Objective Values

It is June, which means we’re due another installment of Are My Values Based in Objective Reality? Not sure what I’m talking about? Start with this discussion of skepticism:

I deeply and strongly disagree with the separation of ways of thinking (including scientific skepticism) and political perspectives. It is part of the progressive political perspective to be a rational thinker. Explicitly. It is part of the Republican Tea-baggging Yahooistic political perspective to be …. well, something else. Somewhat explicitly. It would be perilous to ignore this. It is explicitly part of the modern Atheist movement to think skeptically. A religious person is not thinking skeptically about that aspect of their lives, and if they were, they’d be some form of atheist or agnostic, and so on.

Don’t miss the argument in the comments, which strikingly captures the opposing view, or the comments sections of the linked blog posts. It was a rather debateful April.

May brought us reactions to Sam Harris’s claim that science can provide a foundation for morality.

I think Harris is following a provocative and potentially useful track, but I’m not convinced. I think he’s right in some of the examples he gives: science can trivially tell you that psychopaths and violent criminals and the pathologies produced by failed states in political and economic collapse are not good models on which to base a successful human society (although I also think that the desire for a successful society is not a scientific premise…it’s a kind of Darwinian criterion, because unsuccessful societies don’t survive). However, I don’t think Harris’s criterion — that we can use science to justify maximizing the well-being of individuals — is valid. We can’t. We can certainly use science to say how we can maximize well-being, once we define well-being…although even that might be a bit more slippery than he portrays it.

Once again, there is little agreement, except, perhaps, that the concept is intriguing.

And now it is June, and Greta Christina is taking a shot at the argument that some values are intrinsically and objectively more ethical.

Goldstein’s argument is this. The basic philosophical underpinning of ethics (as opposed to its psychological and evolutionary underpinnings) are:

(a) the starting axiom that we, ourselves, matter;

and (b) the understanding that, if we step back from ourselves and view life from an outside perspective, we have to acknowledge that we don’t, cosmically speaking, matter more than anyone else; that other people matter to themselves as much as we matter to ourselves; and that any rules of ethics ought to apply to other people as much as they do to ourselves. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and all that. (Some version of the Golden Rule seems to exist in every society.)

In other words, the philosophical underpinning of ethics are that they ought to be applicable to everyone. They ought to be universalizable.

And liberal values — fairness and harm — are universalizable.

As usual, Greta does an excellent job of laying out her ideas without making overreaching claims. Go read the rest.

Objective Values

Disability Bingo

I’m deeply ambivalent on the subject of social-interaction bingo cards. On the one hand, I see them warp discussions, as people who are arguing with each other shoehorn nuanced statements into dogwhistle boxes in the name of…oh, I don’t even pretend to understand why someone would have that kind of discussion in the first place. On the other hand, they really can be quick, accessible, visual introductions to the kinds of things people say over and over again that are far less than helpful, or even thoughtful.

My friend Lynne knows how to use a bingo card, which is only one of the reasons she’s awesome.

Caitlin is not “confined” to a wheelchair (a term I saw used recently in another LJ community that drives me absolutely nuts). She uses a wheelchair. It is a tool, that helps her to be mobile. Like a car, but smaller. In a world that, frankly, isn’t as well designed for alternative modes of mobility as it should be, given how many of us over time will need to use similar tools.

We are not trying to “overcome” or fix Caitlin’s disabilities. We are adapting our life and hers to her current abilities so that she can have the fullest life possible, in a society that is not particularly structured for her to, you know, leave the house on a regular basis, interact with other people, etc.

Don’t worry, Lynne doesn’t leave people with just a list of don’ts, which tend to make people self-conscious and lead to the kind of avoidance that isolates people with disabilities. She gives things you can do when someone else’s disability leaves you feeling helpless. You should read them all, so I’m only going to share one:

Be the person who helps to drive demand from libraries and publishers alike for more stories about people with disabilities. Buy them. Read them. Read them to your kids.

Lynne also links indirectly to a fiction contest at the new Redstone Science Fiction (the first issue of which includes an interview with a payload rack officer on the ISS). The contest is asking for short fiction that doesn’t use disability as a shorthand for character traits or group identity or treat it as something to be cured and which is set in a future that sees and accommodates disabilities. If you’re a writer, I strongly encourage you to play. Even if you don’t win, you’ll come away with a story that will do someone some good.

Off to go plot.

Disability Bingo

Why Prayer Is Nonsense

Jason has written a blog epic at Lousy Canuck. After a stray comment about prayer being useless in a particular situation, and the argument that ensued, he’s taken a systematic look at the arguments for and against prayer. Go check it out.

Why Prayer Is Nonsense

The Christian Colonies

My favorite dead relatives, however, are the ones who were kicked out of the Colony of Massachusetts for being the wrong kind of Puritan, which means, as long as we’re clearing up matters of religious misconception, pure in matters of doctrine, not without sin. They’d come to the colonies, as many had, because they couldn’t practice their brand of religion in a land where the state was the head of the church. What they found (or perhaps helped to found, as the records aren’t very clear) was a colony where the church was the head of the state, just as many would like the situation to be today.

There’s no doubt that some of the colonies were founded as Christian settlements. Does that mean the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation? Find out at Quiche Moraine.

The Christian Colonies

Reconstructing Criticism: Collegiality

“Because I said so” may be four of the most satisfying words in the English language. Unfortunately, they are almost exactly the wrong thing to say, or even imply, when delivering constructive criticism.

It isn’t that a person in a position of authority can’t deliver constructive criticism. They can and do frequently, since human resources management is the largest group to have embraced its utility. That doesn’t there aren’t problems that lie in combining the weight of authority with the criticism.

The first problem is that authority is all too often associated with punishment, which makes it much harder for recipients of criticism to hear it correctly. Listening or reading attentively is incompatible with wondering how much trouble is on its way and incompatible with a fight-or-flight response to fear. Setting aside this aspect of authority up front (“No, you’re not in trouble”) allows the message itself to come across more clearly.

Someone else’s authority is also not a good motivator under your average low-stakes situation. In high-stakes, strong-threat situations, yes, but those don’t generally involve constructive criticism. Under normal circumstances, people’s internal motivations are much stronger than outside authority, particularly in the long term and particularly in the immediate absence of that authority. Invoking internal motivations, showing people why change is needed rather than leaning on authority, is much more likely to effect lasting changes.

Closely related to that is the problem of defiance. Constructive criticism is that which builds the criticized party up, not tears them down. Criticism that relies on authority reinforces the recipient’s subordinate position. Who wants to be on the receiving end of that? And we don’t have to. Playgrounds have long taught us that the proper response to “Because I said so” is “Make me.” That simple retort undermines an adult in an actual position of authority almost as well as it does a bossy kid, setting up a power struggle in which the recipient of the criticism loses by making the desired change.

So you’re a person with some authority who wants to deliver constructive criticism. How do you do it? Focus on the reasons for change without being one of them. Yes, that is harder than it sounds. You can point to shared goals, but you’re better off pointing to the individual’s goals, since supporting your goals supports your authority. You can listen more than you talk, particularly about why the current state of things exists. You can enlist the recipient of the criticism in making a plan for change. You can have the discussion in their space instead of yours. You can do almost anything sincere to level the power dynamic between you and make you peers for the purposes of the criticism.

The one thing you absolutely can’t do, of course, is lean on “Because I said so” to do the work for you.

Reconstructing Criticism: Collegiality