A Follow-Up: Religion, Authority, and the Dangers of Optimism

In observing certain conversations sparked by yesterday’s post, I felt stimulated to add some further thoughts, especially in trying to put religion in a broader context.

As I presented it yesterday, the essential process of reasoning that led to “all human beings deserve to be tortured and killed” is something like this:

1) Overall, everything is good.

2) But in cases x, y, z, etc… things are bad.

Therefore, 3) The specific people involved in x, y, z, etc… are bad and have themselves produced what happens to them.

We could put it in more visual terms by saying that because evil has been excluded on principle from the grand over-arching structure of the world, it has to be ‘localised’ as an intrinsic feature of those affected.

But the thing is, this isn’t at all unique to theism. Of course theism has the most extreme possible version of ‘overall, everything is good’. But other less metaphysically extravagant versions are also possible.

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Challenge: Suggest a more evil principle than this one

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently listening to people talk about, and talking about, the ‘argument from evil’. To put it in its simplest possible form, it goes like this:

1) If the creator of the world is good and omnipotent, then the world should contain only good things, and a minimum of evil necessary for greater goods.

2) Have you looked at the world recently?

Therefore 3) There is probably no good, omnipotent, creator, i.e. no God.

This initial atheistic part of the argument is pretty simple (everybody accepts that P implies Q, not-Q, therefore not-P is a logically valid structure), so the bulk of the discussion then becomes a matter of theists arguing that actually, the world’s pretty great, the evil things in it are perfectly justified and necessary, and everything is for the best, and atheists trying to resist that.

I could rehearse the arguments here, and why I think the atheistic side is correct. But I suspect they’d be fairly old. Maybe some other time if people are interested. But there’s something else I get in these sorts of discussions sometimes that’s a bit less intellectual. I think I’ve reached the point where ‘defenses of God’ are not just unpersuasive, but hard to stomach.

That is, I feel not so much like I’m in the presence of a position I disagree with, but a mindset which is hostile to humanity as such. And today this reached a sort of beautiful conclusion, when one of my theistic interlocutors summed up the principle underlying it all. But that principle can be seen as growing out of pretty much every theistic strategy employed here.

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The Political History of Punishment: Who Feels Retributive?

A few recent posts have discussed the idea of retribution – the conviction that regardless of what benefit it might secure, for them or others, those who have done something wrong should suffer for it (or should be punished for it – is there a difference?)

The discussion so far has been largely ahistorical, abstracted from any particular social realities. In this post I want to change that by asking: what is the class significance of retribution as an idea? Does it characterise the attitude of any particular social groups more than others? And how might this have changed over time?

I also have in mind, when asking this, some recent posts about Foucault and his account of the ‘genealogy’ of punishment – and, behind that, the earlier ‘Genealogy of Morals‘ by Nietzsche.

How I want to proceed is by laying out some postulates, which you need not think are true, and then drawing out what they would predict, and observing that it (I think) seems to match up with a lot of what we do observe.

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Some Observations from a Conversation

I just came out of an extended conversation with a group of philosophers that centred around ‘the problem of evil’ in philosophy of religion (most of them were theists). A few interesting observations struck me.

One observation was observing, in quick succession, someone being willing to explain away and justify all the evils in the world in order to retain the idea that ‘God is perfectly good’, and then say that they considered humans (the crowning pinnacle of God’s creation, remember) were naturally bad in quite a strong sense – which, though I didn’t press them, would probably involve explaining away and debunking all the apparently good traits of humans. Coincidence?

Another was that one person, to support the idea that different sorts of moral standards apply to us as apply to God, tried to say that it’s commonplace for different people to be held to different sorts of morality. When asked for examples, they gave parents punishing children and governments governing their subjects – two relationships of authority.

And a third was perhaps less striking, but perhaps still worth mentioning. One of them (a theist), in explaining away various forms of suffering, said that the suffering of animals seemed fairly irrelevant to them; and when I said, by way of contrast, that ‘it is bad that animals suffer needlessly’ was so obvious to me as to be axiomatic, this seemed to provoke more surprise in the other participants than their dismissal.

Of course maybe they were right and I was wrong. Just making observations.

Also, those who are waiting for replies to comments (who are principally: Quentin, Quentin, and Quentin), I will reply tomorrow. After sleep. And a sufficently long time without doing work. Hopefully.

The Psychology of Punishment: What makes us retributive?

In a recent post I argued that the retributive conception of punishment, though it can make sense in particular cases, from certain perspectives, is overall incoherent and confused, and we should aim for a situation where it has no hold on people. But this will remain a meaninglessly abstract piece of moralism unless it is translated into political and historical terms. So let’s do that.

I think this will require a psychological treatment – though this doesn’t in itself make what we speak of ‘subjective’, any more than a psychology of what factors affect people’s understanding of mathematics makes maths subjective. EDIT: so the psychological remarks ended up taking the whole post. That’s ok. Political stuff coming next post then. Stay tuned!

What factors will influence people’s tendency towards retributive feelings?

1) Most fundamentally, the confidence of the victim in their own worth (or whatever exactly the ‘crime’ has denied) makes retribution seem less necessary. Why do I need to ‘teach them a lesson’ if I’m really sure of the content of that lesson? At that point the ‘teaching’ simply becomes rehabilitation. To put it another way, inner strength makes forgiveness proportionately more possible.

2) In relation to particular actions, the extent to which someone’s identity is invested in what is denied and ignored by that action – what strikes at our heart makes more of an impact than what, though it might harm us, leaves our sense of ourselves and the world untouched. But this will tend to average out across people, I think.

3) The more the ‘dignity’ and ‘moral authority’, that must be defended and vindicated, is bound up with actual power, real or desired, the more sense retribution will make – because though beatings and cagings are crude instruments for demonstrating moral truths to be, they are very good at demonstrating power.

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This is just a note. I don’t have time for a proper post right now, but there are several planned, including the third part of my thoughts on retribution, which will hopefully connect up with my posts on Foucault somehow. I’m also hoping to write something about the ‘argument from evil’ and theistic responses, and about communist individualism against capitalist collectivism.

In the meantime, mongooses!

A meerkat Two dwarf mongooses

Yes, Religion DOES Need to Conform to (Broadly) Scientific Standards of Evidence

Breaking off from the philosophy of punishment, I wanted to talk about the philosophy of religion. A position that I’ve encountered a lot recently goes something like this:

“Considered by broadly scientific standards, as an explanatory hypothesis, belief in a personal, omnipotent, morally perfect God is irrational and unjustified. But those are the wrong standards to apply: theism is not an explanatory hypothesis, and treating it like a scientific claim misunderstands it.”

Now, I’m conflicted about this position. I think there’s a valuable point here, but I also think it’s presented in the opposite way that I would present it – it’s presented as a defense of religion against rationalistic criticism, whereas I would seek to use it to guide that criticism more effectively.

Because the thing is, I would be quite happy to accept that statements about God are best understood not as positing ‘one more entity’ alongside the other entities in the world, but rather as making some more complex sort of philosophical point. I think such an analysis would often bring out much of what was compelling and relevant in such claims.

For example, you might take the statement “we should all be grateful to God for His creation”, and say: ‘this looks like the same sort of statement as “Brian should be grateful to Sally for her help with revision”, i.e. the application of our standard notion of gratitude to a particular case. But actually, it’s a statement about that notion of gratitude itself, telling us that it needs to be applied in a certain way, that to be consistent we should extend a foundational sense of gratitude to all objects, rather than taking some as requiring gratitude, some as worthless, and some as deserved.’ Or something like that.

Similarly, statements that “God is with your everywhere” become statements about the application of our concept of solitude; “God moves in mysterious ways” becomes a statement about the application of our concept of mystery.

I would be quite happy to interpret claims about God in these kinds of ways. Except for a troublesome fact: this is not how religion usually presents them. Religion habitually and systematically offers these as claims about the existence of a distinct entity. In doing so, IT submits them to broadly scientific standards of evidence. And it has to do so, to remain recognisable as religion.

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The Justification of Punishment: An Internal Critique of Retribution

In my last post I discussed why I thought that retributive theories of punishment should best be seen as aiming at a sort of ‘communication’, and that this might make them seem queer compared to other theories.

I realised that it might be worth saying more clearly what sort of communication I take retribution to be. In essence, the conversation I think is imagined to go like this: person X performs action A, and in doing so ‘says’ that action A is a reasonable to do (for them, on that occasion, at least). But! Action A is in fact ‘bad’, perhaps because it makes someone else die. Consequently person X’s initial ‘statement’ is false. By punishment, we do something ‘bad’ to person X (forcing them to become aware of some ‘badness’), and present this as directly tied to action A – so they now ‘perceive action A as bad’.

This account may seem very sloppy, but I don’t think it’s sloppier than the reality – the key concept here, after all, seems to be ‘bad’, which is not known for its precision. We can certainly attempt a critique of this, and I will in just a moment.

But first, notice how subtly different sorts of motivation can be very close to each other here. The punisher is motivated by a desire to ‘reaffirm’ that action A was bad, but this can be for a range of reasons. It might be out of concern for ‘moral law’ in the abstract, or for divine law. But it also might just be about personal status. Say action A is a form of ‘disrespect’ against me. The statement being made then (setting aside ambiguities of interpretation) is that I am not worthy of respect.

The motivation to ‘punish’ would then be not so much ‘moral’ as just a desire to affirm that I am worthy of respect. This is sometimes said pretty much literally: “I’ll teach you a lesson!” What lesson? “Nobody messes with Alderson Motherfucking Warm-Fork!” Is this motive ‘better’ or ‘worse’? An entirely open question – for the circumstances that make someone feel disrespected are so varied.

But let’s get to the point. Does this idea of the retributive ‘lesson’, which seeks to communicate to person X that ‘action A was bad’ by making it the cause of suffering for X, does it make any sense? Should it be endorsed?

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The Real Basis of Punishment: Retribution as Communication

Imagine you’re discussing something with someone and then, just after you make a point that they think is foolish, they slap you in the face and tell you to stop being silly. Perhaps they jokingly wag their finger at you. Then they continue the discussion. What do you do?

I can’t speak for everyone, but I think one common reaction would be an outrage out of all proportion to the actual pain suffered, and based instead on a feeling of humiliation and disrespect. The desire this might produce could be expressed principally as ‘desire that things not go on as normal’. Maybe you slap them back, or shout at them, or leave immediately. In each case, the goal is (at least in part) to ‘mark’ the unacceptability of that action – or to put it another way, to ‘refute’ the ‘message’ that the action expressed, namely that it’s ok for this person to do that.

That is, the action taken in response would be not aimed at producing any effect, not at causal power, but would be communicative. Its rationale would be as part of an ongoing ‘discourse’ about how to act. If somebody watching had assumed that actions all ‘aim at ends’ in the sense of some result they produce, or was in another way committed to looking at actions as actions, and not as assertions, then they might well be confused, and find it hard to make sense of your response. What did it acheive?

This, I think, is what is often going on in discussions about ‘justifications for punishment’. There are broadly two sorts of theories about why we punish/why we should punish/whatever – I want to consider the debates without implying endorsement of any of their assumptions, let alone their real applications and history. Some say ‘it’s useful’ – whether by ‘deterrence’, ‘incapacitation’, or ‘rehabilitation’, it aims at some sort of good. The other says ‘it’s deserved’, or ‘it’s proportionate’ or ‘it’s justice’.

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Challenge: Distinguish Reality from Satire

So the Nobel Peace Prize is given to someone currently overseeing a bloody war of occupation; you don’t need me to explain the hilarity of this. But fortunately, more hilarity has come forth from this event.

At first I thought the best satirical response I’d seen was this: “In other news, the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to a man who set fire to a library and then promised to write a book about it.”

That only narrowly beat the headline “Analysts Warn Obama’s Peace Prize Complicates War Efforts.”

But they were all blown away by this: “Obama should accept this prize not for himself, but on behalf of the army.”

Yes, that’s right. It has now been recommended that Obama should say “I cannot accept this award on my behalf at all. But I will accept it on behalf of the most important peacekeepers in the world for the last century — the men and women of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.” The Nobel Peace Prize is now to be given to the military. The next step, surely, is to ceremonially re-name it ‘ministry of peace’ – though ‘ministry of defence’ is halfway there already.

In other “reality indistinguishable from satire” news, compare:

I’ll have no hoes! No, no, noes!
Hoes with clothes? No, no, noes!

Hoes at shows? No, no, noes!
Hoes with piercings in the nose and hoes with eyes for all the bros?
No, no, noes!
Hoes who ask for a rose and hoes where fem’nist theory grows?
No! No! Noes!
I’ll say it now before I go:
This bro will never love a ho!


Bitches on my nuts like clothes
But I’m from the pound and we don’t love them hoes
How could you trust a ho? Why? Why? Why?
Cuz a ho’s a trick
We don’t love them tricks. Why? Why? Why?
Cuz a trick’s a bitch
And my dick’s constantly in her mouth
And turnin’ them trick ass hoes the fuck out.

One of the above is satire written by a radical feminist and posted at iblamethepatriarchy; the other is the lyrics of a popular and successful mainstream song. Can you tell the difference?

And finally, I have been tagged in a meme (hopefully I’ll recover soon) by Missives from Marx, compelling me to reveal something that readers would not have guessed about me. Ummmm…would it be a surprise to know that in my ‘day job’ (in philosophy) I hardly study or discuss political philosophy at all? (Nobody is allowed to say that would have guessed that…)

Oh, or that I once went straight from having forearm-length hair to being entirely shaved-with-a-face-razor bald?