Are All States Confessional?

One common refrain I hear among anti-liberals, especially on the Christian right, is that all states are confessional states in the sense that they have deep dogmatic commitments whose sectarian character is either publicly recognized or, in the case of liberal states, concealed by dishonest rhetoric claiming liberal neutrality.

Much like the common refrain on the anti-liberal left that “everything is political,” I think the thesis that all states are confessional is either trivially true or substantive and false. Indeed, everything is political in the sense that life is full of conflict and disagreement with others about how to live well together. But that’s trivially true. On the other hand, if everything is political in the sense that everything involves, say, some kind of legal coercion, then the claim is substantive and false.

If all states are confessional in the sense that they have substantive moral commitments, say to the ideas of liberty and equality, then indeed all states are confessional, but that’s trivially true. No liberal denies it. But if all states are confessional in the sense that they have robust dogmatic commitments, then the claim is substantive and false. Liberal states have moral commitments, but they decline to take sides on a range of important matters, even if they end up taking a side on some issues. The idea is that liberal states are more neutral than confessional states, but not perfectly neutral. But then whoever claimed that liberal states are perfectly neutral? The liberal American state does not take a stand on which theological view is true, instead allowing different theologies to flourish. And in this sense it is more neutral than the classical confessional states. So here the claim that all states are confessional is substantive and false.

I think some who maintain that all states are confessional are essentially arguing that all politics is war, in that only one group or another can rule. And so some anti-liberals who say this are rationalizing actions that make politics war. If all politics is conquest, then the conquistadors can justify their actions. But if politics can establish a degree of moral peace – a peace based on a moral agreement between different perspectives – then the conquistador is exposed as having bad will. For he is prepared to dominate others to serve his political ends. Now, indeed, if politics is war, then such actions are justified. In a war, the game is to win. But if there is another way – the way of peace, which for the Christian is blessed (Matthew 5:9) – then conquest is domination. And, I think, sinful. This is not to say that those who maintain that all states are confessional are thereby sinning, rather that those who use this argument to justify violence sin thereby because the violence isn’t necessary.

Here’s another point I find of interest. Why do anti-liberals so often loudly and fiercely reject liberal neutralism? Some reject it because they think it false and pernicious, surely. But sometimes something else is going on. If liberal neutralism is feasible, then it is a morally compelling idealAnd I think many anti-liberals implicitly recognize this, which is why they often maintain that it is infeasible with such adamance.

I’ve argued that liberal neutralism can be understood in terms of a principle of public justification, and that public justification grounds our ability to establish moral relationships like trust in those with whom we disagree. If I’m right, those who maintain that politics is war undermine our ability to trust one another. This is a grave cost, one that love and respect for our political opponents prohibits us from paying.

Put Not Your Trust in Princes: On Trump, Impeachment, and Evangelical Christianity

On Thursday, Christianity Today, the flagship newspaper of reflective evangelical Christianity, endorsed the removal of Donald Trump. Today Trump fired back, and his power-worshipping servant, Franklin Graham, put great distance between his family (who helped found CT) and CT’s current leadership. Here is the most powerful passage:

To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come? Can we say with a straight face that abortion is a great evil that cannot be tolerated and, with the same straight face, say that the bent and broken character of our nation’s leader doesn’t really matter in the end?

It is extremely important for theologically conservative Christians to avoid identifying their faith with right-wing political causes, even important ones. Franklin Graham seems incapable of criticizing anything the president does. He clearly treats Trump and his regime as a kind of idol. As have a number of other leading evangelicals.

Most of my readers are non-Christians who identify as either progressive or libertarian, so it may be obvious to you that CT has taken a morally respectable stance and that Graham and most evangelicals do not. But I think things are a bit more complicated than this. Many evangelicals think, with good reason, that the progressive left hates them and wants to stigmatize them for their traditional views on sexual morality. Many feel that, however bad Trump is, the Democrats are worse. Trump is a terrible person and a bad president, but he doesn’t hate evangelicals, and he is providing them with the judicial appointments of their dreams. So rejecting Trump might seem unsafe and unwise.

To these people, the CT article is not going to be very convincing. CT focuses on problems with Trump, and judging the wisdom of removal requires comparing Trump’s policies with those of the alternatives (though more on this below). But while the article may not have made the best comparative case for removal, it does something more important.

Much evangelical support for Trump is not based on careful political calculus, but has instead led evangelical Christians to effectively convert from traditional Christianity to the worship of the American red tribe’s false god of political power. If you spend more time watching Fox News defend Trump than attending church, you might be worshipping someone other than Jesus. Here’s a sad example from a CT reader that Ted Olsen, the Editorial Director at CT, received by email:

This is the real danger of supporting Trump no matter what he does. By refusing to criticize Trump, and by refusing to consider removing him, Christians can be tempted to treat Trump as an idol. Careful political calculus might lead Christians to oppose removal, but outright and unwavering support is spiritually dangerous. Christians are taught to believe that we are not to put our trust in princes, in sons of men in whom there is no salvation (Psalm 146:3). And that’s because human beings have a natural tendency to worship things other than God. This is why all Trump-supporting Christians should seriously consider supporting removal: to ensure that their support for Trump does not compete with their devotion to God.

And the consequences of removal aren’t exactly disastrous! Pence will be president, and would arguably stand a good chance against whomever the Democrats put forward. Indeed, Pence would have less support from Trump’s base. But he’d have less opposition from independents and Democrats. So removing Trump is not tantamount to electing a Democratic president. And the long-term effects of removal would discourage future presidents from acting this badly, such that a future conservative president might be better behaved.

So here’s the general lesson. American Christians in particular must struggle to formulate complex and reflective political attitudes in a polarized culture that tells us that political tribe affiliation is what matters most. It is, in my view, an implication of our duty to avoid worshipping false gods.


Rawls, Political Liberty, and Freedom of Exit

In Political Liberalism, John Rawls revises his theory of justice by adopting a stronger position on the priority of political liberty, which includes not merely the right to vote but the right to participate in the electoral process, to run for office, and so on. He writes,

… we must take an important further step and treat the equal political liberties in a special way. This is done by including in the first principle of justice the guarantee that the political liberties, and only these liberties (emphasis mine), are secured by what I have called their ‘fair value.’ (Rawls 2005, 327)

Rawls’s argument, in his own words, is that “unless the fair value of these liberties is approximately preserved, just background institutions are unlikely to be either established or maintained.” To figure out how to pull this off, we can’t say much in advance, but “must advance by trial and error.”

Rawls does suggest that “one guideline for guaranteeing fair value seems to be to keep political parties independent of large concentrations of private economic and social power …” (328). But he declines to say more.

Rawls rejects some reasons for prioritizing political liberty, such as the claim that it is the best way to secure autonomy, since he recognizes some reasonable people will deny this. Instead, political liberties are “essential in order to establish just legislation and also to make sure that the fair political process specified by the constitution is open to everyone on a basis of rough equality.” (330)

I want to raise a difficulty for Rawls’s argument. Jason Brennan has recently argued, I think correctly, that Rawls’s arguments for specific rights don’t work, in part because they treat liberties asymmetrically in ways that cannot be justified. Let’s suppose Rawls can answer this generic challenge and see if he can avoid a more targeted objection.

Here’s the objection: all of Rawls’s arguments for a right to influence government applies not merely to voice mechanisms – voting and the like – but to exit mechanisms as well, such as a right to emigrate and free movement, rights to legal exemptions, rights to federal arrangements, and rights of secession. Ilya Somin aptly calls rights of freedom of movement “foot voting” because people are exercising liberty to shape political institutions by withdrawing from them, rather than participating in them. Both voice and exit mechanisms can greatly influence government behavior when people pursue them in large numbers.

Both types of liberty can be “essential in order to establish just legislation” and to ensure that the political process is one of “rough equality.” In many cases, the threat of exit pressures governments to improve more than the threat of losing votes. And if people were freer to move between countries, that pressure would arguably increase.

So Rawls’s arguments seem to ground both democratic rights and exit rights. If so, the institutional implications of Rawls’s arguments in Political Liberalism change, even if we stick to ideal theory, and even if we restrict the range of reasonable pluralism to conceptions of the good (once you relax ideal theory assumptions somewhat, and extend reasonable pluralism more broadly, I think the case for exit rights grows even stronger). It will be important to decentralize government, and ease freedom of movement, perhaps even with subsidies.

Here are some potential replies.

  1. Exit and Voice Mechanisms Compete: as Hirschman pointed out long ago, the more people exit an institution, the less effective voice mechanisms become, at least some of the time. If people can leave, why should they invest in improving the institution rather than leave it? So perhaps we need to restrict exit rights in order to improve voice rights. In reply, I’d point out you can make a parallel argument in the other direction: if you restrict exit, you make exit less effective, so this isn’t a reason to prioritize voice over exit, and certainly not to prioritize it as much as Rawls does.
  2. Voice is More Effective than Exit: one might argue that democratic voting is a more effective means of communicating dissatisfaction and the general will of the people than exit mechanisms. I think Somin has shown this just isn’t so by drawing standard rational choice theory to explain political ignorance (following a long line of political scientists). Democratic voting isn’t as responsive to legislative changes as one might hope. Exit mechanisms, on the other hand, often convey more information (since it is odd to expressively exit rather than expressively vote) and deprive governments of more power.
  3. Exit Mechanisms are More Biased in Favor of the Rich Against the Poor:  it may seem that the rich have a relatively easier time exiting than the poor vis-a-vis voting than the poor. But Rawls knows that the rich can dominate democracy too, and so ideal regimes will restrict the influence of the rich. Why not think that ideal regimes can similarly restrict the influence of richer exiters? The government could also equalize opportunities for the poor and rich to exit with redistributive taxation, say granting the poor subsidies to move across the country, or to push for decentralization, or even to leave the country.

There are other potential replies, but these are enough for now to get my general point across.


The British Working Class Prefers a Culture War to a Class War

Provocative post title, but here’s my analysis of the UK election. Many members of working classes in the US and the UK are strongly anti-elite. Some of that is unwarranted, but some arguably is. British and American elites failed in the early 2000s, in both foreign policy and economic policy. And I think that has lead to higher distrust of experts and elites.

But there are two ways to thumb your nose at elites: reduce their economic power or reduce their cultural power.

You can see Corbyn and Johnson as representing those two strategies.

Corbyn effectively conveys that he wants to reduce the greater economic power of British elites with old school Labour democratic socialism.

Johnson effectively conveys that he wants to reduce the greater cultural power of British *and EU* elites, because many British elites are Remainers and there’s widespread dissatisfaction of European elites in many European countries, on both the left and the right.

Brexit is both economic and cultural, but I think Leavers see it as primarily cultural. Leavers are less concerned about the economic costs and more concerned to thumb their nose at European elites for cultural reasons. So politicians that focus on cultural nose-thumbing are probably closer to the median voter than politicians that focus on economic nose-thumbing.

Here’s something more speculative. One thing I’ve learned from studying political trust is that, as democratic countries grow richer and more educated, political trust depends relatively more on non-material considerations. Voters want government to do more than improve their economic welfare, and blame government when it fails to pursue the right values. These voters are sometimes called “post-materialist,” for that reason.

Often post-materialists are associated with more left-wing moral values, like autonomy, social justice, and democratic fairness. But perhaps there are also right-wing post-materialists concerned to preserve nationalist values, and maybe that is why some of the British working class has turned from economic issues to cultural issues. The working class simply has more post-materialists now than in the past.

So it looks like a lot of British working class voters want the culture war Johnson has promised more than the class war Corbyn has promised.

In my view, both wars have more costs than benefits. But we have to figure out how to discipline elites for failed leadership.

I’m happy to revise my view as the dust settles and we start getting the election data. But, hey, takes are fun!

Why Do We Disagree So Much? Maybe the Space of Reasons is Extremely Populous

The point of this blog is to try and reconcile people with different perspectives, and that is bound up with analyzing the nature and sources of disagreement. I’ve written on the topic in Must Politics Be War? as well as in shorter essays, but I usually focus on epistemic reasons we disagree, such as limits of our cognition. But what if there is also a metaphysical explanation? What if we disagree so much not merely because of our cognitive limitations but due to the character of the space of reasons (specifically reasons to believe propositions)? What if there are unfathomably many reasons to believe things?

To see why this matters, suppose that the space of reasons to believe propositions is extremely populous. If so, then different people can detect wildly different samples of the space of reasons even if they are perfectly rational. And they will tend to emphasize reasons that they can locate from their position in the space of reasons. From each starting point, good inference can lead in an a staggering number of directions. If so, then disagreement is virtually certain even among perfectly rational and very informed agents. There are just too many reasons for belief for any normal rational agent to grasp. They are even less capable of unifying these reasons into doctrines, worldviews, and complex plans of action.

On analogy, imagine that it is your responsibility to chart the stars, and you’re really, really good at it. But then you learn that there are trillions and trillions of stars, and that other star charters start at different points in the galaxy. So you try to summarize the gargantuan number of stars with generalizations that look entirely reasonable from your point of view. You postulate constellations, or at least use them as heuristics to plot the relationship of stars to one another. But then you learn of star charters in other parts of the galaxy and that they see other stars, and so draw different connections between the stars. Should we expect star charters on different planets, and even star charters on the same planet, to generate the same constellations? Of course not. In fact, it’d be crazy to expect that they would without communicating with one another. The reason is that there are simply too many plausible ways to string things together.

What if disagreement is like that? How should we respond? Perhaps with wonder, humility, and a lot more charity.

Diversity Destabilizes Integralism

In my last post, I distinguished between ideal and non-ideal theory in Catholic integralism, in part to lay the groundwork to criticize integralism. My aim is to do so judiciously. People are often so horrified by integralism that they dismiss it with derision and insult. I want to do better.

Here I want to develop a difficulty for integralist ideal theory, the account of how integralist institutions will work once in place, under favorable conditions. I will focus on whether integralist institutions will furnish political goods like political stability.

One problem for integralist stability is that John Rawls posed for all perfectionist regimes in Political Liberalism. Rawls claims out that the free exercise of practical reason tends to lead to deep disagreement about fundamental matters. He called this the “fact of reasonable pluralism,” which we can understand as a state of society with deep disagreement about matters of ultimate import among sincere, informed people of good will. Rawls also thought that deep diversity of belief was the natural consequence of the free use of practical reasoning.

Rawls thought reasonable pluralism resulted from what he called the “burdens of judgment” or factors that plague moral and political judgment that make such judgments difficult, and so subject to contestation. I think Rawls’s account of the burdens of judgment is too narrow, so in Must Politics Be War?, I also draw on Hayek’s theory of cognition to further explain the naturalness of deep disagreement. Many disagreements originate in the diverse, dispersed nature of information, information that bears on our practical application of moral principles, and even the formulation of those principles in the first place. So deep disagreement is both inevitable and non-culpable. Much disagreement is due to sin, but far from all.

Now, if Rawls and Hayek are correct, the integralist state will have to use a great deal of coercion to contain disagreement. If it does not, then people will develop deep convictions that are incompatible with integralism, which will lead them to attempt to undermine the integralist regime through active and/or passive resistance. To stop this, the integralist state will probably have to adopt measures along the lines of the Chinese state, such as massive coercion of the young through education, the suppression of competing doctrines like Protestantism and Islam, and massive, coordinated restrictions on information.

Before I continue, let me concede a point Vermeule often makes: liberal regimes themselves use propaganda and are massively coercive. I’m not denying that. But integralism requires more propaganda and more coercion than liberal regimes because liberal regimes just don’t have to be as persuasive as integralist regimes to stay stable. Liberal regimes, for instance, don’t require great uniformity in matters of faith. That’s part of the reason that liberal democratic regimes are as stable as they are, because they can accommodate reasonable pluralism more effectively. And that’s the reason integralist states have often used a great deal of control over speech, press, and religion.

Importantly, Rawls was not merely concerned with stability, but rather “stability for the right reasons” where a regime stabilizes itself without massive, Chinese-like controls. A just regime should somehow generate its own, unforced support. That’s surely a nice feature of a regime, since I think even integralists will concede that it is better to achieve stability freely than with large-scale social control. So integralist states might be stable in that they don’t collapse, but they preserve stability through less than morally ideal means.

So the difficulty for integralism is its capacity to sustain stability in morally appropriate ways even under favorable conditions, given the fact of reasonable pluralism.

Here I can imagine three kinds of responses.

  1. Embrace Coercion: integralists can accept the fact of reasonable pluralism, but simply fight against it. Massive coercion is both feasible and justified.
  2. Identify Theological Sources of Stability: Thomas Pink has argued that integralist regimes will not only appeal to massive coercion, they will help fallen people to see the moral truth. A society that is built around grace-conferring institutions will more ably identify the natural law, and perhaps the natural law is intrinsically compelling once it is grasped by a relatively uncorrupted intellect. So perhaps once integralism is established, grace will help to stabilize it without massive coercion.
  3. Deny Reasonable Pluralism: maybe reasonable pluralism isn’t the natural result of the free exercise of practical reason. Perhaps, instead, reasonable pluralism is the product of liberal regimes, which decline to give people any guidance in deciding on how to live, save to suppress certain traditional religious approaches. After all, one might argue, liberal societies contain social forces that seem to exacerbate disagreement. An integralist regime will tend to contain it (perhaps because of factors 1 and 2).

Integralists will likely combine these three replies into a single strategy for answering the challenge of reasonable pluralism. But I’m skeptical of each reply. Here’s why.

First, violence is undesirable for lots of reasons, not merely that it harms people physically and psychologically but because it can frequently be used in ways that do not treat others with the respect that they are due as beings created in God’s image. Embracing massive coercion is therefore a great cost. The cost can be limited by insisting that integralist regimes aren’t that much more coercive than liberal regimes, but I think it is fairly clear that integralism depends on more uniformity of belief than liberalism. And I think one can push for a less coercive liberalism (as I have in Liberal Politics and Public Faith and Must Politics Be War?).

Second, it’s not clear that grace will help people to agree about the natural law because Christians have disagreed about all kinds of moral claims throughout Christian history. So exposure to grace does not seem to lead to a large amount of agreement. This is especially true in political matters, since sincere, informed Christians seem to have adopted just about every conceivable political view. I grant that there is a narrower range of disagreement among Roman Catholics, but political disagreements are still very broad. You have Catholic Marxists, anarchists, fascists, socialists, capitalists, and on and on. And indeed, the Reformation broke out on the Catholic integralist’s watch, so you might think too much imposes uniformity may only contain disagreement until it boils over.

Finally, my sense from the little bit of history I do know is that societies seem to look much more homogeneous from the outside than from the inside. We formulate vague pictures of regimes as agreeing on most things, but when you look into the actual history of political regimes, they contain all kinds of disputes, and many such disputes appear to be entirely sincere. Even integralist empires like the Byzantine Empire were subject to considerable disagreements of various kinds, though admittedly they seem to be narrower than our disagreements today.

But surely part of our disagreements are due to factors other than liberalism. For instance, greater levels of education lead more people to careful reflection on their values. And mass communication makes it possible for people to develop their own ideas at length and to disagree with others. Further, societies are much larger today than in the past, and more people may tend to mean more sources of disagreement.

So, in sum, integralist ideal theory faces the challenge of diversity of belief.

These challenges will arise in a different way in integralist non-ideal theory, but more on that in future posts.

Integralist Ideal Theory and Non-Ideal Theory

Political philosophers have been discussing the distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory in earnest for about ten years. But they’ve tended to apply the debate to liberal and socialist theories of justice and legitimacy. What happens when we try to apply some of this literature to the new Catholic integralism?

There are lots of ways to distinguish between ideal and non-ideal theory. Here’s a rough and ready way to make the distinction for integralism. Integralist ideal theory is an account of how an integralist order will work once established, and when conditions are favorable, including people’s willingness to comply with the directives of integralist institutions (but not Rawlsian *full* compliance). Integralist non-ideal theory is an account of how to transition to an integralist order from current conditions, with actors with less inclination towards compliance.

Integralists can draw on historical integralist models for ideal theory to show how it might work today. At the very least, integralists can say that integralist regimes have existed, which is more than what can be said for most ideals in political philosophy. However, integralist non-ideal theory is more difficult because few societies have become integralist in recent memory (unless you count Russia, since Orthodoxy is pretty similar to Catholicism). In particular, no liberal democratic order has ever become integralist, and so we have little idea how to make the transition work. Vermeule has speculated, but the real theoretical work hasn’t yet begun.

Integralism supposes a strong distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory because the integralist ideal is pretty far from where we are. If your ideal is pretty close to where we are now, as it is in some forms of conservatism, the ideal/non-ideal theory distinction isn’t very important. But integralism, as its proponents know well, is not really a branch of conservatism.*

And, indeed, I think Vermuele’s exchange with Deneen in this discussion at Notre Dame shows that Vermeule is supposing a strong ideal/non-ideal theory distinction. When Deneen described integralists as “crazy,” Vermeule responded by asking whether it was crazy to think of integralism as an ideal (if I recall correctly).

Why does it matter that integralism involves a strong ideal/non-ideal theory distinction? Because it helps us to understand how to justify or refute integralism. The case for integralism will involve two broad parts. The first part is to show that integralism is an ideal, in terms of the good, justice, and its capacity to stabilize itself. The second part is to show that we can get to integralism from where we are, because if we can’t, that casts doubt on integralism as an ideal (radical socialists like G. A. Cohen can deny this connection between an ideal and its feasibility, but I think integralists cannot). We can also classify criticisms of integralism in terms of whether they target integralist ideal theory or integralist non-ideal theory. I think Deneen’s concerns, for instance, are primarily about integralist non-ideal theory.

But for now, my aim is simply to properly carve up the conceptual territory for assessing integralism. And I think my point here isn’t too controversial and will hopefully prove helpful for future discussion.

UPDATE: Vermuele has informed me that Catholic political theory has accepted a version of the ideal/non-ideal theory distinction for some time, but under the description of “thesis” and “hypothesis.”

So, looks like my claim in this post is actually super obvious.

*Well, strictly speaking, I would say integralism is metaphysically conservative but epistemologically moderate; metaphysically conservative because of how integralism conceives of the place of humans in the cosmic order, its attitudes towards hierarchy, etc., but epistemologically moderate because it supposes we can identify a political ideal for us that it is pretty distant from our own circumstances, though not so distant that it would qualify as epistemologically radical, like libertarianism, or most radically, communism.



Atheism and Theism as Model Choices

One way to think about the comparative rationality of atheism and theism is to treat atheism as the rational default. After all, atheism postulates no God, theism does, and so theism bears the burden of proofs, especially because God’s existence is extraordinary or random postulate.

That’s the wrong way to think about the rationality of theistic belief. Following Michael Rea’s important book, World Without Design, I think of atheism and theism more like frameworks or research projects for making philosophical judgments. Many of the arguments for both positions involve claims that the other side sees as non-starters, and whose premises ultimately suppose that atheism or theism is true. What’s more, the frameworks are sufficiently different that they don’t even affirm the same phenomena to be explained, such as the existence of libertarian free will. In this way, we might even see theism and atheism as distinct philosophical paradigms, rather than simple competing propositions.

Atheism and theism are therefore competing frameworks for explaining certain kinds of “big” phenomena, like existence, order, morality, freedom, and consciousness. Both postulate an ultimate ground for everything. Atheism tends to ground everything in particles and fields. Theism tends to ground everything in a single agent, usually a perfect agent.

For reasons Mike Huemer outlines, simplicity does not settle fundamental philosophical problems, and I think that extends to atheism and theism. Which view is simpler? Postulating a single perfect agent that grounds all kinds of phenomena? Or particles and fields? On the one hand, atheism usually says that there is one kind of thing (matter/energy), whereas theism has two kinds of thing (matter/energy and mentality). On the other hand, theism has one grounding object, whereas atheism has many grounding objects. So which is simpler? I think theism is, but it’s not obvious.

So then how do we assess the rationality of theism? We engage in model-based reasoning. List shared phenomena and determine whether they are better explained by theism or atheism. Then list the unshared phenomena, assess whether you affirm or reject them, and then determine whether they are better explained by theism or atheism.

To illustrate, here are some agreed upon phenomena: contingent existence, order in the universe, consciousness, empirical knowledge, suffering, religious experience.

And here are some (usually) disagreed upon phenomena: necessary existence, libertarian free will, objective moral facts, a priori knowledge, universals, objective life meaning.

Here’s my balance of evidence.

Agreed-upon phenomena favoring theism: contingent existence, order in the universe, consciousness, empirical knowledge.

Agreed-upon phenomena favoring atheism: suffering.

Agreed-upon phenomena that may break even: religious experience (some is consistent with theism, but the totality may be inconsistent with theism).

Disagreed-upon phenomena favoring theism: necessary existence, libertarian free will, objective moral facts, a priori knowledge, real universals, objective life meaning.

Disagreed-upon phenomena favoring atheism: ? [atheists belief in less stuff, so it’s perhaps not significant that this category is empty, but feel free to fill in the gaps]

For me, the theistic model explains more phenomena that theists and atheists agree upon. I admit that suffering favors atheism, but not so much that it overrides the explanatory power of the other factors, especially order in the universe. I think the probability of suffering on atheism is like 99.99%, and on theism, it is well under 50%. [The skeptical theist reply convinces me that suffering is not very improbable on theism, since we don’t know God’s reasons. Plus, if everyone goes to heaven, every life has infinite worth, so suffering is always an infinitely small portion of one’s life.] But I think the probability of order on theism is 99%, and order on atheism is something like 10^-10. [Those are the odds the cosmic fine-tuning argument gives us, and that’s being generous to atheism.]

I think I have good arguments that the disagreed upon phenomena are real, and I think it is  clear that these phenomena make more sense on theism, but I understand that atheists will not be as moved by these arguments.

So from my epistemic point of view, theism is supremely rational as a modeling choice. It’s a way of looking at the world that makes a whole lot of phenomena seem natural, coherent, and unsurprising vis-a-vis the main intellectual alternative of atheism. I think theistic argumentation is sufficiently strong that atheists will have trouble assigning theism a very low probability, but I don’t think that atheism is an unreasonable view. It’s not something that has to be proven. It’s a modeling choice, and I get why people choose it.

But atheists should see theism as a modeling choice, and not treat theism as irrational because it is not subject to proof.

Abortion, Fetal Personhood, and Artificial Intelligence

Part of the point of this blog is to make people with different perspectives more comprehensible to one another. That’s hard when it comes to abortion, so I tried to think up a case that would put each side in the other’s shoes. Here goes.

Imagine, as many of you believe, that one day we will have sentient artificial intelligence. Also imagine, as will certainly be true, that many people will deny that the AIs are sentient when they arrive and perhaps long after that. This will be understandable to some extent. It’s hard to determine whether AI are sentient since we don’t even know what brain states correlate with consciousness yet, so it’s hard to know if artificial neural networks will be conscious either. And even if we did learn what consciousness corresponds to in the brain, that may not bear on whether artificial neural networks can be conscious. The arguments for and against AI consciousness will end up being metaphysical in character and very hard to resolve. Good people on both sides of the debate will be honestly convinced that they are correct. And they will have serious philosophical arguments about the nature of persons and consciousness to back them up.

That’s kind of how the abortion debate is now, except the groups who believe in personhood are flipped. Today, progressives usually deny fetal personhood and conservatives usually affirm it. But in the future, progressives will affirm artificial personhood and conservatives will want to deny it.

So now let’s imagine a debate between a “pro-life” progressive who wants to protect artificial life, and a “pro-choice” conservative who wants to allow people to erase artificial life if it significantly hampers their freedom.

Imagine that the artificial intelligences can take a physical form, and appear human. Also imagine that, for whatever reason, they often follow humans around, innocently, but in ways that prove to be burdensome. Every once in a while, the robots get in someone’s way, such as when they’re driving. And in a few cases, the threats they pose are deadly. So, some humans periodically decide to run the robots over, or break them just to end the burden and harassment. Sure, the robots sort of seem human, some of us reason, but they’re probably not, so there’s probably nothing wrong with running a few of them over and crushing them. They’re not persons.

Now imagine that, in time, pro-artificial-life progressives start to protest at the places where the robots frequently get run over. In some cases, they place blockades in the way, and in still other cases, they hire police to do likewise. And then imagine that this issue becomes political. Progressives start to care intensely about protecting artificial life, and conservatives become intensely committed to allowing people the freedom to run the robots down when it is necessary, and when the choice is a hard one.

Let’s also imagine some of the same kinds of debates arise. Let John be a pro-AI-life progressive, and Reba a pro-AI-choice conservative.

John: “I think these robots are alive. I think they have souls. And I think we shouldn’t kill them by the thousands, even when they pose real risks to people and even in cases where we really need to run them over. They’re people after all, just like us.”

Reba: “I’m not sure you appreciate how badly these robots harass and endanger people. Sure, they don’t mean to harass; they’re pretty innocent seeming. But they’re also burdensome, and you’re telling us that we have to tolerate their constant presence based solely on your weird religious theory that robots are sentient, when that’s just crazy. I mean, c’mon, they’re robots. Haven’t you read that important article by John Searle on the Chinese Room? Didn’t that refute things once and for all?” [Readers: if you think that’s silly, compare the use of Judith Thomson’s article defending abortion.]

John: “I didn’t share the base intuitions in the Searle article. And, come on, surely it is significant that the artificial neutral networks are functionally equivalent to ours.”

Reba: “But mental states aren’t the same as functional states! They’re just really good consciousness simulators! And you’re trying to tell people what to do with their lives, to pay severe social and physical costs, just to preserve these weird creatures that are kind of like humans, but really just resemble them?”

John: “Look, I know I’m not going to convince you that mental states supervene on functional states; and you’re never going to convince me that dualism is true. The arguments are hard, we’ve had them for centuries, and we didn’t get anywhere when we used to debate whether fetuses had souls before perfect contraception and artificial wombs made abortion disappear. But I’m still convinced, very convinced, that these robots are alive, that they’re just like us on the inside. And I have to do what I can, even vote for bad politicians, in order to save the robots from being destroyed.”

Reba: “The thing that frustrates me is that it seems like you just don’t care about humans very much, you just don’t respect our choices or our rights. Sometimes we need to get to the hospital, and sometimes we need to get home to attend to a family emergency. You’re talking about putting up roadblocks, big restrictions on our liberties, liberties without which we might suffer, and in some cases, die.”

John: “I know it’s a risk, but we will save robotic life!”

Reba: “I’m concerned your primary aim is to control people. You just don’t seem to care about our welfare.”

John: “I don’t want to control humans! I want to save AIs!”

Reba: “You just don’t get it, do you John? You need to trust humans, respect humans, believe humans.”

John: “You’re just not hearing me anymore. I know I’m putting restrictions on carbon-based people, and I hate that, but it is the only way to stop you from killing silicon-based people by the thousands. I mean, since 2100, pro-choice laws allowing carbon-based people to kill artificial life have led to the annihilation of 40 million robotic lives. That’s one of the great moral horrors of the twenty-second century!”

Reba: “Ugh, you’re so dramatic. I can’t believe you’d compare us running over assemblages of robotic parts to slavery or the Holocaust.”

John: “I’m never going to convince you. Maybe I’ll just shock people into listening by showing them big pictures of robots being torn apart, or movies of them screaming as they die.”

Reba: “That’s really offensive, putting people through all that. You might traumatize a victim, you know.”

John: “I have to convince someone, somehow. Maybe I’ll even have to vote for Barron Cyber-Trump III just to stop you.”

Many pro-AI progressives will be strongly tempted to get in the way of humans who feel the need to disassemble, disable, or destroy the robots that constantly harass and sometimes endanger them. And that will involve interfering with the liberty of humans, since keeping the robots alive is of the greatest moral importance. And many anti-AI conservatives will tend to prioritize the interests and worth of humans, and deny the personhood and value of AI. At some point, we’re going to have another big disagreement about who counts as a person, and when it comes to AI, progressive and conservative opinion is likely to reverse. But once you put yourself in this future mindset, you may find yourself a bit more sympathetic to how the other side sees things.

Maybe that helps. Maybe not. But it was worth a shot.

Chik-fil-a, Hate, and Moral Error

Chik-fil-a has made a major decision. They will no longer support the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Salvation Army in order to avoid being associated with groups that are “anti-LGBT.” In this post, I want to explore the ethics of the decision to divest. One line I hear from supporters of CFA’s decision is that people should not support the Salvation Army because it has an incorrect and harmful view of the moral permissibility of LGBT relationships. Because the Salvation Army opposes those relationships, and discourages them among their members, it should be subject to social sanction and should lose the support of good people who care about stopping discrimination against LGBT persons. So people concerned with equality should find other groups to support, and if Chik-fil-a cares about equality, then it should find other groups to support as well.

Let’s abstract from the details of the case and consider a decision to support two different groups, both of which are mistaken about the moral truth with respect to some important issue. Call them Innocent Inc. and Culpability Corp.

Innocent Inc. is a charitable organization that does a lot of good for the poor. It is mistaken about important moral claim A, though innocently. If Innocent Inc. did not see itself as having good reason to hold ~A, then it would hold A. Its support for ~A is not based in animus, only mistaken argument and tradition. Also, Innocent Inc.’s mistaken denial of A is not especially central to its mission.

Culpable Corp. is a charitable organization that does a lot of good for the poor. It is also mistaken about important moral claim A, though culpably so. Culpable Corp. would reject A even if it had good reason to hold ~A. Its support for ~A is based on animus, and not merely on mistaken argument and tradition. Also, Culpable Corp.’s deliberate denial of A is not especially central to its mission.

Now suppose that you affirm A, and have learned that two of your favorite charities, Innocent Inc. and Culpable Corp., both reject important moral claim A. This comes as a surprise to you. Should you alter your donation practices?

In the case of Innocent Inc., perhaps not. Maybe Innocent Inc. has been doing a lot more good than other charities you’re aware of. Or perhaps Innocent Inc. is closely connected to your community and you feel obliged to support it. Or maybe Innocent Inc. is just a very public presence which makes donating to it easy. The fact that they have a mistaken moral view not central to their mission, then, doesn’t seem to be such a big problem. Perhaps if they denied A hatefully, or if denying A were central to their mission, then divestment would be appropriate. But getting morality right is hard. We disagree about moral issues all the time, and very strongly, and so perhaps Innocent Inc. should be cut some slack. After all, we are all probably mistaken about some important moral view.

In the case of Culpable Corp., matters are easier. In general, we shouldn’t support people who bear others bad will, if we can avoid it. Perhaps Culpable Corp. does a lot of good, but bearing others bad will, hating them, spewing invective toward them shouldn’t be rewarded. Perhaps one should shift donations entirely to Innocent Inc. Or perhaps to Truth Technologies, which holds only morally correct views.

I think how you react to the Salvation Army depends on whether you think it is more like Innocent Inc. or Culpable Corp. If the Salvation Army is like Innocent Inc., then divestment seems less reasonable, especially if the organization is significantly dependent on your support or you have a special relationship with it, or some other sort of special connection. In the case of the Salvation Army and CFA, something like this relationship holds. They share values, have an ongoing relationship, the Salvation Army does a lot of good, its views on LGBT equality are an innocent mistake, and its views on the matter aren’t really central to its mission. CFA’s divestment seems most appropriate if the Salvation Army is like Culpable Corp.

And this assumes that Chik-fil-a’s leadership now thinks the Salvation Army is mistaken about sex equality. If CFA still holds the same with as the Salvation Army, then that changes things too.



CFA 2020: Assailing the Anthropocene Workshop

Each year, my department at BGSU hosts a workshop in applied ethics and public policy. Faculty take turns organizing the conferences, which are always excellent. This year, my colleage Justin Donhauster is organizing the conference, whose them is Assailing the Anthropocene: The Ethics of Disruptive Innovations for Surviving Our Climate-Changed World.

The workshop will examine ethical and sociopolitical concerns raised by “disruptive innovations” being developed to respond to impacts of the unprecedented environmental changes that mark the onset of the Anthropocene.  “Disruptive innovations” are broadly conceived to include novel initiatives for sustainable adaptation and social change, civil and ecological engineering strategies, applications of technologies for environmental protection and damage mitigation, geoengineering strategies, and bioengineering strategies (e.g. gene editing).  The workshop will bring together scholars working on projects on the ethical and more broadly normative aspects of such innovations.  The workshop will produce an edited volume containing essays that can inform debates, and policy and legal decision-making, about urgent issues like mitigating climate change damages, climate refugee justice, global urbanization, biodiversity banking, sustainable city design, and sociopolitical adaptation.

Please send submissions with your name, affiliation, and contact information, in MS Word or PDF form, to Justin Donhauser at with the ‘BGSU 2020 Workshop’ in the subject field. Abstracts are due by 10 p.m. on January 2nd 2020; we will notify submitters of our decision by February 1st.

Here’s a flyer for the conference: BGSU AppliedEthicsWorkshop 2020.

Direct any questions to Justin Donhauser at

Why are so many artists inclined towards (non-traditional) supernatural belief?

I have an experience I wonder if you share. I know a number of artists. Almost none of them are Christians, but none of them are naturalists. That is, none of them think that the world is exhaustively described by the natural sciences. The artists I know usually believe in some kind of cosmic order, that morally bad deeds somehow get punished supernaturally, that the universe can smile on someone who does good, that the fundamental nature of the universe is good and one of compassion and care, that there’s life after death (usually reincarnation), and that art partakes in at least something divine, understood very broadly. And they often love astrology, crystals, “metaphysics” and the like. This is surely true of many famous actors and actresses. Sure, there are exceptions, but don’t we often stereotype many artists as, well, odd in that they tend to have wacky, seemingly superstitious beliefs about the world? There’s a certain loveliness to these beliefs, as they indicate the artist is a person of goodwill and kindness. But whatever the case, they seldom think the world is a mere combination of particles and fields. There’s just more to the world than that.

Now, I grant that very few humans think the world is a mere combination of particles and fields, but the artists I know seem especially adamant about this fact.

OK, so perhaps I’m wrong to generalize, but suppose I’m right (and I’m sure some of you are inclined to agree). What explains the seemingly greater non-traditional religiosity of artists of various sorts? Here’s a hypothesis: there’s just something about aesthetic experience that inclines one towards thinking that beauty is something out in the world, that aesthetic judgments are in some way objective and that the sublime is somehow real. And perhaps the fact that beauty is implicitly understood as a kind of perception lends itself to metaphysical beliefs that would undergird those judgments, such as that beauty is a perception of the ordered goodness of the world. But perhaps that’s an overly intellectual explanation.

Here’s another possibility. Artists often seem inclined towards intense moods, both positive and negative. And we associate the supernaturalism of artists with those in good moods. But the depressed artist may be much less inclined towards plucky supernaturalism, and so more inclined to embrace meaninglessness, or some kind of (perhaps) overwrought reaction towards a “dead” universe. So maybe when people feel happy, they project that onto the universe, and when they feel sad, they project that onto the universe too. (Just to note: I know plucky naturalists, jovial Hume-types in the mold of Daniel Dennett, but for whatever reason, most people tend to think of naturalism as a “sad” belief system.)

A third possibility is that artists associate having these beliefs with being a good, open-minded person for purely cultural reasons. Good people have “good” belief systems, which means avoiding sad views like naturalism and traditional beliefs like conservative Christianity, which are seen as close-minded.

I also wonder whether there’s some connection between religiosity of the individualized, eclectic, happy variety is associated with openness to experience. Many, if not most, religious people tend to be lower on openness to experience, but that’s associated more with traditional religious belief.

In any case, I think there’s a real phenomenon that artists are inclined towards a certain kind of supernaturalism, at least moreso than the average person. And I’m curious as to what’s going on.