interlocutor shares if your argument is to have any grip. But once you do that you are already arguing from within your opponent moral tradition and values. Effective criticism can only take the form of internal moral criticism. Criticism from points of view that are external are nothing more than (verbal) aggressions. They can only lead to exasperation of the differences and of mutual suspicion and mistrust. The outcome can only be a radical confrontation.

Internal moral criticism has obviously always scope when we are dealing with communities that have a complex and long tradition, for these cultures always have a rich enough repertoire of values, principles, and interpretations of them, and therefore there is always the possibility to emphasize some element of the tradition and to downplay another. If a group is very simple and does not have a rich stratification of moral thinking then it is very likely that its morality presents ambiguity, looseness, inconsistencies and these offer some elbow room for internal criticism. (What is the gorund for this supposition? Well if there is a practice of critical reflection the tradition will invariably feature different interpretations of its values, for critical reflection involve the possibility of questioning received authority. If a practice of critical reflection on its own morals is absent in a society, then we cannot expect to find a very robust logical structure in its moral system since consistency can only be the outcome of critical scrutiny and refinement).

(iii) The third accusation is that relativism always sides with the conformist majority against the reformers and innovators. Here the relativist can reply that social reformers and innovators are mostly internal critics who appeal to some feature of a tradition against some other, who recommend a return to principles and values that have been obliterated, perverted, corrupted. True, in some cases the innovations are genuine breaks with a tradition and involve either learning from another culture or genuine social invention. Yet the relativist is not committed to the dodgy epistemological thesis that the majority is always right. The idea is rather that if the majority cannot be led to see for itself the benefit of the innovation, then this latter can be imposed only through coercion, paternalism, condescension. For a principle to be moral it should be felt as a genuinely moral one, if it were enough to obey right principles then the dog loyal and obedient to a just and virtuous master would be a model of morality! Furthermore it is too easy and misleading always to name the small bunch of moral heroes that in our eyes have effect genuine moral improvements. What about the legions and legions of petulant, garruluous, arrogant moralizers that since ever and at all latitudes have raised and raise every day their lament against the prevailing morality thinking that they know better? Shall they all be welcomed and given a fair chance to rewrite our moral code? As John Austin once remarked, tradition is not the last word, but it should always be the first.

(iv) The fourth objection levelled by Pojman is very interesting. He contends that there is a serious difficulty in defining the boundaries of a culture or a nation. Furthermore we have multiple loyalties and allegiances. This is true, especially in our contemporary societies. But is this truly a puzzle for the relativist? Perhaps not. First of all we may note that this allegation seems to imply the acceptance of our sixth thesis of relativism: normative relativism. We live in a complex world and we belong to several groups and communities that pursue different values and have different principles. This seems to confirm the idea that there is a plurality of ideals and values morally respectable. There is a plurality of different and incommensurable goods. To cope with this complication of the moral life we need to accept some principles of right that set limits to the scope that we have in pursuing our ideals. Why should conventionalism make it more difficult to accept that? After all our relativist frankly admits pluralism. Moreover she/he openly praises the ability to see that values and principles have a limited sphere of authority (as we saw in explaining tolerance). Given all that, is she/he not in a very good position to realize the necessity of establishing hierarchies of principles, criteria of priority, and rules that traces the sphere of validity of various principles and values? Is not the modern state a device to enable this kind of multiple allegiancies in a rational and ordered way? The laws of the state trace the limits of what individuals and associations can do in their pursuit of their favourite goods, while the various communities work out the duties and responsibilities of its members to promote their shared ends.

Furthermore, Pojman has put forward the following tasks for morality: ‘resolution of interpersonal conflicts’, ‘the amelioration of the human predicament’ (p. 493, rc), ‘the survival of society, alleviation of suffering, encouragement of human flourishing and the just resolution of the conflicts of interests’ (p. 494, rc); but has he shown that these ends served by morality can never give rise to conflicting demands? No, rather he himself accepts Ross’s idea that moral principles are prima facie, so we need to solve moral conflicts and moral dilemmas also if we accept his version of objectivism. In this respect it seems that both the relativist and the objectivist need to give rules of priority or tie-break principles or some procedure to govern the application of principles. Is there any reason why this task should be more challenging and hard for the relativist? It rather seems that this latter’s awareness of the limited and conditional (relative) validity of moral principles makes it more acceptable the need for conflict-resolution rules and the necessity to sacrifice some values and principles. Principles of right and justice are everybody’s interest, while ideals and goods are of concern only for those who recognize and accept them, so a priority of principles of right over ideals of the good (that seems a workable solution to the problem of multiple allegiancies) seems to be consistent with the principle of legitimation through consent explained in (i).

(v) The last allegation against conventionalism is that a gang of criminal could claim to be judged according to their moral code. After remarking that this is reminiscent of the famous story of the pirate captured by the roman fleet, who asked by the roman emperor why he was infesting the seas, quietly replied that he was simply doing on a smaller scale what the emporer did on a grand scale. Apart from this anecdote, one could quickly reply to Pojman that according to the relativist the criminals can claim to do things their own way at most when they deal with each other, but that their moral principles are not accepted by their victim, who therefore are treated on the basis of principles that they clearly do not accept. Since our relativist has accepted a consent theory of moral legitimation the claim of criminals falls off the mark. (Notice that the consent theory of moral validity is the real normative principle of our relativist rather than any claim about relativity).

A similar line of argument can be used against the radicalization of the above claim, namely that conventionalism tends to collapse into subjectivism, which is self-defeating. Let’s grant that subjectivism is self-defeating. To this allegation two kinds of replies are available. The first run along the previous answer: an individual can only set himself moral ideals and aspirations, but cannot legitimately set rules of right, justice, or whatever principle governing human interactions, since those latter principles require the consent of the others with whom the individual has to deal. The relativist does not need to put forward a requirement of explicit consent: a moral community is established not by actual agreement, but by the actual sharing of practices and patterns of interactions. Outside a community of practices no actual moral rules are to be found. The second objection runs along Wittgenstein’s argument against private language. It is a very subtle and complicated argument that needs not be illustrated here, since its conclusion has an intuitive plausibility: only in an open public space rules can exist. If someone is the only author and interpreter of a set of rules there are no rules at all, since whatever exception can be accomodated through a reinterpretation of the rule or through the explicitation of some qualifying, or limiting clause or through a new specification of the circumstances of application of the rules. It is only the availability of an external, open, public check that guarantees the stability of the rule and the possibility of errors. But if there can be no errors in applying or following a rule, then there is no rule at all.

Ethics and Humanist Moral Objectivism

Anne said "But Chris, aren't we back to relativism again, with a core morality which "should be determined by everyone for themselves"? What is objective about that?"

Giovanni said " Chris, I agree with Anne, I don't see how you can reconcile "universal moral principles, valid for all people at all times and climes" with the principle that everyone has to use her/his own "moral compass". Am I missing something?"

Giovanni and Anne, if by Moral Objectivism is meant "universal moral principles, valid for all people at all times and climes" - then I can subscribe to this view for some principles for example The Golden Rule Principle.

As a Humanist I recognise that moral values should be founded on human nature and experience alone - not by refering to sacred texts or religious authorities when making moral decisions. I try to lead my life on guiding principles, not dogmatic rules. Despite that, I don't believe that basic moral principles are simply matters of personal preference or that they can vary much from place to place or time to time - I'm don't think I'm at heart a moral relativist.

I try to base my morals on a respect for observation, experience and The Scientific Method
and base my ethics on universal moral principles such as The Golden Rule. Some flexibility about actual situations and humanist scepticism about the value of dogmatic rules does not make me a relativist.

I agree mostly with the British Humanist Association - here,
but I am prepared to change my views mixed and probably will!wink

Humanist discussion of Ethics

Here are some excerpts from BHA on the subject of Ethics:
  • Humanists recognise that moral values are properly founded on human nature and experience alone:
  • Humanists do not refer to sacred texts or religious authorities when making moral decisions.
  • Humanists base their lives on guiding principles, not dogmatic rules.
  • Despite that, humanists do not believe that basic moral principles are simply matters of personal preference or that they can vary much from place to place or time to time - humanists are not relativists
  • Humanists value ideas for which there is evidence
  • Humanists believe that it is reasonable to enjoy the good things in life if we can do so without harming others or the environment.
  • They think we should all try to live full and happy lives, and that one way to do this is to help other people to do the same. So humanists believe in making responsible choices.
  • Humanists believe that we should review moral codes in the light of our principles and of developments in society and human knowledge.
  • The fact that we can do certain things does not mean that we ought to, but who is to decide what we do? Scientists? Doctors? Politicians? Moral philosophers? Religious leaders? Each individual?
  • reason is what distinguishes human beings from animals and that we therefore ought to use reason to solve problems and make life better.
  • There are some actions, like murder, that we can generally accept as wrong - we do not have to weigh up the pros and cons every time we are faced with a murder. And, in a democratic nation like the UK , we should obey the law. If humanists think a law is immoral, they work to change it
  • But there are many moral situations where we do have to think for ourselves. Humanists consider carefully the particular situation and the effects of choices on the happiness or suffering of the people (and sometimes animals) concerned and the wider community. They weigh up the evidence, the probable consequences of the action, and the rights and wishes of those involved, trying to find the kindest course of action or the option that will do the least harm and will not compromise their personal principles or integrity. Often humanist perspectives on moral issues are not very different from those of liberally-minded religious people. However, a humanist view is explicitly based on reason, experience, and empathy and respect for others, rather than on tradition or deference to authority, which often influence religious views.
  • All this may seem like simple common sense, but it is far from simple in its application.
    • Although many people (including many religious people) do make moral decisions this way, others decide very differently.
    • Some people just obey the teachings of their religion;
    • others accept the conventional wisdom of the day.
    • Some people adopt rigid rules which they apply in all circumstances;
    • others avoid thinking about moral issues at all or let individual personal preference decide the issue.
    • We are all confronted sometimes with moral choices, perhaps because the situation involves us, or because we are in a position to decide for or advise other people - even voting in an election or shopping might involve making moral choices. As intelligent rational beings, we ought to think about how we make these choices.
  • Shared values Communities can survive and work efficiently, and increase the welfare and happiness of their members, only if the people who live in them co-operate and accept certain principles, based on shared human values. These include:
    • looking after the young and other vulnerable people;
    • valuing the truth and respecting promises;
    • fair allocation of power and property according to some recognised system which includes merit;
    • mutual assistance in defence and disasters;
    • disapproval and punishment of wrongdoers, restraints on violence and killing.
  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has gained wide international acceptance, and which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1998, is underpinned by a belief in shared human needs and values.
  • Statement of values by the National Forum for Values in Education and the Community
  • The Golden Rule
    • Although many of the less important rules vary, all traditions seem to have come up with a version of the "Golden Rule": "Do as you would be done by" or "Treat other people in a way you would like to be treated yourself".
    • Humanists have been impressed with the apparently universal nature of this rule and with its egalitarianism and usefulness as a basic principle. It is based on human nature and experience, using our need to be treated well by others and our aspiration to live harmoniously with others as its foundation. It can be worked out by anyone, anywhere, by reference to experience. It does not need to be given to us by a deity.
    • It has been called "a searchlight, not a map", a metaphor which summarises its undogmatic appeal to humanists. The Golden Rule can be the foundation for other principles.
  • Morality without religion
    • Humanist ethics makes human beings solely responsible for working out and implementing moral values and codes. Of course, we do not choose these completely arbitrarily - they must be based on principles that respect the autonomy (or personal freedom) of others and the general welfare.
    • Morality is much more necessary than religion, and in an era of declining religious belief it is a dangerous mistake to confuse the two.
    • Religious faith does motivate and support some people in living better lives, and that is surely a good thing for the community - the more good people there are, the better for all of us.
    • But religion and dogmatic authorities are not essential for morality.
    • Many non-religious people think that it is actually more moral to think for oneself, and to make responsible and independent choices without divine authority or the hope of divine reward in an afterlife. Freely choosing to help someone else could be considered more virtuous than helping someone out of obedience or because you expect a reward

Ethics - National Forum for Values in Education and the Community

I came across this document via the BHA page on ethics who say "In England and Wales , a National Forum for Values in Education and the Community formulated a statement of values, which was then given to MORI who polled 3200 schools, 700 national organisations and 1500 individuals. About 90% of people agreed with the statement, showing that even within a multicultural and pluralistic society, there is still considerable agreement about moral values. This Statement of Values is now in the revised National Curriculum, and includes statements like: "We value the environment, both natural and shaped by humanity, as the basis of life and a source of wonder and inspiration", and "accept our duty to maintain a sustainable environment for future generations", and "We value relationships as fundamental to the development and fulfilment of ourselves and others, and to the good of the community." "

The only authority claimed for these values is the authority of consensus.
What is, not what ought (David Hume)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Limitations of the 'Scientific Method'

--- In, "david_c_flint" wrote:
> I'm glad you asked me that! I will upload a paper I wrote two years
> ago giving one approach.

> --- In, "Chris Street" chris@ wrote:
> So what ARE the limitations of the Scientific Method?

David, I think one of the most important limitations of the Scientific Method is (as you say in your upload file) "research often delivers qualified answers whereas citizens and policy makers want definitive answers"

I think terms like 'probably' or 'highly likely', when discussing science, can be used with bullish confidence.

As a corollary, the strength of the scientific method is that current research is provisional and if falsified may be replaced by science that better describes how the world works.

I was very impressed with the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC ) final report (pdf) which I reviewed in my Climate Alternative Temperature Science (CATS) blog.

The IPCC considered about 29,000 pieces of real-world evidence and concluded:

  • climate change is "unequivocal"
  • Probable temperature rise between 1.8C and 4C
  • Possible temperature rise between 1.1C and 6.4C
  • humankind's emissions of greenhouse gases are more than 90% very likely to be the main cause
  • Sea level most likely to rise by 28-43cm
  • Increase in heat waves very likely
  • Increase in tropical storm intensity likely
  • Changes in snow, ice and frozen ground have with high confidence increased the number and size of glacial lakes
  • earlier timing of spring events and poleward and upward shifts in plant and animal ranges
    are with very high confidence linked to recent warming.
IPCC defined what they meant by the above terms in red in the IPPC glossary:-

An expression of the degree to which a value (e.g., the future state of the climate system) is unknown. Uncertainty can result from lack of information or from disagreement about what is known or even knowable. Uncertainty can therefore be represented by quantitative measures, for example, a range of values calculated by various models, or by qualitative statements, for example, reflecting the judgement of a team of experts.

The likelihood of an occurrence, an outcome or a result, where this can be estimated probabilistically, is expressed in IPCC reports using a standard terminology defined as follows:

Terminology Likelihood of the occurrence / outcome
Virtually certain >99% probability of occurrence
Very likely >90% probability
Likely >66% probability
More likely than not >50% probability
About as likely as not 33 to 66% probability
Unlikely <33% size="4">Confidence
The level of confidence in the correctness of a result is expressed in this report, using a standard terminology defined as follows:

Terminology Degree of confidence in being correct
Very high confidence = At least 9 out of 10 chance of being correct
High confidence = About 8 out of 10 chance
Medium confidence = About 5 out of 10 chance
Low confidence = About 2 out of 10 chance
Very low confidence = Less than 1 out of 10 chance

I think this measured language in terms of uncertainty, likelyhood and confidence brilliantly conveys the provisional nature of the scientific method to non-scientists and politicians.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Support of the Premise "No god exists" via the Scientific Method

The Support of the Premise "No god exists" via the Scientific Method

This page is written by Drafterman.

The Support of the Premise "No god exists" via the Scientific Method.

"To believe there is NO God when you can't prove that anymore than I can prove that there is requires faith."

This is a quote lifted off of this group. Neither this specific quote nor its author are being singled out here; It is simply the most recent quote I could think of. It is merely an example being used. Discussion about faith, its different meanings, and the equivocation often used when talking about it in regards to atheism and theism, is outside the scope of this document.

The focus of this document is the idea that the premises "God exists" and "No god exists" are equally valid (or equally invalid). That is, the truth value for both of those premises is the same.

A brief digression before getting into the meat of the matter:

The above sentiment is often expressed by Christians in an attempt to put atheism on the same logic framework as theism. The problem with this is two-fold:

1. It, essentially, is tacit acknowledgement of the weak logic theism rests on. By attempting to drag atheism down to the level of theism, you first have to accept that theism exists on a logically lower level in the first place. The only other possibility is the absurd notion a Christian would go out of their way to raise atheism up to the logical level they believe theism rests on.

2. By making theism and atheism equal, they do nothing for the cause of theism. A person must make a choice, and if the choice is not made on a logical basis (since they are now logically equal) what criteria can one use? The only thing left would be Occam's razor, but that would favor atheism.

The scientific method is a series of steps, based in rationalism and empiricism. It is used as a method to see whether or not hypotheses represent an accurate model of the universe. The scientific method rests on several logical principles, induction and reductio ad absurdum, are often used. If the scientific method is applied to a hypothesis, and the hypothesis survives, it can be said that it is logically more valid than the hypothesis' negation.

It is often acknowledged that science cannot prove anything 100% true. This is a bit of an exaggeration. There are things that science can, indeed, prove 100% true. But these things are usually trivial. For example, I can prove whether or not the volume, mass, or charge of some particle is a certain value. But the utility of that measurement is nil. Only when I use induction to extrapolate a general rule about the universe does it gain potential usefulness. It is also at that point, that it becomes impossible to prove the statement 100% true, since we are now making a claim about all such particles and it is impossible (either literally or practically) to perform all the measurements required for such proof.

For this argument we will make two such general statements:

"All objects, under only the force of gravity, near the surface of the Earth, will accelerate at 32.2ft/s^2"
"No god exists"

Also, for the purposes of this argument we will address their opposites:

"Not all objects, under only the force of gravity, near the surface of the Earth, will accelerate at 32.2ft/s^2"
"God exists"

The first premise can be reworded as:

"At least one object, under only the force of gravity, near the surface of the Earth, will not accelerate at 32.2ft/s^2"

For simplicity we will assign these premises labels:

O = "All objects, under only the force of gravity, near the surface of the Earth, will accelerate at 32.2ft/s^2"
G = "No god exists"


O' = "At least one object, under only the force of gravity, near the surface of the Earth, will not accelerate at 32.2ft/s^2"
G' = "God exists"

O is an excellent hypothesis for application of the scientific method. It makes a general statement about all objects and how they will behave under certain conditions. That is, it addresses a significantly large number of potential events. Its support will provide us a great deal of knowledge about the universe.

Like all hypotheses tested by the scientific method, it is not 100% provable. In order to prove it 100% true, we would have to measure the rate of acceleration of all objects, everywhere, all the time, since the beginning of the universe, to the end of the universe. Even if that were practical, one could correctly argue that just because all objects did follow O, that does not necessarily mean they had to.

So how do we convert O from a hypothesis to a solid theory if we cannot prove it 100% true? We test it. It cannot be 100% true, but it can be anywhere from 0% to just shy of 100% true. So how do we test it? First, we must determine if it is testable.

That is, there must exist a test that can be performed, or observation that can be made, that has the real possibility of showing that it can be false. This feature is called "falsifiability" and is necessary for all scientific hypothesis and theories to have it.

In the case of O, it is most certainly falsifiable: an object can accelerate at a rate other than 32.2ft/s^2 (while still only being under the influence of gravity near the surface of the Earth). That is very easy to test: drop a bunch of objections and measure the rates at which they accelerate. (If you're clever like Galileo, you can roll them down inclines, which is easier to measure, and achieve the same results)

Essentially, we are genuinely trying to prove the hypothesis false. Each test that has the real possibility of proving the hypothesis false, but doesn't, will increase our confidence in the validity of that hypothesis. By confidence I don't refer to some vague emotion, but that the hypothesis literally becomes truer. The more tests we perform and fail to prove it false, the truer it becomes.

Now, let us consider O'. First of all it is not a good hypothesis in consideration for the scientific method since it only makes a claim on at least one object. Second, it cannot be falsified. Even if we measure all objects to be in accordance with O, that will not be disproof of O'. The advantage it does have, though, is that it can be proven true: observe an object that falls at a different rate than specific in O. So it can be 100% true. But until it is, its truth value is unknown.

A summary comparison of the premises O and O':

O Truth values ranging from 0% to an asymptotic value of 100% (always approaching but never reaching) with the ability to test the theory, thereby increasing its value toward that limit.

O' Truth values are either "Unknown" or 100% with no way to reliably test. (Tests can be performed but are inconclusive unless they prove the theory true).

So, unless O' is proven (which necessarily includes the disproof of O) and we perform tests to increase the truth value of O (even by a slight degree) then we are correct in saying that O is a more true, logical, and scientific premise to hold than O'.

Now we translate that for G and G'. Like O', G' is a statement that cannot be disproved since God can always be claiming to be hiding in some gap somewhere. It can be proven, however, by evidence arising of god's existence. So, like O', G' is either 100% true, or unknown.

This also applies for O and G. G can never be proven 100%, thus its truth values range from 0% to just shy of 100%. The only thing that we need to do is to test G. What test can we perform? While some may see this as an impasse, god is often assigned the attributes of omnipotence and omniscience. In situations where we are dealing with an entity that has neither, then I side with Epicurus when he asks "Then why call him god?" Omniscience and omnipotence remedies this situation and alleviates the need for us to develop a test ourselves. God has the knowledge and power to present the evidence necessary to prove his existence. Our participation is passive, but this is not a problem. Thus all we have to do is sit and observe the universe. Every moment that passes by that is not validation of god's existence increases the validity of G.

In summary:

G Truth values ranging from 0% to an asymptotic value of 100% (always approaching but never reaching) with the ability to test the theory, thereby increasing its value toward that limit.

G' Truth values are either "Unknown" or 100% with no way to reliably test. (Tests can be performed but are inconclusive unless they prove the theory true).

So, unless G' is proven (which necessarily includes the disproof of G) and we perform tests to increase the truth value of G (even by a slight degree) then we are correct in saying that G is a more true, logical, and scientific premise to hold than G'.

Replacing back our original wording:

So, unless god is proven to exist (which necessarily includes disproving his non-existence) and we perform tests to increase the truth of god's nonexistence (even by a slight degree) then we are correct in saying that "God does not exist" is a more true, logical, and scientific premise to hold than "God exists".


First, the scientific method and the process by which a hypothesis becomes a theory are, admittedly, greatly simplified; though I contend I have hit all the major points. There are, of course, other issues that are taken in account (for example, the area that the theory addresses and its potential relationship with other theories, a more thorough analysis of its utility and the ability to test, etc.)

Second, one may wonder why, if the above is true, "God does not exist" is not officially made a scientific theory. This is answered by my previous caveat regarding the other issues. The utility of the hypothesis is nil since science already proceeds without assuming god exists. Furthermore, with actual scientific theories, tests require some sort of quantifiable measurement, even when using mere passive observation.

Third and lastly, even with omniscience and omnipotence we still run into the problem of god's will and some may argue that god can prove his own existence, he simply does not *want* to. This is not an issue for several reasons:

• The god typically involved is the Christian God, which has directly interfered in human affairs, thus cannot claim to not want to prove itself since such interaction would constitute proof.

• That the universe could exist in a fashion contrary to the will of an omnipotent, omniscience entity is nonsensical. As humans we have a keen awareness of the difference between our desires and reality because we lack the ability or knowledge to make them come true. This is not an issue for an entity that knows everything and can do anything. Thus the universe necessarily is what they desire. So, as far as any inhabitants of a universe are concerned, if the a god does not want to be proven, then that god does not exist.

• If god is necessarily worthy of worship, then who are we to disagree if it doesn't want to be proven?