Discussion of Slate Star Codex: "Extremism in Thought Experiments is No Vice"

post by Artaxerxes · 2015-03-28T09:17:55.577Z · score: 15 (19 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 112 comments

Link to Blog Post: "Extremism in Thought Experiments is No Vice"


Phil Robertson is being criticized for a thought experiment in which an atheist’s family is raped and murdered. On a talk show, he accused atheists of believing that there was no such thing as objective right or wrong, then continued:

I’ll make a bet with you. Two guys break into an atheist’s home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him.

Then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them, and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him, and then they can look at him and say, ‘Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged? Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this? There’s no right or wrong, now, is it dude?’

Then you take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be something if [there] was something wrong with this? But you’re the one who says there is no God, there’s no right, there’s no wrong, so we’re just having fun. We’re sick in the head, have a nice day.’

If it happened to them, they probably would say, ‘Something about this just ain’t right’.

The media has completely proportionally described this as Robinson “fantasizing about” raping atheists, and there are the usual calls for him to apologize/get fired/be beheaded.

So let me use whatever credibility I have as a guy with a philosophy degree to confirm that Phil Robertson is doing moral philosophy exactly right.


This is a LW discussion post for Yvain's blog posts at Slate Star Codex, as per tog's suggestion:

Like many Less Wrong readers, I greatly enjoy Slate Star Codex; there's a large overlap in readership. However, the comments there are far worse, not worth reading for me. I think this is in part due to the lack of LW-style up and downvotes. Have there ever been discussion threads about SSC posts here on LW? What do people think of the idea occasionally having them? Does Scott himself have any views on this, and would he be OK with it?

Scott/Yvain's permission to repost on LW was granted (from facebook):

I'm fine with anyone who wants reposting things for comments on LW, except for posts where I specifically say otherwise or tag them with "things i will regret writing"


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Jiro · 2015-03-28T19:54:12.111Z · score: 21 (31 votes) · LW · GW

I'm going to repost something I posted there:

I think that Scott is looking at Phil Robertson’s literal words and ignoring context, implication, and connotation. It is possible to parse what Phil Robertson said as a thought experiment which questions the logical consequences of an atheistic position.

But even though his literal words have the form of such a thought experiment, that’s not what he’s doing. He’s stringing together a set of applause lights meant to tell his audience that he fantasizes about the outgroup getting punished for being the outgroup in a way that is their own fault.

It is a scourge of the Internet that people are too literal. Scott is falling victim to this trend here. The way Phil Robertson phrased that, and the circumstance surrounding it, make it very clear that it is not just a thought experiment even if you can take it apart and say “well, a thought experiment has A, and B, and C, and Phil is also using A, and B, and C and in exactly the right order."

Yes, people can use extreme scenarios when they are legitimately trying to argue a point. No, this is not a case of that. It's not even a case of atheists in the audience getting mindkilled. It's a case of atheists in the audience correctly understanding what he's saying. In the real world outside LW, most hypotheticals of this sort are attacks and not sincere attempts to make a philosophical point.

comment by samath · 2015-03-30T04:43:35.955Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Sorry, but I'm guessing you don't spend much time around religious conservatives like Robertson. It's actually quite common among them to reason philosophically like this, mainly due to the emphasis on Christian apologetics. I'm sure Robertson has come across an argument of this form before and just reworked it for this.

Let me offer some more evidence. Listening to a recording of it, there are some chuckles in the audience at the beginning, but it grows silent by the end as most people grow more disgusted. The natural reaction, right in his last line, is, "Yes, something isn't right about this. Atheists do not deserve to be raped, murdered and castrated. The world would be quite chilling if we didn't have the moral authority to declare that some things are right and some things are wrong."

That's the complete opposite conclusion as, "Yes, atheists deserve to be tortured for believing there's no right and wrong." I honestly don't see how you think that could be the conclusion he wants you to reach. You don't promote the Holocaust by talking about how much pain the Jews would suffer in concentration camps. You use weasel words like "the final solution to the Jewish problem." Robertson is doing the exact opposite.

comment by Jiro · 2015-03-30T05:09:11.984Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

The fantasy isn't mainly that Robertson likes torturing atheists or thinks his audience does. The fantasy is that their own atheism is responsible for them being tortured and that the awfulness of that demonstrates that atheism is awful. Whether his audience likes hearing about atheists suffering is a side issue.

.You don't promote the Holocaust by talking about how much pain the Jews would suffer in concentration camps.

That's a bad comparison because Nazis did not believe that Jews could or should give up being Jews.

comment by samath · 2015-03-30T14:41:41.932Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Hmmm, I think a better word than "fantasy" here is "dystopia." Robertson is painting a bleak picture of a world where without moral authority, like the (much longer) bleak depiction of say, Fahrenheit 451 of a world without intellectual freedoms. Again, the natural reaction to reading Fahrenheit 451 or hearing Robertson isn't gleeful cackling, but shocked horror. "Something ain't right."

comment by Unknowns · 2015-03-30T05:23:16.234Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Robertson is mistaken in believing that atheists all deny the existence of right and wrong. However, from a timeless decision point of view, someone who does in fact deny the existence of right and wrong is at least partly "responsible" for it if he is murdered by someone who does not believe that murder is wrong and who would not have done it if he did believe it was wrong.

Saying he has no responsibility at all in this sense, would be like saying that the person who takes two boxes in a Newcomb situation is not responsible for the fact that he didn't get the million.

comment by private_messaging · 2015-03-29T07:06:04.674Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Precisely. It's also implying that atheists are moral nihilists. Which is BS. Plenty of religious people believe in god who will grant them passage to heaven irrespective of their moral conduct just as long as they repent and accept Jesus; and a plenty of atheists are not moral nihilists.

comment by Furcas · 2015-03-29T16:23:43.016Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Exactly right.

comment by casebash · 2015-03-30T12:40:03.102Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

"and not sincere attempts to make a philosophical point" - So, he's confused atheists and moral error theorists, but the point is rather valid philosophically. It is very easy to say that one doesn't believe in morality in the abstract, but much harder when confronted with a vivid, specific example.

comment by Jiro · 2015-03-30T13:50:18.611Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

"Sincere" and "valid" aren't the same thing.

comment by dxu · 2015-03-29T01:23:05.157Z · score: 17 (17 votes) · LW · GW

The problem with Robertson's thought experiment, I feel, isn't that it's extreme or visceral, but rather that it is strawmanning an overwhelming majority of atheists. (Scott actually coined a term for this sort of thing: weak man.)

Most atheists I know don't in fact believe that God is the only possible source of morality; in fact, many of them hold that even if God existed, they would still evaluate each of His commandments on their own merits before deciding to obey. The mere fact that you don't believe in God doesn't make you a moral nihilist all of a sudden. Robertson's thought experiment relies upon the implicit assumption that atheism implies moral nihilism, making it okay to rape and murder, which is frankly a very old argument that has been refuted a great many times, both on and off the Internet.

comment by Kaninchen · 2015-03-29T20:52:07.444Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Can we differentiate between "Atheists ought logically to be moral nihilists" and "If you are an atheist, you are necessarily a moral nihilist" ? I take you to mean the second of these, which is indeed plainly false.

The first of these statements is not obviously false. It is (epistemically) possible that there are no good non-religious grounds for moral realism (which is not to say that there are good religious grounds for it either). That said, I do wonder if Robertson actually believes it. If he ceased to believe in God, would he really start behaving "immorally" whenever it turned out to be in his self-interest?

comment by gjm · 2015-03-30T12:44:44.240Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I agree, but so far as I can see the strongest arguments against moral realism actually work just as well if there is a god as if there isn't -- unless you cheat by defining your god in a way that presupposes moral realism. That's a common move, of course, and I'm sure it's not generally intended as any kind of cheating, but none of that makes the argument "I have defined 'God' in a way that presupposes moral realism. It turns out that there aren't good non-theistic arguments for moral realism, but if you define 'God' my way then it's easy to deduce moral realism from his existence. Since we all know that moral realism is correct, this is evidence for God." a good argument.

comment by torekp · 2015-04-05T14:39:42.923Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Nitpick: Scott didn't coin "weak man", he mentioned it because the term appeared in the fallacy/bias literature. Previous to that on Scott's blog, I coined the term "flesh man"; later someone proposed "tin man". I don't know why Scott didn't use my term :( , or "tin man", either of which is much better.

A flesh/tin man is an argument/position that a real person actually holds, but where this real person has been selected to represent the worst of whatever side/camp you want to tar with the brush of foolishness or nastiness.

comment by Jan_Rzymkowski · 2015-03-28T15:32:42.548Z · score: 16 (18 votes) · LW · GW

My problem with such examples is that it seems more like Dark Arts emotional manipulation than actual argument. What your mind hears is that, if you're not believing in God, people will come to your house and kill your family - and if you believed in God they wouldn't do that, because they'd somehow fear the God. I don't see how is this anything else but an emotional trick.

I understand that sometimes you need to cut out the nuance in morality thought experiments, like equaling taxes to being threatened to be kidnapped, if you don't regularly pay a racket. But the opposite thing is creating exciting graphic visions. Watching your loved one raped is not as bad as losing a loved one - but it creates a much better psychological effect, targeted to elicit emotional blackmail.

comment by Ben Pace (Benito) · 2015-03-29T06:47:33.041Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So, if we were to follow that line of argument, should we not allow philosophy on television? Is it too dangerous for the public to be exposed to? :)

comment by Dorikka · 2015-03-28T17:22:37.597Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for doing this.

comment by samath · 2015-03-29T04:02:55.395Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

As someone who has spent a lot of time with religious conservatives, I've heard the sort of argument given by Robertson many times before. And they use it as an actual argument used against nihilism, which they tend to think follows directly from atheism. So Scott is completely right to address it as such.

I think Robertson conflates the two because he (and others like him) can't really imagine a coherent non-arbitrary atheist moral realist theory. Can anyone here give a good example of one that couldn't include what the murderer he depicts seems to believe?

comment by hairyfigment · 2015-03-29T22:43:01.990Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

What does "non-arbitrary" mean, and why is it a virtue? More, why does Robertson's religion have this property, when plainly no moral claims can logically follow from the existence of some deity unless we start by assuming a connection?

comment by samath · 2015-03-30T04:06:40.326Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

What I meant is that you could easily just define your ethics to include by definition "murder is bad" and it'd satisfy all of the other criteria (assuming you could coherently define murder). But if I imagine myself telling Robertson (or somone similar) that, they'd ask how I came up with that rule and why someone else couldn't just come up with the opposite rule "murder is good" and so it was just an arbitrary choice on my part.

comment by hairyfigment · 2015-03-30T05:12:12.364Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

When Lovecraft invented the blind idiot god Azathoth (as the human narrator calls it), he was likely just taking the Old Catholic/Aristotelian view of God and imagining what that might look like given the universe we live in. Azathoth maintains existence by sitting at its center surrounded by vast demonic dancers. There's a mediator, here called Nyarlathotep rather than Jesus or the Pope, who claims to somehow be doing Azathoth's will when he told humans to murder each other.

I mention this because we would not consider N's commands morally binding, even in that scenario. We consider hypothetical deities moral or immoral based on whether or not they agree with "arbitrary" rules like not hurting people unnecessarily, not the other way around. Nothing else in the 'philosophical' account of God actually has moral significance. Nor can it provide a foundation for the claims that it sneakily assumes.

So one big reason why I look down on Robertson's argument is that the charge he makes against atheists doesn't distinguish theism from atheism.

comment by DanArmak · 2015-04-27T17:03:35.362Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

We consider hypothetical deities moral or immoral based on whether or not they agree with "arbitrary" rules like not hurting people unnecessarily, not the other way around.

Some religious traditions disagree. There are, in fact, people who believe God is by definition good and therefore any known commandment of God is good if we trust its divine status, because our own moral sense is fallible but God is not.

comment by tog · 2015-03-29T06:50:31.600Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

How about moral realist consequentialism? Or a moral realist deontology with defeasible rules like a prohibition on murdering? These can certainly be coherent. I'm not sure what you require them to be non-arbitrary, but one case for consequentialism's being non-arbitrary would be that it is based on a direct acquaintance with or perception of the badness of pain and goodness of happiness. (I find this case plausible.) For a paper on this, see http://philpapers.org/archive/SINTEA-3.pdf

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2015-03-29T10:20:39.240Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Or rule consequentialism, or constructivism, or contractarianism....

comment by seer · 2015-03-29T06:18:53.262Z · score: 2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Well the fact that it appears to be impossible to get two LessWrongers to agree on whether a given moral theory is coherent and non-arbitrary is not encouraging in that regard.

comment by dxu · 2015-03-29T22:58:47.336Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

As written, this implies that every LWer holds a different moral theory, which seems obviously false. A better phrasing might be, "There does not appear to be a majority position on morality on LW."

Also, talking about only LWers seems a bit narrow. I would have gone for "moral philosophers in general", actually.

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2015-03-29T10:29:26.915Z · score: 0 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Because lesswrongians have philosophical superpowers, so if they can't do it, noone can?

But lesswrongian are rather lacking philosophical ordinarypowers, from where I'm standing.

comment by DanArmak · 2015-04-27T17:15:56.967Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Why does Robertson, or anyone else, insist on moral realism? And what exactly does he mean by it?

There seem to be different usages of "moral realism", which is confusing. The main two are:

  1. Morals are an objective property of the universe, or possibly of mathematics (e.g. game theoretic cooperation), which can be deduced and agreed on, even separately from purely human concerns and attributes. So we can speak of objective morals. And if one believes that humans are typical of (evolved) intelligences, and that evolution removes behavior that is self-destructive or unstable, it's likely that common human morals are somewhat correlated with these universal morals.

  2. Humans are very homogenous compared to all possible intelligent agents. Human moral beliefs, intuitions and actions are more alike than they are different. This shared core is objective or "real" in the sense that it is independent of any particular human or even any particular human culture. So we can speak of objective human!morals.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-04-27T17:31:16.039Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Well, Robertson insists on moral realism because he is a believing Christian and Christianity is rather insistent about it -- specifically in the sense of your first usage case.

I haven't seen anyone call the second case "moral realism" outside of the LW context.

comment by DanArmak · 2015-04-27T17:33:22.338Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Well, Robertson insists on moral realism because he is a believing Christian and Christianity is rather insistent about it

When stated like that, it's clearly circular. Is he saying that his moral beliefs are better because they're more like his moral beliefs than other, dissimilar beliefs?

comment by Lumifer · 2015-04-27T17:41:55.612Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

No, when a moral realist says his beliefs are better, he means they are better because they are true.

Under moral realism morality is like physics -- that's just how the universe is constructed and the criterion for truth is matching the territory (reality for physics and God's will for Christianity).

comment by DanArmak · 2015-04-27T17:55:04.172Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

In this system, do morals have a separate status from other divine commandments and laws? What is the definition of the category "morals", if the only way to discover them is to study divine revelation, and not by introspection?

comment by Lumifer · 2015-04-27T18:04:45.781Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

do morals have a separate status from other divine commandments and laws?

In the same way the laws of physics have a separate status from divine commandments like "Though shall not stick a fork into an active electric outlet".

What is the definition of the category "morals"

What God likes or doesn't like. Alternatively, what gets you closer to heaven or to hell.

Moral realism doesn't care about introspection.

comment by DanArmak · 2015-04-27T18:21:05.248Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That sounds to me like there isn't a difference between morals and other commandments. If sticking a fork into a socket is a divine commandment, then following it is liked by God (God likes people to follow commandments), and it brings you closer to Heaven (God lets people into Heaven if they follow commandments).

If the fork-and-socket commandment didn't bring you closer to heaven or hell, then it wouldn't be a commandment, because breaking it wouldn't be a sin.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-04-27T18:30:42.918Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Morals are the underlying unreachable (for mortals) perfection. Commandments are heuristics for getting closer.

If morality is like physics, commandments are like engineering

And don't think contemporary engineering with calculators, simulations, etc. Think medieval engineering, like building cathedrals -- you don't necessarily understand why things work this way, but you know that the three people before you who tried to do it another way had their walls collapse.

comment by DanArmak · 2015-04-27T19:34:31.443Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That does make sense. Thank you for the explanation.

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2015-03-29T10:13:23.830Z · score: -1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

But a significant number of atheists are nihilists and relativist, and the reasons seem to be the same...they can't imagine naturalized objective ethics. And the common problem is stopping at personal incredulity rather than researching what anyone else has come up with. Show me the kind of atheists who is a moral nihilist, and I'll show you the kind of atheist who disdains philosophy.

comment by gjm · 2015-03-30T12:40:27.225Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Show me the kind of atheist who is a moral nihilist, and I'll show you the kind of atheist who disdains philosophy

What, like J L Mackie? For someone who disdains philosophy, he sure wrote a lot of it.

comment by dxu · 2015-03-29T22:49:07.616Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

a significant number of atheists are nihilists and relativist

Source? (Also, what do you mean by "significant number"? Over 10%? Over 20%?)

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2015-03-30T08:59:57.264Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Conversations with atheists.

comment by Epictetus · 2015-03-29T08:16:21.225Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Robertson's point is actually quite relevant for religious folk. When I was still a serious Christian, I too wondered how a purely secular approach to morality could avoid degenerating into relativism or a "might makes right" free-for-all.

Any arbitrariness in one's approach to morality risks relativism, as someone else can take a different approach and so reach a different conclusion. For example, utilitarianism becomes a much different beast if I introduce a caste system wherein I take a weighted sum of people's utilities. I may decide that one group's happiness is worth more than that of a different group.

Cheating is another issue that bothered me. If you can lie, cheat, steal, and kill your way to a good life and avoid all the negative consequences, then why not do it? This is the perspective of someone who does not value other people's happiness and only follows the rules because of the punishments for breaking them.

Contrast with a supreme judge. He's the source of morality, so there's no relativism. He's omniscient, so there's no getting away with doing something in secret. He's almighty, so there's no way to use one's might to avoid consequences. Is it any wonder that the devout can feel underwhelmed by secular morality? They can accept that atheists can be just and honorable, and that some are more righteous than most religious folk. What they have trouble accepting is that those moral precepts have a solid foundation without God.

comment by JohnBuridan · 2015-03-30T17:41:31.806Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Cheating and lying does not always devalue other people's happiness though. Cheating on the GRE doesn't obviously hurt other people. Lying (or misdirection) sometimes spares someone a painful truth or leaves them none the wiser. Like when a kid lies to his dad about where he was earlier this afternoon. These pretty simple counter-examples don't refute your point fully. I propose them because I think there is something lacking to say the only reason we can't cheat and lie our way to the good life is because it hurts other people's happiness. Sometimes it doesn't.

But cheating in Axis & Allies always separates the agent from the opportunity to gain the happiness that comes from being an excellent Axis & Allies player. I think this type of happiness must be part of your moral reasoning too.

comment by Vaniver · 2015-03-30T18:20:07.109Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Cheating on the GRE doesn't obviously hurt other people.

Except for the people whose actual ability is higher than yours, whose slot you took, or the people who get someone of lower ability that the scores suggest, and that's just the first order effects. The second order effects of having a society with less efficient information transfer are also pretty miserable.

comment by JohnBuridan · 2015-03-30T21:41:31.182Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I agree with some provision. My counter-examples can be shown to lead to bad effects, but only in an ad hoc kind of way. I think the GRE cheater could potentially justify his/her actions by pointing toward other evils in society (like nepotism or it's-who-you-know-ism) that require him getting an edge on this allegedly stupid test in order to succeed in a world more interested in money, favors, and quantifying smarts, than it is in true intelligence. He may also counter that there is no "slot" he takes by doing as well as someone with "higher ability" if the ability measured is merely the ability to take the GRE, which our cheater contends it is. There is never an end to the litany of justifications, contingent realities, where a greater good is brought out, or a systematic evil exposed, etc. etc.

I mean what were these people thinking? I hesitate to wag my finger only to point out they are hurting other people by this behavior. Is that that is THE rational argument? Do you think demonstrating the second order effects are the most convincing way to demonstrate the wrongness of cheating? My reasons for not cheating aren't solely based on the effects my actions may, but not necessarily, have on others. I also desire to achieve the happiness that comes from excellence at something. As I mentioned above, I think you need both rationales.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-03-28T19:26:25.641Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Phrasing the moral example this way is likely to cause participants in the discussion to get mind-killed and not conductive to get them to reason freely.

In particular it distracts here from the strawman he's making. Most atheists do think that there something wrong with rape and murder.

comment by Normal_Anomaly · 2015-03-29T23:43:23.264Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Most atheists do think that there something wrong with rape and murder.

I think the problem is that Robertson doesn't know that.

comment by seer · 2015-03-30T02:43:40.561Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, he does. The whole claim underlying the argument is that atheists on some level know rape and murder are wrong, they just can't explain why.

comment by seer · 2015-03-30T02:42:31.190Z · score: -2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Most atheists do think that there something wrong with rape and murder.

The problem is they have a hard time saying what.

comment by Kindly · 2015-03-30T04:35:38.563Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think that's true in any important way.

I might say: "Killing Joe is bad because Joe would like not to be killed, and enjoys continuing to live. Also, Joe's friends would be sad if Joe died." This is not a sophisticated argument. If an atheist would have a hard time making it, it's only because one feels awkward making such an unsophisticated argument in a debate about morality.

comment by DanArmak · 2015-04-27T17:28:57.042Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

This doesn't answer the question. Why is doing things Joe doesn't like, or making his friends sad, bad? Consequentialism isn't a moral system by itself; you need axioms or goals.

comment by dxu · 2015-05-01T04:35:46.370Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Why is doing things Joe doesn't like, or making his friends sad, bad?

Because ceteris paribus, I prefer not to make Joe or his friends sad (which is an instance of the more general rule, "don't violate people's preferences, ceteris paribus"). And before you say that makes morality "arbitrary" or something along those lines, note that the overwhelming majority of society (in most Western First World countries, anyway--I don't how it is in, say, the Middle East) agrees with me.

So yes, technically you could have a preference for violating other people's preferences, and those preferences would technically be just as valid as mine, but in practice, if you act upon that preference, you are violating one of society's rules, and game theory says that defectors get punished. So unless you want to get locked up for a long time, don't kill people.

Of course, you might find this unsatisfactory for several reasons. For example, you might demand that morality hold anywhere and everywhere, whether a society exists to enforce it or not. However, the behavior of other animals in the wild definitely contradicts that idea, and humans, for all their intelligence, are still animals at their core, and therefore likely to behave the same way if deprived of societal norms. (Mind you, given enough time, they could probably implement a society from scratch--after all, we did it once--but that'll take a long time.) Unless you're a moral realist or something, which is indefensible for other reasons, I don't really see how you could argue your way out of this point.

comment by Jiro · 2015-05-01T15:32:20.865Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Because ceteris paribus, I prefer not to make Joe or his friends sad

Doesn't that also imply you should feed utility monsters?

comment by dxu · 2015-05-01T15:49:54.880Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Sure. After all, I value humans much more highly than pigs. Doesn't that imply that humans are utility monsters, at least compared to other animals?

EDIT: Vegans, on the other hand, should have a much harder time with the idea of utility monsters (at least from what little I know about veganism).

comment by DanArmak · 2015-05-01T12:50:19.603Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

And that's pretty much the difference between the two kinds of "moral realism".

comment by Kindly · 2015-04-27T18:09:46.506Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You can always keep asking why. That's not particularly interesting.

comment by DanArmak · 2015-04-27T18:18:21.108Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

In morals, as in logic, you can't explain something by appealing to something else unless the chain terminates in an axiom.

The question "why is it bad to rape and murder?" can be rephrased as, "how can we determine if a thing is bad, in the case of rape and murder?"

The answer "rape and murder are bad by definition" may be unsatisfying, but at least it's a workable way: everything on the list is bad, everything else is not. But the answer "because they make others sad" assumes you can determine making others sad is bad. You substitute one question for another, and unless we keep asking why, we won't have answered the original question.

comment by Kindly · 2015-04-27T20:14:07.816Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Okay, then interpret my answer as "rape and murder are bad because they make others sad, and making others sad is bad by definition".

comment by seer · 2015-03-30T07:35:06.293Z · score: -2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Replace "Killing Joe", with say "not giving Joe a million dollars" in that argument, what changes?

comment by WinterShaker · 2015-03-30T10:44:11.311Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

A million dollars is a lot more zero-sum than not killing someone - if I give you a million dollars I lose a million dollars. To make the analogy more accurate, you'd need to stipulate that Joe will kill me if I don't kill him.

Also, I don't think it's fair to ignore the fact that for most people, not killing someone is vastly easier to do at non-self-destructive costs. I appreciate that this is a quantitative argument rather than a categorical counterargument, but if we have atheists who base their sense of morality on a vague consequentialism that they can't quite fully articulate, that's still no worse than Robertson's (presumed) divine command theory, and they should be able to make such such arguments without being accused of hypocrisy for not also advocating actions that would score much worse under their vague consequentialism.

comment by gjm · 2015-03-30T11:05:20.594Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

you'd need to stipulate that Joe will kill me if I don't kill him.

And note that many (most?) people and many (most?) legal systems do in fact hold that in such situations (war, self-defence) you are entitled to kill Joe.

comment by seer · 2015-03-31T05:09:36.207Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

A million dollars is a lot more zero-sum than not killing someone - if I give you a million dollars I lose a million dollars. To make the analogy more accurate, you'd need to stipulate that Joe will kill me if I don't kill him.

No, just that you'll get some benefit from killing him, e.g., you get to have sex with his wife.

comment by gjm · 2015-03-30T09:33:36.760Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Does anything need to?

I guess you're worried that if the same argument works in both cases then you might end up obliged to give Joe $1M. But those reasons why you should give Joe the money have exactly parallel reasons why you should keep it, and to zeroth order they all cancel out, so no such obligation.

If you look with a bit more detail, then the reasons might be stronger one way than the other; for instance, if you are quite rich and Joe is quite poor, he might benefit more from the money than you would. We don't generally have norms saying you should give him the money in this case for all sorts of good reasons, but instead we have taxation (compulsory) and charity (optional) which end up having an effect a bit like saying that rich people should give some of their money to much poorer people.

In typical cases, (1) if you give Joe a $1M then your loss will be bigger than Joe's gain, so even aside from other considerations you probably shouldn't, and (2) if you kill Joe then Joe's loss will be bigger than your gain, so even aside from other considerations you probably shouldn't. So the simple-minded "do whatever makes people happiest" principle (a.k.a. total utilitarianism, but you don't have to be a total utilitarian for this to be a reason, as opposed to the only possible reason, for doing something) gives the "right" answers in most cases.

comment by seer · 2015-03-31T05:07:57.902Z · score: -1 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I guess you're worried that if the same argument works in both cases then you might end up obliged to give Joe $1M.

No, I'm claiming neither Kindly nor you actually believe the argument you've given.

So the simple-minded "do whatever makes people happiest" principle (a.k.a. total utilitarianism, but you don't have to be a total utilitarian for this to be a reason, as opposed to the only possible reason, for doing something) gives the "right" answers in most cases.

Except, you're not doing that, i.e., you're not giving all your income to charity. So since you're willing to ignore parts of your ethics when its inconvenient, why not also ignore the parts about not killing Joe when it would be convenient were Joe to die.

comment by gjm · 2015-03-31T09:01:31.648Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I'm claiming neither Kindly nor you actually believe the argument you've given.

Your overconfidence in your mind-reading abilities is noted.

Except you're not doing that [...]

The fact that someone doesn't act as a perfect utility maximizer doesn't mean that utility gains aren't worth seeking, for them out for others. If you ask "why did you buy that thing?" and I say I bought it because it was half the price of the alternative, am I refuted if you point out that I don't always buy the cheapest things I can?

As I said: a reason, not the only possible reason.

comment by seer · 2015-04-01T02:59:48.158Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

How do you distinguish the part of your ethics that you ignore in practice, e.g., not giving all your money to charity, from the part you insist you and everybody follow, e.g., not killing Joe even though he's being really really annoying.

comment by gjm · 2015-04-01T10:03:31.102Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Giving all my money to charity isn't a part of my ethics.

Increasing net utility (or something of the kind) is one of the things I care about. So the fact that something increases net utility is a reason to do it, and the fact that something decreases net utility is a reason not to. But net utility isn't the only thing I care about, so a thing that increases net utility isn't necessarily a thing I think I should do.

What I insist on, though, is another matter again. That's a matter of Schelling points and traditions and the like, optimized (inter alia) for being easy to remember and intuitively plausible.


  • Giving $1M to Joe: increases his utility, decreases mine, probably not a win overall in terms of net utility. Fails various other tests too. Not in any sense any sort of moral obligation.
  • Giving $100 to Joe, who is much poorer than me: net utility increase, might be a good thing to do on those terms. Probably reasonable not to do simply on the grounds that I care more about my own utility than that of strangers, that if I'm trying to do maximum good there are others who need the money much more than Joe, etc.
  • Giving $100 to a carefully chosen effective charity: close to the best thing I can do for net utility with the money. I still care more about my own utility than about strangers', though, so not necessarily obligatory even "internally".
  • Giving at least a few percent of one's income to effective charities, provided one is reasonably comfortable financially: almost always a big net utility gain, not too burdensome, has the same form as various traditional practices, easy to remember and to do. I'd be comfortable recommending this as a principle everyone should be following.

The attentive reader will notice that not killing people just for being annoying clearly fits into the same category as the last of those.

comment by Kindly · 2015-03-31T20:46:51.093Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

What changes is that I would like to have a million dollars as much as Joe would. Similarly, if I had to trade between Joe's desire to live and my own, the latter would win.

In another comment you claim that I do not believe my own argument. This is false. I know this because if we suppose that Joe would like to be killed, and Joe's friends would not be said if he died, then I am okay with Joe's death. So there is no other hidden factor that moves me.

I'm not sure what the observation that I do not give all of my money away to charity has to do with anything.

comment by seer · 2015-04-01T03:02:35.595Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

What changes is that I would like to have a million dollars as much as Joe would.

Um, what are you using to compare preferences across people.

Similarly, if I had to trade between Joe's desire to live and my own, the latter would win.

How about Joe's desire to live against you desire to not have him annoy you, or to have sex with his wife, or any number of other possible motives?

comment by Kindly · 2015-04-01T04:02:59.982Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Do you have a point?

comment by Good_Burning_Plastic · 2015-03-30T14:03:34.059Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

A rule whereby you do not kill people without their consent is much easier to implement, and results in many fewer bad consequences (including perverse incentives), than a rule whereby you do not refuse to give people a million dollars without their consent.

comment by seer · 2015-03-31T05:00:34.339Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not talking about a general rule against killing, I'm talking killing this particular guy named Joe, who's really annoying me.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-03-30T12:58:24.144Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Intuition. Terminal values.

comment by seer · 2015-03-31T05:10:59.905Z · score: -1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

You'd be amazed what can seem intuitive when you find yourself in a situation where it would be really convenient for Joe to die.

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2015-03-31T20:28:03.075Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That would mean that atheist morality is context dependent, for instance applying different standards at peacetime and wartime. Historically, Christian morality serms to be similar.

comment by polymathwannabe · 2015-03-31T20:38:56.680Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

For all that Christian moralists criticize situationalist ethics, I've found that all ethical systems inevitably end up being situationalist; i.e. "thou shalt not kill" except when God commands otherwise.

comment by tog · 2015-03-28T15:17:18.093Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I largely agree with the post. Saying Robertson's thought experiment was off limits and he was fantasising about beheading and raping atheists is silly. I think many people's reaction was explained by their being frustrated with his faulty assumption that all atheists are necessarily (implicitly or explicitly) nihilists of the sort who'd say there's nothing wrong with murder.

One amendment I'd make to the post is that many error theorists and non-cognitivists wouldn't be on board with what the murderer is saying in the thought experiment. For example, they could be quasi-realists. I say this as someone who personally leans moral realist.

comment by Jiro · 2015-03-28T20:07:32.960Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

He's not fantasizing about he himself beheading atheists. What he's fantasizing about is subtly different: he's fantasizing about the idea that atheists will get beheaded because of their own atheism rebounding on them, so it's their own fault.

comment by gattsuru · 2015-03-29T02:18:40.229Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Robertson doesn't strike me as a particularly scholarly thinker, but even less well-thought religious folk have confronted the problems of evil and tragedy. The story of Job is a common subject of discussion in churches and among religious folk, and it's always framed as horrible things happened to Job because of his belief in a deity and because of the deity. Christians aren't unused to the concept of bad things happened because of their faith rebounding on them.

He's fantasizing about the outside world giving 'indisputable proof' of external morality. The religious folk have /countless/ scenarios like this, and the better-spoken ones will explicitly call them tests of 'relative' morality.

There's a pretty easy response to Robertson's thought experiment even within that framing -- to borrow from Babylon 5's Marcus Cole, "wouldn't it be much worse if life were fair, and all the terrible things that happen to us come because we actually deserve them?" -- but the state of promoted discussion by atheists is so terrible that Robertson's probably not aware of it.

comment by DanArmak · 2015-04-27T17:25:02.009Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

wouldn't it be much worse if life were fair, and all the terrible things that happen to us come because we actually deserve them?

Many religious traditions believe just this. Bad things are punishments from God. When bad things (with no human cause) happen to someone, that proves they sinned.

comment by seer · 2015-03-30T02:48:49.633Z · score: -1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

"wouldn't it be much worse if life were fair, and all the terrible things that happen to us come because we actually deserve them?"

I don't see what this quote is supposed to mean, besides a deep-wisdomy way of saying that you don't want to take responsibility for the consequences of your actions.

comment by bbleeker · 2015-03-30T13:35:40.820Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Some people, when something bad happens to someone else, say things like "well, they must have done something bad to deserve that happening to them". This quote means that people like that should STFU. For example, my parents were good people who totally did NOT deserve to die of cancer.

comment by gattsuru · 2015-03-30T15:05:58.492Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don't see what this quote is supposed to mean, besides a deep-wisdomy way of saying that you don't want to take responsibility for the consequences of your actions.

Ah, it's not really about locus of control: the context is destitute people falling ill due to contaminated food. It's more about situations where bad things happen that are not readily controlled or avoided due to lack of knowledge or circumstance.

The point of the quote is that it is no more comforting to be Job, and to have your family killed and everything taken from you because it is a deity's plan, than it is to be a moral nihilist who has your family killed and everything taken from you because the universe is a cold and unforgiving place. To many people, Job's deal is less desirable, because railing against the fundamental unfairness of the universe is a lot more socially condoned where a lot of deities are lightning-bolt-happy.

comment by seer · 2015-03-31T04:59:09.977Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Ah, it's not really about locus of control: the context is destitute people falling ill due to contaminated food. It's more about situations where bad things happen that are not readily controlled or avoided due to lack of knowledge or circumstance.

So that's an argument for why it would be better if life were fair.

comment by gattsuru · 2015-03-31T15:17:04.000Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So that's an argument for why it would be better if life were fair.

If the experienced observations were to look different. Stuck with the universe we've got, though...

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-03-30T14:18:04.259Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The difference is between taking responsibility for your actions and your outcomes.

If you get mugged on the street, are you responsible because of bad karma or being insufficiently trained in martial arts or do you simply have bad luck?

comment by Xerographica · 2015-03-28T14:47:30.403Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

I definitely agree with Scott's argument. Using extreme scenarios can help get to the heart of the matter/morality. It's especially interesting because Scott's previous post was... Is Everything A Religion? If everything is truly a religion then Phil Robertson's scenario loses steam. The atheist would simply reply to the intruders that he does believe in God... just not the Christian God. If the intruders pressed the atheist for details... and the atheist was a liberal... then he could tell him that the state is his God. This would be consistent with a paper written by a Nobel prize winning economist...

The state did, indeed, become God. - James M. Buchanan, Afraid to be free: Dependency as desideratum

It's too bad that Scott didn't share that paper as an additional example of how different beliefs can be considered religions.

But the atheist wouldn't necessarily have to be a liberal to have some degree of faith that the state would track down, apprehend and judge the law-breakers.

Personally, even though I'm an atheist, it's entirely possible that I would totally claim Christianity and quote the heck out of the Bible if I found myself in Robertson's scenario. I would have absolutely no affinity with Kant in this regard. I would lie like a rug if I thought it would save my family. That being said, if we assumed that the intruders were highly intelligent, and/or had a lie detector test on them... then I would tell them that my "God" is progress. Difference is the engine of progress so difference is the engine of "God". If the intruders killed my family and I... then this would decrease difference... and as such, be against my religion. And because everybody benefits from progress... even the intruders.. then it would behoove them not to kill us. In essence I would be making a consequentialist argument against being murdered.

The same thing is true if the leader of China called me on the phone and threatened to invade the US and kill/enslave all Americans. Again, assuming adequate intelligence... I'd make a consequential rather than a deontological argument against the invasion. Sure, China would gain X from having a bunch of additional resources at their disposal... but they would be foregoing Y. What's Y? Y is what they would have gained from American innovations. Progress (innovations, discoveries, cures) depends on difference... and China would eliminate a lot of difference by invading us. Therefore... Y > X.

Perhaps it would be more effective to simply reply that we'd bomb the heck out of China if they invaded us? History clearly indicates that this argument doesn't work in the long run. We're all safer and better off when more, rather than less, people appreciate the value of difference.

comment by taygetea · 2015-03-28T15:35:01.136Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

You could construct an argument about needing to reinforce explicitly using system-2 ethics on common situations to make sure that you associate those ethics implicitly with normal situations, and not just contrived edge cases. But that seems to be even a bit too charitable. And also easily fixed if so.

comment by hairyfigment · 2015-03-30T05:31:42.156Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The only steelman I can come up with here starts by assuming that he considers Authority a terminal or root moral value. Then he could correctly argue that atheism leaves no basis for believing in Authority as a fundamental value. Neither does theism, unless you specifically work that in - but let's ignore this. Certainly I would expect a greater tendency to believe in this value among theists.

The main problem lies in the fact that I don't need to believe in Authority to oppose murder. He picked an example that has nothing to do with it, precisely so that atheists would agree he was talking about something bad. If he chose some 'sin' that only seems bad if we treat Authority as fundamental, then a lot of us would proudly say we don't see a problem with it. And he would more obviously be committing a logical fallacy, in this case begging the question by assuming his disputed morality is better than ours.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-03-30T13:08:09.183Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think it is a level subtler than that. Value is downstream from utility - we consider something good because it is good for something. Most values are instrumental. Terminal values are a bit hanging in the air. The theist solution is to call terminal values simply instrumental values for god's purposes and call it a day. I.e. humans practically being gods property or tools. That way all values are instrumental, all goods are good for somethings and it is coherent.

The interesting part here is that if feels seductively intelligent. After all most people just consider those things values they feel remotely good about. To see most values as instrumental - for example, to see democracy as not simply something to cheer for, but a tool with advantages and disadvantages - is much more intelligent approach. To be able to tie down every value as instrumental, just some of them are not human instruments, feels super logical. It is a textbook case of "feeling rational" and this is part of why I used to be tempted towards theism in the past, as it makes everything make sense. "We have the UN in order to not have thermonuclear war! We want to avoid thermonuclear war so that we are not extinct! Why shouln't we be extinct? It would be the end of all problems and suffering... but maybe god has plans with us and he is our rightful owner! So let's support the UN!" You can see how elegant and tied-down it is.

The proper atheist solution is nowhere that elegant. I can only argue from a Heideggerian "we are thrown in the world and must cope". We are the accidents of evolution thrown in a world that is an accident of the big bang or quantum many-worlds. We cope however we can. Part of that coping is calling those values that are most likely to make life bearable for most terminal values. It is not elegant at all, and I can understand why it is less attractive than theism. But it is more probably true.

comment by hairyfigment · 2015-03-30T21:15:31.366Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It's only coherent if you don't expect it to solve the problem (rather than hide it from your view). It's only attractive if you expect God to fulfill your own terminal values. You should be able to see contrary hypotheses, since you say one of them is close to being true (or at least more likely).

ETA: Actually, the view discussed in the parent could probably be made coherent, but not sound for the true natural numbers, at least not without straightforwardly defining the word "morality" to mean something else which I don't care about. You could insist that there exists a number encoding a proof that (for example) all attempts at utility functions other than God's contain contradictions, or otherwise imply God's values. This would be a lie - but if you're careful not to accept anything which could prove the lie (by showing certain truths about natural numbers, 'real' numbers, and the linked theorem), it would have a "non-standard model" containing a non-standard object encoding a "proof".

comment by [deleted] · 2015-03-31T07:27:51.435Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, the Alien God metaphor is a good one, it is very close to the Heideggerian "we are thrown into the world and must cope somehow, cannot really expect elegant solutions" I subscribe to.

I am not at all sure it is a given that people have, just happen to have terminal values. I think you are assuming too much here, perhaps, a very autonomous upbringing where you are expected to form opinions instead of letting your behavior guided by the prevailing opinion without affirming or denying it.

For example some old guy used to go to church and then stopped it because there was some kind of an altercation. At no point he decided whether he is theist or atheist, to him the question felt like taking a position about the many-words interpretation in quantum physics: something far above his "pay grade", he wanted to leave the question to experts, he never had belief and never had unbelief. He did not think he is entitled to either of them. Rather he did the church-going as a social ritual and then stopped it when there were certain social problems. (I don't remember the details, it was something about him being a teetotaller as he disliked drunken fist-fights and somehow the churchiest guys were the drunkiest and then it did not go down well.)

I don't really understand the part about natural numbers.

comment by JohnBuridan · 2015-03-30T18:01:08.189Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I have trouble seeing two things: It seems to me not all theists reject terminal values, for example, beatitude (transcendental happiness) for some theists is a terminal value, for others serving God is terminal (so to speak); and it also seems theism can be reconciled with Heidegger by being a terminal value itself freely chosen in order to save me from my geworfenheit.

"Save me from my geworfenheit" being a customary household phrase. :)

comment by Slider · 2015-03-29T21:32:27.687Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

This is easily turned into a counterexample to basing moral on God. Say that for what ever reason somebody just hasn't have access to bible/christian teachings. Then the harassers visit this guy. It would still be "If it happened to them, they probably would say, ‘Something about this just ain’t right’". Proposedly later the bible and christian teaching were offered to this guy and he later realises that what the guys did was really really wrong. This is really implausible, it is way earlier that he would suspect that this isn't right and would probably act to stop it. Humans are not that morally clueless without gods. We do not NEED to offload moral judgement to the heavens, we don't turn into such psychopaths for not having access to a bible.

But given the guy would propably "discover" their ethical nature in feeling justified to take action against such attacks and we don''t naturallly come up with good theorethical justifications how things might work out so that something can be bad.

comment by seer · 2015-03-30T02:46:59.897Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Then the harassers visit this guy. It would still be "If it happened to them, they probably would say, ‘Something about this just ain’t right’".

The claim is that they would not be able to say what.

comment by Slider · 2015-03-30T11:30:24.322Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Nobody needs to reference anything religious in order to be be tempted as the receiver of the attack to label it wrong. "Geez this feels really uncomfortable but I guess I can't judge this because I don't have any moral authorities to tell me that would be okay". That would be like arguing that soldiers would be physically unable to shoot unless some general orders them to. While it is true that soldiers under a command of a general will wait till an order to shoot, a soldier that knows they are generalless will not wait for external ques to act. Correspondingly humans are capable of being independent moral agents. They don't need to be told to be moral. Even if their goodness can be boosted by being part of a communal moral discussion.

comment by Toggle · 2015-03-31T06:26:34.650Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

We here are largely aware of Robertson's comments not because they have particular merit as a thought experiment, but because they occupy the sweet spot of maximizing controversy. That is, it is easy to present as objectionable within Blue Tribe, and easy to present as defensible in Red Tribe, and so in the end it's a fairly textbook toxoplasma. This isn't to say that the general question isn't interesting; it's just more important than usual that interested parties treat the thought experiment like a finger pointing to an interesting argument.

Personally, I find it fairly interesting that Robertson (et. al.) is concerned with assigning moral legitimacy to his outrage at suffering these various horrible events. Going to the extreme case has the advantages that Scott articulated, but it also seems to blunt the perceived need for a complex ethic. The things are 'bad' in the sense that any sane person would be deeply unhappy if they occurred; what is the point of invoking a whole metaphysics to justify that near-universal impulse? Wouldn't it be more interesting to focus on the places where an objective moral system would produce different results?

comment by irrational_crank · 2015-03-30T09:17:31.953Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Even if the atheist was a moral nihilist (of course he is conflating atheism and nihilism), it still would not be rational to carry out the action because we would hope that society's condemnation from people with moral systems and appropriate deterrents (e.g the risk of getting caught and getting a life prison sentence) so even saying that moral nihilism will lead to mass murder is wrong, so long as a sufficiently large percentage of the population believe in consistent and sensible moral systems. The moral nihilist would also have to overcome his brain's normal revulsion against killing people which the effort and guilt to do so would probably outweigh the utility gained from doing the murder, so to say moral nihilism leads to murder is a non sequitur.

I also agree that although it can be useful in discussions with people you know are rational to choose extreme examples as a "least convenient world" example, it can be mind-killing for those not sufficiently trained. Certainly that is what has happened to the media in this example, who have focused on the other views and motives of the arguer rather than the content of the argument, which has many flaws.

comment by seer · 2015-03-31T05:17:09.408Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Even if the atheist was a moral nihilist (of course he is conflating atheism and nihilism), it still would not be rational to carry out the action because we would hope that society's condemnation from people with moral systems and appropriate deterrents (e.g the risk of getting caught and getting a life prison sentence) so even saying that moral nihilism will lead to mass murder is wrong, so long as a sufficiently large percentage of the population believe in consistent and sensible moral systems.

That's an argument against promoting moral nihilism.

comment by Princess_Stargirl · 2015-03-29T19:23:12.535Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Phill presumably believes in Divine Command theory. But its not really obvious why "Divine command theory" really solves the problem. For example consider the following passage: “This is what the LORD Almighty says: 'I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys." - Imagine Phill was an Amalekite. Then the murder of his whole family would be morally righteous?

comment by [deleted] · 2015-03-31T20:03:10.982Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Egoism demonstrates that my right and my wrong are paramount. Not god, not government, me. An atheist morality with absolute clarity, applicability and consistency. Egoism does not rely on anyone else being an egoist, including myself in the past or future. If I say don't kill, I am right.


comment by TheAncientGeek · 2015-03-31T20:31:48.563Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

And if you say you should kill, and someone else says they should not be killed? Egoism is easy enough when no one does anything.

comment by Sarunas · 2015-03-28T22:27:15.593Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW
comment by [deleted] · 2015-03-31T02:32:41.427Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I recall an early couple of comments I made on vegetarianism on LessWrong. The first was a mildly snarky variation of my opinion of what was wrong with a line of reasoning. The second was a rather graphic depiction of one logical conclusion of that line of reasoning. I was worried the snark might be down-voted, but it was instead up-voted rather heavily. The graphic depiction which I thought was much more direct ended up being down-voted rather heavily. I still don't fully understand the norms of discussion at LW.

Phil Robertson may have been correct based on Philosophy norms of debate, but he was incorrect based on popular media norms of debate. I think it's generally better to follow the norms even when you disagree than to go against them. There's a whole bunch of research on this that I think I have a decent understanding of, but this would probably require a comprehensive review. It's a shame popular media is of such a generally poor quality, but Phil Robertson should have known better.

comment by Dutchmo · 2015-03-30T20:02:08.592Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

"there is no God, there’s no right, there’s no wrong,"

Here is the flaw in the logic. Of course this behaviour would still be considered wrong, because: 1) It is illegal. It is a violation of criminal statutes that do not appear to be sourced, either directly or indirectly, from the Bible.

2) It is immoral, in that it violates societal mores.

One of the main problems with providing morals/ethics from God, is that the feedback system is very weak. You only find out whether you have violated God's rules until after you have died. If you violate the law (which comes from the state) you find out much quicker.

The legal system, despite its flaws, is more effective in enforcing law and order for this reason. With judeo-christianity, you have this Schrodinger's cat syndrome, where you can't determine whether actions are "good" or "bad" until after death. Thus you have the bizarre situation where eternal damnation could hinge on reading skills.

Or worse, translation skills. It is possible that millions of people will end up in hell based on the translation difference between "kill" and "murder".

something to think about.

comment by seer · 2015-03-31T05:20:31.105Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

1) It is illegal. It is a violation of criminal statutes that do not appear to be sourced, either directly or indirectly, from the Bible.

So if a law was passed saying its OK to kill members of group X, you'd have no problem killing them. My point is that the "it's illegal" argument is a total cop-out.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-03-30T20:17:58.249Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

this behaviour would still be considered wrong, because: 1) It is illegal

Morality and legality are very different things. These two sets overlap, of course, but are not nearly identical.

It is possible that millions of people will end up in hell based on the translation difference between "kill" and "murder".

That assumes God is pretty stupid and powerless. Not a good assumption to along with the assumption of the existence of hell.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-03-30T11:04:05.838Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Even if they think there's no right and wrong or whatever, they probably still want to live. Otherwise they would've killed themselves already.

More personally:

  1. I quite dislike and don't get the point about them being atheists. What's the connection?

    1. In addition to that, reductionally (Although perhaps statistically) there's nothing that says "atheist equals [value]". Perhaps statistically on anecedotally, but not reductionally. Unless HE (and only he, because that's what HE's saying. Because he's making the argument and that's what HE believes.) says anything about that (which he implies, but things can clear up with the right question) I don't see the point of mentioning they're atheists. If there's no reason to mention they're atheist, then why did he? Seems like a personal attack.
  2. Killing the children in addition seems entirely stupid because children practically always believe whatever stupid stuff you tell them. So they're basically killing someone who can't really make a reasonable judgement.

comment by gjm · 2015-03-30T12:34:50.866Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I quite dislike and don't get the point about them being atheists. What's the connection?

The connection is that the whole point of Phil Robertson's spiel was a criticism of atheism and atheists, the idea being that because atheists can't get their moral values from God they don't, or shouldn't, or can't coherently, have moral values at all (and, allegedly, therefore aren't in a position to complain if their family is abused and murdered and they are mutilated).

That's all kinds of wrong, and Scott understands that; the only thing he's defending is one specific feature of Robertson's crappy argument that some people have taken offence at, namely its use of an unpleasant thought experiment in which awful things are done to an atheist and his family.

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comment by private_messaging · 2015-03-29T05:35:59.719Z · score: -5 (11 votes) · LW · GW

Well, a common case of people seeing their family get raped and murdered is occurring right now (ISIS related shit) and the raping is done by religious extremists, so...

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2015-03-29T05:51:24.662Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW


comment by private_messaging · 2015-03-29T06:51:07.347Z · score: -2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

What I'm saying is that in the context of having religious extremists do all sorts of raping and murdering (of nonbelievers), advancing a pro-religion argument with this sort of thought experiment is really stupid.

Then there's the usual sentiment that the belief in God keeps people from raping and murdering, and it is just empirically false. You can even believe in God and be a total moral nihilist all the same (accept the Jesus and go to heaven no matter what).