Tag Archives: skepticism

Libertarian Free Will Is Not Just Bad Philosophy, The Concept Hurts People

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

Along with the belief that a cosmic being created the entire universe, was responsible for the entirety of the diversity of life on Earth, and that it’s really bad if you keep fapping, there often comes the idea of the soul. Somehow this soul may or may not be your mind, and is responsible for your moral decisions. The soul represents the “ghost in the machine”, the concept that somehow you are a type of spirit inhabiting a corporeal form, making decisions until your body dies and you get sent to your eternal destination.

The idea that somehow we are making free decisions using our soul independent of our bodily function is one of the guiding assumptions behind libertarian free will. This has nothing to do with the political affiliation, and when most people think of free will this is the concept they are most likely envisioning. It is a basic foundational assumption of Christian apologetics, as it is a common response to arguments like the problem of evil or why the Christian god doesn’t save people in mass shootings. An excerpt from Theopedia illustrates this concept.

Libertarian free will means that our choices are free from the determination or constraints of human nature and free from any predetermination by God. All “free will theists” hold that libertarian freedom is essential for moral responsibility, for if our choice is determined or caused by anything, including our own desires, they reason, it cannot properly be called a free choice. Libertarian freedom is, therefore, the freedom to act contrary to one’s nature, predisposition and greatest desires. Responsibility, in this view, always means that one could have done otherwise.

While as an atheist I certainly don’t think my choices have anything to do with any deity, based on the scientific evidence I cannot decouple my choices from my physical being. As far as I can tell, I am my brain, and my brain is subject to the same physical laws everything else is subject to. Since my mind is mostly a result of patterns of electrochemical signals, which are physical processes, the choices that I make are mostly the end result of matter and forces moving through the universe.

Keep in mind, just because we are simply the result of the laws of nature doesn’t mean that I can treat myself and others the same as the inanimate objects that surround me. I can still recognize agency in humans and other animals. Perhaps I am just matter in motion, but I still value happiness and joy and loathe pain and suffering. I can see the consequences that my actions have on others’ personhood. While the underlying mechanisms behind how people function are nothing more than the natural mechanisms found everywhere else, the fact that we function in an emotional, intelligent way is profound in itself. We have great reason to value the fluorishing of all those around us simply based on the knowledge that we are thinking and feeling beings.

Even absent physical explanations for how our minds work, this type of free will is nonsensical. I came to this conclusion after listening to Sam Harris talk about this. In his speech below (and likely in his book, which I haven’t read), he describes how our minds come to conclusions almost absent our own input. When we try and come up with something like our favorite city, names of cities pop up in our heads absent any effort from ourselves. When we try and come to a conclusion on something, there is a time when we are unsure of our position, and then a time when we have our opinion. The idea that our “self” ever actually gets to decide on anything before we arrive at our conclusions is like coming up with the concept that we decide something before we decide it. This is a nonsensical concept whether or not we have a soul. Libertarian free will can’t exist. Sam Harris illustrates it much better than I can, so I recommend listening to him when you have the time.

Free will is often portrayed as some lofty, ivory tower based concept that old white men debate in philosophy departments. Perhaps that even is the case, but maybe it shouldn’t be. Whether or not free will exists in our universe is a fact, and as a result has an effect on our everyday lives. It’s possible that being wrong about free will doesn’t just mean that we’re wrong about some abstract idea. In fact, I’d submit that thinking that we are free agents holds humanity back in demonstrable ways.

This is actually quite apparent to any atheist who has engaged in debates and arguments with apologists for any amount of time. The apologist is no stranger to telling the atheist that “you choose to believe in god or not”, or that “you choose for yourself to go to Heaven or Hell.” They are still operating on the nonsensical idea that somehow we as free agents are choosing to believe something or not. That simply isn’t the case, though, and we will often come to our beliefs before we even know that we hold a certain belief. Our beliefs aren’t some decision that our soul picks out based on weighing different evidences we have filed away in our brain wrinkles. Our mind has evaluated the evidence we’ve been able to absorb and experience, and tries to create a coherent model for ourselves such that we can function in the real world.

Of course, this means that we ultimately have no choice whether or not we believe in a god, but this is not immediately apparent to the person who still thinks we can choose our beliefs. To the theist, we appear to have maliciously chosen to reject their loving creator and all that is good (especially if they hold the belief that their god has revealed himself in everyone’s heart). It doesn’t matter that many of us have taken a look at the evidence for a divine creator, found it lacking, and our brains shifted to a worldview absent of a god. From the outside, it appeared that some agent flipped a switch on our belief, however inaccurate that is. This means that every instance of discrimination based on belief system is based on something completely out of our control. Every time a parent tells a college student they can’t return home because they’re not Christian, every time someone leaves their spouse for abandoning the faith, every time a school bullies an atheist, it’s for doing something that they essentially had no say over.

We go about our lives acting as if everyone around us is some independent free spirit, choosing whether or not to take a certain action or say a certain thing. To an extent that’s true, but we fail to recognize the sheer amount of cognitive activity going on in our minds subconsciously. We fail to recognize that when someone is irrational, it’s not always due to some independent agent deciding to think poorly. We are all products of our brain functions, and we have plenty of unconscious biases and poor cognitive functions. We all have our mental blocks and irrational beliefs, and sometimes we have faulty memories or unreliable experiences to back up what we think. It makes sense that as a society that we should hold each other accountable when we are wrong or behaving poorly, but it would be best to do this while keeping in mind how our own will works.

Consider how our justice system is constructed. For many of our crimes, we enforce prison sentences, where society locks us away from those who are free. The idea is often that we punish criminals such that they “learn their lesson” and decide for their own selves not to do something poorly. We’ve also convinced ourselves that if we set up a punishment stick by having strict laws that people will be afraid to commit crimes in the first place. As we all know, that really doesn’t bear out. The presence of punishment does not serve to make us “behave”, it simply makes us work to avoid the punishment. Our prisons may be “punishment”, but the mere isolation from society in a harsh environment doesn’t really teach us anything. Prisons are fairly lacking in resources to help us learn better ways to avoid misbehaving in the future, such as psychological services or education and jobs programs. We feel somehow that the people in prison deserve what they get based on their free will choices, instead of considering the environments and conditions that caused them to behave the way they did. It’s much easier to chalk everything up to a lawbreaker’s choices and blame them rather than help them make better choices in the future.

Free will also matters we engage in discourse. The old mantra of “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” rests on the assumption that if we hear something, we can just walk away. We can do this to a large extent, but there are a lot of underlying processes in our head that guide our behavior and our performance. One of the first things I was taught as a graduate TA was that reminding minorities and women of their stereotypes in society caused them to perform differently on exams. This doesn’t happen with white people or men. Most people have the attitude that if something is distressing they should just look away and go somewhere else, but this literally makes people perform worse in schools (in a sexist and racist way, no less).

This also ties into the “trigger warning” debate. A lot of the discourse has been lost on this topic because many think that being triggered literally just means getting offended. But for those who suffer from panic attacks or have PTSD, it’s a lot more than that. If we were just souls controlling some human meat suit, perhaps we could just walk away from something “we don’t like”. But alas, we are performing as a function of our brain activity. A triggering event can easily cause a panic attack, which for completely irrational reasons can cause someone to shut down and stop functioning for a minute or two. They could dissociate from their surrounding environment, often for a period of several days. Conservatives often blame people who suffer from these conditions and say they’re getting whiny and offended. They want those who suffer from mental conditions to “buck up”, and blame them for not trying hard enough. This makes sense under a libertarian free will model, where we actually choose our emotions, our behaviors, and our basic neural responses. The problem is, science doesn’t corroborate this at all. Libertarian free will completely ignores the very real mental barriers that can prevent us from behaving in an ideal manner. We can’t just “choose” how to feel, and what soul would possibly freely choose a panic attack? In that sense, libertarian free will is ableist.

Libertarian free will is thoroughly anti-skeptical. Within skepticism circles, we talk all the time about avoiding biases and correcting for them. I suspect that we don’t do a good enough job correcting for our biases, as a holdover from when we viewed ourselves as pure, independent agents capable of making our own rational decisions. While most skeptics champion the use of eliminating bias, the dominant behavior right now appears to be chalked up to saying “don’t be biased” and stopping right there. What we don’t realize is that regardless of how we want to believe, we are all biased. For example, as a result of our human nature, we are all subject to implicit bias, and there’s very little we can do about it. Without thinking about it, we really do treat people of races other than our own differently, and most Americans at least unconsciously think of white people superior to those who are black. The same is the case with women, as we think of them as worse leaders. This is almost unavaoidable. We are not some free spirit making purely logical evaluations based on our environment, we have internalized many attitudes from our culture as we developed and that has partially made us into who we are. It doesn’t work to just tell ourselves to “not be racist” or “not be sexist”. We have to actively counter our bias, and second guess where our criticisms are coming from.

Hopefully I’ve illustrated some very good examples of why libertarian free will is harmful. We are more susceptible to harm when our model of the universe is inaccurate, and this is just one instance. We aren’t free souls making entirely free decisions independently of our bodily functions. Mind-body dualism is garbage. We need to recognize our own agencies for what they are: physical brains inhabiting a physical universe due to natural laws. We need to recognize all the biases, instincts, and hurdles that come with that. The more we treat people as they truly are, the better off we will be.


Should We Atheists Just Accept the Facts and Admit that America Really Is A Christian Nation?

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

Often when we atheists are engaging in common political debates, we are faced against the argument that America is actually a Christian Nation. The implication here is that if we are a Christian Nation, we can make laws based on Biblical teachings, and therefore take away birth control for women and fund conversion therapy. The argument usually boils down to the idea that many of the Founding Fathers were Christians, that a majority of the people in this country are Christians, or that somehow our Constitution is based on Christian values.

They’re all bullshit. There are a lot of good arguments to make against them. The most relevant one for me is that even the Constitution at face value doesn’t have an inkling of indication that America is meant to be Christian. So, no. We atheists shouldn’t admit that America Is a Christian Nation.

To be clear: I used a completely misleading headline*. America is definitively NOT a Christian nation.

Mostly I wanted to talk about how we consume our information on social media and how we have discussions.

Every time I write a blog post, I post to the No Religion Required Facebook page. At that point, people look at the headline (and hopefully the short blurb summarizing the post), and make a decision whether or not to read the post or not. I’m happy when they read through the post, and think about what I have said. Perhaps they have some thoughts or disagreements and comment on the post. Perhaps they think I have made some good points (that’s up to you), and share the piece. Or, perhaps my work is is massively flawed and they share it to point out their disagreements.

Unfortunately, a lot of us seem to have a bit of a problem with the middle and most important step, reading the piece. I suspect with this blog post, I’m going to get a few furious comments asking me how I could possibly support a theocratic position. A few people will comment and give long-winded responses explaining that America is not Christian (which they wouldn’t do if they had read this piece). If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll even get some Christians sharing my piece as if I’m an atheist admitting that America is Christian (which to be clear, yet again, I’m not). This is all based entirely on the headline of the piece (Which is 16 words, compared to my  1952 words of content).

What’s terrifying is that so many people are starting to rely on their social media feeds for news, and 60% of people share news stories based on the headline without reading the article. It’s often the case that the headline is written to get clicks, since as news outlets are losing their paid subscribers and therefore often need to make up for lost revenue in clicks for advertisers. It’s not news that headlines don’t always correspond perfectly with the words inside an article (and in larger outlets, the authors don’t even get to pick the headline). Even well-written articles can have their message diverted by a terrible headline, which can mislead those who read it without diving deeper into the article. It’s not hard to see why this distorts the spread of information. Even if I don’t particularly care about a certain story, if I see a hyperbolized or skewed headline just scrolling through my feeds, I will be fed a little bit of misinformation for that day.

I’ve seen this play out even when I write headlines that correspond well with the message of my post. One post I’m still particularly proud of is titled “I’m Taking “Offense” Out of My Vocabulary, and Why You Should Too”. In that piece, I talked about how I think the term is overused, it doesn’t really get to the heart of certain discussions, and that ultimately we label people as offended so we can easily dismiss them. Unfortunately, some people just read the headline and assumed that I was complaining about people getting too offended all the time these days (which is somewhat antithetical to my point in the piece). A commenter on Facebook told me they agreed with me, and then proceeded to write an entire paragraph saying that too many people get offended all the time and they don’t care about offending people. I confronted them, stating that in my article I admonished people who say that, since I think that it is a strawman. They didn’t respond.

I’ve seen this play out many other times in skeptic circles, where people should value reliable information and nuance the most. One of my Facebook friends attempted to disparage Bernie Sanders last year by sharing an article titled “Bernie Sanders Vows to Fight Back Against Islamophobia in the 2016 Race”. We atheists often push back on the term Islamophobia and often substitute in “Anti-Muslim Bigotry” since the former implies that we shouldn’t criticize the tenets of Islam or Islamism. My friend wanted to smear Bernie as an Islam apologist. The problem? Never in the article did Bernie once use the term, the only uses were by the author of the piece. My other friend, Eli of God Awful Movies and Scathing Atheist, has often made posts on his feed, and will frequently have to remind people to READ THE GODDAMN ARTICLE, even in the text of his posts. We are often overeager to share our opinion, and we often think that we are informed enough on a given subject to share what we think even though we are completely devoid of context, so we comment against the headline of a piece without so much as peeking at the content.

It doesn’t even have to be headlines. It could be a long-winded post where people are likely to only read a few lines in, or a catchy meme with a more thorough text explanation at the bottom. There was recently a video passed around on my feeds featuring Simon Sinek talking about millennials in the workplace. I happened to watch the whole video, and to be honest, I liked it.** It was a critique of millennials, but it was actually fairly supportive of my generation. However, it had a horrible banner above and below it, saying “This is exactly what’s wrong with this generation”. This feeds into the common narrative that “t3h millenials are d3stroyzing everything! Oh noez!” To someone who has already made up their mind that millennials are entitled lazy youths who don’t know how to work, they are able to merely glance at the video and feel validated in their assumptions before moving on. Not only that, but many are able to spread an otherwise good video by slapping an accusatory tone onto it, thinking they are helping to educate their friends when they haven’t even listened to a minute of what the speaker said.

As someone who puts time and effort into my blog posts, this is disheartening. When someone misrepresents my work, it feels as if someone has taken my voice away from me and abused it to fit their own agenda. And with plenty of distrust in mainstream news already, there are plenty of people out there willing to twist the words of more legitimate sources for their own motives. I almost feel like punching those who share their opinion on somebody’s work without knowing an inkling about that piece. It makes me want Facebook to implement a policy where you can’t comment unless you’ve actually spent time reading the piece.

Not all of the spreading of misinformation is malicious though, sometimes it’s innocuous. I know I’ve certainly made plenty of these mistakes before and I am no better than most people reading this post. I get how easy it is to share something without vetting it. Usually I’m checking my Facebook feed between tasks at work, and I see a catchy headline that validates one of my opinions. Maybe it reinforces a point I had been trying to get across to others. It’s so easy just to go off the headline, share an article, and say “See?” I get it. We want to get to our next task and we don’t want to spend the next ten minutes reading through something word for word when we think we already know what it says, and our time is valuable. But if we care about cultivating a healthy news feed, we should take the extra effort to make sure we are sharing information responsibly.

Here are some steps I’ve taken to making sure I spread information in a manner beneficial to those who follow me.

  • Reminding myself that Facebook is not a news outlet. If we want to be informed, we should make sure to take time out of our day to educate ourselves based on good, professional news outlets, and cross referencing across multiple sources. (also buying a subscription to your local paper is a good way to support good journalism)
  • I never comment on a piece without reading it. If it’s something short such as a death of a celebrity, most of the relevant information is within the first couple of paragraphs, so I don’t feel too guilty expressing my sorrow without reading the whole thing. However, context matters, and I put extra effort into reading the whole article when it’s presented to me. This is especially the case when something is an opinion piece, as common objections or questions I might have are often addressed within the paragraphs of the article.
  • Never share before reading. Make sure the information you’re spreading is actually the information you want to share.
  • Instead of just sharing a link, I share the link along with a short excerpt of the piece in the text of my post. I usually pick a couple of paragraphs that get to the heart of the article. While I may have read the whole article, some people may still only be interested in skimming headlines. This makes it easier for me to spread important information to those who are just skimming Facebook on cruise control.
  • As always, keep your skeptic goggles on, and be critical of any outlet you get your news from. Remind yourself of ways to avoid bad sources.


PS, if you’re going to share this piece, don’t give away the actual content. See if your friends are as responsible as they should be!


*This idea is not original to me at all. My friends and fellow atheist bloggers JT Eberhard and Matthew Facciani have done similar things. The difference between their posts and mine is small, but they are discussing the spread of actual news events. I want to cover things a bit more broadly, and how we have conversations on social media. Regardless of how unoriginal this post is, this is a message worth repeating.

**A quick review: It was a nuanced look at how millennials behave differently from past generations, and a critique of their behavior. I am the first to push back against millennial hatred, and I feel like we have been gaslit into thinking that we’re lazy or entitled. Throughout the whole video, Sinek emphasizes that it’s not millennials’ fault that our behaviors are often incongruous from the perspective of previous generations. I think he’s missing a lot of the story by not emphasizing the poor economic conditions we entered the world in, and how we have enormous student debts that we have to pay off when we have trouble getting jobs. However, he uses evidence-based methods to describe at least some of the problem well. Most importantly, it’s miles of quality beyond much of the disparaging discourse focused at millennials lately, and escapes the reactionary anti-millennial narrative that we are regularly bathed in.

Maybe Labels Aren’t a Problem, But the Way We Use Them Are

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

An unusual amount of time within the culture wars appears to be over what labels are appropriate. There are certain labels that have a history of marginalizing certain members of society, and therefore probably should not be used (which is not the same thing as saying we need to be politically correct). A significant amount of Dave Silverman’s activism and book is focused on why we should choose the label “atheist” over other labels like freethinker, nonreligious, or humanist. And it’s been a common narrative among right-leaning atheists that a revolving door of “new” labels like genderqueer and intersectional alienated  centrist voters and caused Donald Trump to be elected. Now, I don’t believe for a section that made up words (as if there are any other kind of word) caused us to elect a tyrant, but it’s no question that we seem to be pretty hung up on labels.

After so many squabbles about labels, it’s common for us to throw up our arms and say we’re just not going to care about labels anymore. Perhaps this is because plenty of people use this as an excuse to dismiss someone, to otherize them, or to put them in a convenient box where they can make a ton of lazy, unjustified assumptions about someone’s character.


[Image: A variety of small cabinets labeled with numerical index cards]

I don’t blame anyone for coming to this conclusion, as it seems pretty attractive, but I can’t help but believe that it’s the wrong conclusion. In these situations I mentioned where someone gets to take the lazy way out, the person will often use labels as the tool, but the problem is the person. When someone (like my roommate) tries to use a metal fork on a teflon-coated pan and scratches the shit out of the surface, I don’t try and throw out all our metal forks. I ask the person to change their behavior. All in all, I find labels to be pretty useful tools. In reality, all words are labels to convey a concept, and it’d be silly to stop using words because people use words improperly. But there are good uses for tools and bad uses for tools.

Many of us atheists have been on the receiving end of a misuse of these tools. It’s plenty common for us to be dismissed as “not really an atheist, you’re really an agnostic”. Arguably worse is when it’s assumed that we’re sexist assholes like TJ Kirk or Reddit trolls. This sucks, but this is not the label’s fault. This is how some people use the label, and that’s wrong. But in many cases, it’s useful to me. If someone asks me where I go to church, if I tell them I’m an atheist it not only gives them an answer but a reason for that answer. In a discussion with friends, bringing up my atheism means they can be safe in assuming I don’t have religious motivations for my ethical, political, and mundane day-to-day decisions. My atheist label isn’t a restriction on my life, nor is it comprehensive, but it gives a healthy splash of first-glance context to my character.

While there are misunderstandings about what we mean when we call ourselves an atheist, that label is far more accurate and unambiguous compared to “Christian”. When this label comes up, it is often us who take the lazy way out and make a ton of assumptions about the other person. Correcting this error would do us a lot of good in improving our conversations, and by extension how atheists are perceived. A lot of ex-fundamentalist atheists assume that when someone calls their self a Christian, that means that they hold every single letter of the Bible literally, but that’s simply not the case. Anywhere from 40-80% of self-identified Christians believe that the Bible is the literal word of their god. This means that if you make the assumption that they think the Earth was literally created in six days, then you have a pretty good chance of being wrong. Christians disagree about a lot of things among each other: dunking vs. sprinkling baptisms, transubstantiation, predestination, works vs. faith, the list goes on. Catholics, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses all consider themselves Christian, while evangelicals are likely to call them heretical or blasphemous cults. It turns out that when someone calls their self a Christian, there’s not too many assumptions you can make without asking them beforehand.

What do I do when someone tells me that they are a Christian? I do make some assumptions out of practicality, but like all things in science, they are tentative and subject to change with new information. They are likely to believe that Jesus Christ was the son of their god, and that he died for their sins. They likely hold that the Bible is a useful book with good, holy advice (whether or not they have read it). They likely believe in a Heaven or Hell. But when they tell me otherwise, I don’t immediately remove their “Christian” label from the way I view them, I make that adjustment to how I perceive their individual character.

We would to best to recognize labels as starting points when getting to know an individual. I have multiple labels. I am an atheist because I don’t believe in gods, not because I am like Richard Dawkins. I am a feminist because I want women to have equal rights and access to society, not because I am similar to Maryam Namazie. I am a socialist because I think our country would be better if we were more like Norway or Sweden, not because I am like Che Guevera. There are a spectrum of different personalities, opinions, and underlying ideologies behind each individual who take up any one of these labels. I could give you a lot of labels that more or less describe me well: progressive, anti-racist, anti-authoritarian, academic, skeptical, humanist, snarky, sarcastic, and environmentally conscious. Even if I were to somehow tell all my labels to someone, they still wouldn’t get the whole picture of who I am, they would still have to get to know me.

This is not a flaw, it’s merely the limitation of the tool. A label is a good shortcut to giving someone a picture of what is important to me or my identity, but it’s still a shortcut. I’m happy to tell someone that I’m left-leaning, because it’s a good shorthand way of not having to say “I support minorities, LGBTQ rights, a social safety net, etc.” among a million things. But after I tell someone I’m left-leaning, it shouldn’t be a drastic surprise to that person that I have a lot of problems with the Democratic party, I think GMOs are useful, and that we on the left tend to underplay the harms of Islam. Left-leaning still describes me fairly well, but it is not the entirety of my being, and we would be best to recognize that. That would be simply getting to know the limitations of the tool, instead of throwing away the tool altogether.

This would be useful for recognizing the spectrum of other identities, helping us recognize, for example, the spectrum of gender and sexual identities. Someone might identify as bisexual, but prefer women to men 90% of the time, and that’s still valid. A trans person may identify as nonbinary, but feel significantly feminine or masculine, and that’s valid to. Even those of us who are not a gender or sexual minority benefit from recognizing the diversity of our own labels. I am a man and am very comfortable under that identity, but how I perceive myself as a man could very much differ from how some other person sees his self as a man. Hell, plenty of conservatives would probably characterize me as “not really a man” since I’ve never hunted, I don’t own a car, and I wore a dress on social media once. Fuck ’em. I’m a man and they don’t have any say in that.

It’s also worth noting that even if we get to the heart of what an individual means when they talk about the importance a certain label gives to them, that’s only a small facet of that person. Every person lives a life with many intersecting aspects of their identities, and while certain labels often imply other labels, we need our perceptions of each other to be flexible and open to new evidence. We know all too well that not everyone that is an atheist is also a skeptic, so we shouldn’t be surprised when two labels seem to contradict each other. There are gay Christians, feminist Muslims, and conservative minorities. The solution to any confusion we have is not to take issues with the labels, but to try and understand the actual person behind them.

So let’s ignore who is and isn’t a true Scotsman and focus on what that label is truly good for. We get to know something about that person, and get a decent first impression about why that identity is important. But like all first impressions, there’s a lot more to the story.

Three Ways to Change Someone’s Mind

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

With the fallout of the election, a lot of us skeptics have been doing a bit of soul searching (for lack of a better term). Skeptics have been fighting the good fight before I was even in diapers, yet many humans seem impervious to pure, demonstrable facts, to the point where our president elect is a denier of clear unambiguous science. Donald Trump denies the existence of anthropogenic climate change as well as the efficacy of vaccines, and his followers are not far behind. Perhaps this is unsurprising, coming from a man who led a movement that literally thinks Obama is a Kenyan (the movement still isn’t dead, soon to be ex-sheriff Joe Arpaio tried to restore legitimacy to birther claims with an amateur investigator in mid-December). As a result of an apparent surge in terrible reasoning, the election has apparently lit a fire under our asses to bring critical thinking, skepticism, and reason to the forefront and redouble our efforts.

Unfortunately, even the cold hard facts are not enough to change the minds of humans, and, in fact, sharing facts can even make things worse. Science has shown us that the backfire effect contributes to our strongly-held beliefs, such that when we are presented information that contradicts what we already think, it can cause us to become even more certain in our poorly-held beliefs.


This means that if we share the cold hard facts and nothing else, this causes people to reject the facts even more? So we shouldn’t use facts to try and convince people?

That’s not necessarily the case. We should of course make sure that all of our arguments and positions are supported by the evidence and the facts. But the point is if we actually care about convincing people to a more evidence-based worldview, merely presenting the evidence alone won’t get the job done. Humans aren’t perfect logic machines; we can’t simply give everyone certain inputs and expect them to arrive at the same reasonable output. Our approach counts for a lot.

Along with other skeptics, I’ve been working on trying to reach out to “the other side” to find people who are reachable. While I’m hardly an expert in interpersonal conflict, psychology, or debate (mostly the opposite, I’m baffled every day at how humans function), there appear to be some approaches that have better efficacy than others. Nothing is a silver bullet, and we should never go into a disagreement expecting to change the minds of others, as that will lead to unnecessary disappointment more often than not. But if we want to set out to plant a few seeds and give the other side some food for thought, and perhaps reach the people on the fence, then it would behoove us to adjust our approach.


Image: Two people conversing

1. Humanize yourself to the opposition

This approach admittedly has a limited scope, and is mostly applicable to issues of bigotry and prejudice. But when it works, it works incredibly well. Often this is the case when people are biased against certain demographics, such as gender, sexuality, and race.

What does the evidence say? Even a very brief conversation with someone opposed to your nature can drastically change the way you are perceived. A study found in Science set out to find how voters react to meeting gay and transgender individuals. The abstract for their paper is as follows:

Existing research depicts intergroup prejudices as deeply ingrained, requiring intense intervention to lastingly reduce. Here, we show that a single approximately 10-minute conversation encouraging actively taking the perspective of others can markedly reduce prejudice for at least 3 months. We illustrate this potential with a door-to-door canvassing intervention in South Florida targeting antitransgender prejudice. Despite declines in homophobia, transphobia remains pervasive. For the intervention, 56 canvassers went door to door encouraging active perspective-taking with 501 voters at voters’ doorsteps. A randomized trial found that these conversations substantially reduced transphobia, with decreases greater than Americans’ average decrease in homophobia from 1998 to 2012. These effects persisted for 3 months, and both transgender and nontransgender canvassers were effective. The intervention also increased support for a nondiscrimination law, even after exposing voters to counterarguments.

When someone is convinced that we need to ban gay marriage because gay men are depraved perverts who walk around in leather and feathers all day to recruit children, introducing them to a gay person melts away these stereotypes. When someone thinks that trans women are really men in dresses trying to sneak into restrooms, introducing them to an actual trans woman will make them drastically rethink them. It turns out when you live within the bubble of how your go-to media outlet describes an issue, you thoroughly lack the full picture and the human aspect of why something is important.

It’s not hard to see real-world examples of this happening. It’s often most visible in politicians whose positions on certain issues are very public, and will occasionally change drastically. We’re familiar with cases like former Republican Vice President Dick Cheney, who supported the standard Republican position against gay marriage until his daughter came out as a lesbian, and since then has even lobbied for gay marriage. Tim Ryan, a previously “pro-life Democrat”, changed his mind on why people should have access to abortion after discussing with female constituents on why those issues affected them. It turns out that gay people aren’t trying to recruit all Americans into orgies, they just want the same access to society that everyone else has. It turns out that women aren’t just trying to get rid of a fetus because it’s inconvenient for their next vacation, they simply want bodily autonomy. As a straight male, no matter how good my arguments could possibly get against someone, I could never humanize their cause in the same way that a gay person or a woman could.

What does this mean for people who care about issues on prejudice? It means visibility is incredibly important. It means coming out en masse has worked wonders for the LGBTQ rights movement, and why the National Coming Out Day is more than a mere celebration of being one’s self. It’s the reason why the atheist movement has been pushing visibility, in efforts like the Out of the Closet Campaign  or Openly Secular which are based of the successes of the LGBTQ rights movement. It looks like a black man joining the KKK to ease racial tensions. It looks like putting a trans person on the stage of the Democratic National Convention, or making sure there is more racial representation in our films and television shows. It could also mean someone showing that they need access to healthcare despite their pre-existing conditions, and that plans like the ACA are actually necessary for their well-being. This is more than simply making an appeal to giving everyone their fair share, this actively shifts the way we think.

To be clear, the only people who have the ability to use this technique are people affected by prejudice, bigotry, and misinformation. It’s not for me to tell any individual that they should put their self in a position that compromises their safety for the sake of changing minds. But it’d be a mistake to not show that this is a powerful tool. I’m happy to help put a friendly face on atheists, though.

2. Social pressure

Humans are social creatures, and if we’re going to try to influence the behavior of other humans we have to understand the mechanisms behind what causes people to change their mind. This is somewhat related to the first point, but more broad and large scale. This is not something we can accomplish overnight, and it’s not something that we can control directly, but this is something we can do in the spaces we have influence over.

We’ve known for over half a century that the opinions of those surrounding us influence us greatly. This has been known since the 50s when we started doing experiments on this. A good example is the Asch conformity experiments, which found that subjects were likely to give a clearly wrong answer when everyone around them gave a largely wrong answer. Subjects were given two cards, one with a single line, and one with three lines of varying lengths. While only one of the lines clearly matched the length of the other card, when a subject was surrounded by people who give the same wrong answer, the subject was far more likely to pick the same wrong answer. There are many of other examples and experiments that since then corroborate these findings (such as the humorous elevator example).


Cards used in the Asch experiment. On the left, a card has one line, and on the right a card has three lines of varying lengths, with the medium-length line matching the length of the line on the left. [Wikimedia Commons]

It’s important to note that this is simply an aspect of human behavior. I am not advocating groupthink or tribalism, but simply describing how humans act. As skeptics, we should be aware of the way this can harm people. It’s a contribution to the fact that many Trump voters on Twitter seemed to operate in a completely separate universe from everybody else, likely along with conspiracy beliefs like Pizzagate and anti-vaccine theorists. As critical thinkers, we should be well aware of the effect this can have on our own beliefs, and we should try and ward off any effect this can have.

But we should also recognize the power this phenomenon comes with. Creating environments that allow certain ideas to flourish, while at the same time making it hostile for other ideas, is actually a good thing. This is why even though atheists don’t necessarily have to agree on almost anything, I make it a priority to make sure that the environments that I curate are welcoming to the marginalized and hostile to anti-racism (cue accusations that I’m forming a bubble here). The idea that people of different skin colors are substantially different or that women are weak are evidentially dead ideas, and they should be shunned in every way possible. As I mentioned before, merely showing someone the evidence that “no, their brains are not smaller than ours” may cause them to double down on their beliefs. Instead, once we have evidence that some ideas are bad, outdated, and harmful, we should make it clear that we have no need to revisit them.

We can see the effect this has on people around the globe and over time. We know, for example, that the religious belief you have as an adult is not so much a function of which religious belief makes the most sense to the person, but more of a product of the environment and culture you grow up in. We know that children born in the past couple of decades are far more accepting of LGBTQ people than people born eighty years ago, and that is a good thing. What if we were to create a culture where skepticism and critical thinking were the largest ideological motivators, instead of religion or conspiracy theories?

This also provides pushback against a few ideas that have been floating around since the election. It’s commonplace to make fun of “social media activists”, since speaking out on Facebook and Twitter appears to do nothing. But every time you speak out on a controversial position, or challenge a piece of bullshit on someone’s wall, you provide a small bit of more social pressure towards a certain position. Not only that, but you encourage others to do the same, helping push towards reason. It’s not a silver bullet and it’s not the majority of the work getting done, but it’s a step.

Furthermore, we’ve also been told that we shouldn’t be shaming people or “calling out” others for having bigoted or racist positions. To be clear, simply calling someone a bigot isn’t going to change their minds, but calling someone a racist or a xenophobe to their face directly isn’t what I’m advocating. When we shame someone’s positions, we also induce social pressure against them. When we shame someone for something that’s terrible, we are signaling to others that a certain position is unacceptable. While many positions are worth debating, some things are simply not worth discussing anymore. We’ve settled the fact that gay people aren’t pederasts, we know that homeopathy is a scam, and atheists aren’t evil. Anyone holding those positions should feel shamed. Perhaps we can reach certain people with cautious and respectful discussion, but for those we can’t, we should signal to others that this is an unreasonable position that deserves to be completely disregarded.

3. Appealing to their values, not yours

In keeping with the fact that we humans are not logic machines, we build our opinions and conclusions on a lot more than the mere facts. When we construct a moral and ethical framework, we must have a moral foundation upon which we build our most cherished and important tenets. As members of a social species we would assume that most of these foundations are mostly the same, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.

According to research by Feinberg and Willer, people who tend to identify as either “liberal” or “conservative” tend to value the foundations of their moral systems differently. Those who identify towards the political left tend to value care and equality, while those on the right value things such as tradition and loyalty. Both groups value these things to a certain extent, but in different amounts. You can find a more in-depth discussion on this topic and even discover more about your moral foundations here.

The relevant research, though finds that we tend to make arguments in terms of our own values. For me, gay marriage absolutely makes sense based on the fact that all people should be treated equally, but apparently to someone with a more conservative mindset this argument doesn’t quite cut it. For someone who values tradition more than I do (which is not hard to do), gay marriage seems unprecedented and therefore is something to be wary of. However, according to this study, a good way of convincing a conservative that gay marriage is a good thing is to appeal to in-group identity as Americans.

They then conducted four studies testing the idea that moral arguments reframed to fit a target audience’s moral values could be persuasive on even deeply entrenched political issues. In one study, conservative participants recruited via the Internet were presented with passages that supported legalizing same-sex marriage.

Conservative participants were ultimately persuaded by a patriotism-based argument that “same-sex couples are proud and patriotic Americans … [who] contribute to the American economy and society.”

On the other hand, they were significantly less persuaded by a passage that argued for legalized same-sex marriage in terms of fairness and equality.

To me, appealing to in-group identity seems dishonest and fallacious. However, the American identity is something that conservatives hold dear. And reframing my arguments to focus more on “tradition” and “purity” seem just as bad. In fact, we have named informal logical fallacies after appealing to those values. In that sense, if I reframe my arguments in terms of those values I feel like I am cheating. However, the facts are the facts and it appears to work. I have to consider the desired outcome of my discussion. If someone is not going to be compelled by facts and reason (at least within a reasonable timeframe) would I rather them believe bad things for bad reasons, or would I rather they believe good things for bad reasons? I’m leaning towards the latter. Perhaps, after they start to develop reasons for believing the “right” things, they also reframe their own morals and cognitive processes such that they eventually believe things for the right reasons anyway.

Hell, we know that we occasionally have trouble selling skepticism and critical thinking as a valid epistemology when talking to religious folk. Perhaps after we reframe why critical thinking and skepticism are important using their value system, they could eventually come to better conclusions based on those methodologies as a result.

It’s worth noting, again, that this is hardly a silver bullet. We should not expect to ever change someone’s mind during a single discussion, and even the results of the paper do not indicate that someone who responds favorably to this “reframing” is even likely to completely shift their position. Reframing arguments in terms of these moral foundations only has a small effect, albeit a significant one.

As a skeptic, I really enjoy arguing with other people (perhaps too much). With us going into a terrifying presidency, it will be important for us to establish a better way of helping people come to better positions. What people believe matters, as we all act on our beliefs. I look forward to finding better and better ways to convince people. These are the best I’ve found for now, and they all have their strengths and limitations. It’d be nice if skepticism and critical thinking could always win by default as a result of being stronger, but that’s simply not the case. We need to put in the work, and apparently the approach matters. So let’s care about that in the future.

“That’s Just, Like, Your Opinion, Man!”

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

I’m going for a short one today, in an attempt to get back on schedule for two posts a week!

It’s become apparent that one of the things this blog addresses is discourse, whether it’s conversation between two skeptics, or between a skeptic and a non-skeptic. You can find plenty of disagreement everywhere, but I certainly hold a higher standard for the skeptic side of any conversation, which is why I’m more likely to nitpick the skeptic and point out the flaws in their discussions. Even if the non-skeptic is way off base, I expect that out of someone to be more off base if they aren’t basing their worldview on evidence based methods.

One of the worst rebuttals I see between skeptics is something that should be referred to from now on as the appeal to “that’s just your opinion, man!” This is not an omnipresent rebuttal, but it is common and inane enough that it’s somewhat worth spending a few paragraphs discussing.

Usually this comes in the comments of an opinion piece, after a strong stance has been vigorously defended. Yes, opinions are subjective, and a position that benefits the person making their case may not be beneficial for someone else. But after this, some random passerby will feel that it’s necessary to point out that it’s merely the author’s position, and that not everyone will agree.

Fucking duh.


[Image: The Dude from the Cohen Brothers’ film, “The Big Lebowski” gives a sour look in a bowling alley]

We live in an age of information and the average person now has an unprecedented social reach. Not only can we instantly shout out everything on our minds to hundreds of people at once on a variety of social media platforms, we now have media such as blogs and YouTube channels for spreading our messages far and wide. It’d be nonsensical if we didn’t. The problem appears to stem from the idea that in front of every blog post or in every YouTube video there is an implied statement that says “based on my best information up to this point, I would like to make my case here.” And some people aren’t charitable enough or they are too dense to overlook that and state the obvious.

This also often goes for calling people “posturing” when they share their positions online, to smear someone as narcissistic or as an idealogue who thinks they have all the answers to everything. I can see why it’s easy to fall into that trap. Whenever I come across someone that I violently disagree with in a post, it’s easy for me to slap the “arrogant” label and leave. Even if that’s true, my problem seems to evaporate when I add the implied addendum to their statement. This benefits both parties, as they aren’t dismissed thoroughly, and if they are truly wrong about some things I am able to take them seriously and point out any actual flaws I see.

Even on this blog, some people might think of me as some self-important millennial who has all the solutions to the world, and I assure everyone reading that this isn’t the case. I know I have a lot to learn, and I encourage any legitimate rebuttals in the comment sections (I have yet to delete any comments). However, I do think I’m capable of making points that people will learn from and share. I’ve had people thank me for the things I’ve written that have encouraged them, and sometimes people I greatly admire will share something I’ve said. But this doesn’t mean I think I’m particularly important. Anyone reading my posts (or anyone else’s) should simply see each platform as a space for certain ideas, where it’s a given that they’re going to share their opinions.

So if something lacks substance, that’s fair enough. If someone doesn’t have evidence to support their case, that’s fair as well. If an idea is just shit, that’s fair game to point out, though I’d encourage constructive criticism. But if the best thing you can say to someone is “that’s just your opinion”, you’re just stating the obvious and wasting someone’s time.

4 Examples of Mind-Reading that Hurt Skepticism

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog post on our lack of ability to actually determine the intentions that other people have. To summarize: you can’t do it. While it’s ok to call out actions that betray what someone says, we will never be able to read into what someone is actually thinking. And to do so muddies conversations and causes the disagreeing parties to take each other less seriously.

I had a few examples, but they were very broad and focused on lofty  issues. To drive the point home about how “mind-reading” stifles the conversation, I wanted to come up with some examples that come up in everyday arguments. So, last week, I kept my eyes peeled for a few examples of people trying to read into the intentions of others to illustrate the point of why they don’t bring the discussion anywhere productive, but they are often unjustified claims. And if we care about being good skeptics, we should avoid both of those.


[Image: “marvelous feats in Mind Reading”. A lithograph of a blindfolded woman trying to guess numbers drawn on a chalkboard.] Photo by the US Printing Co at Wikimedia Commons.

So, within the span of just a week, I was able to come across a few examples of this type of harm. Hopefully this drives the point home.

Science communicators are all about posturing, apparently

My first example I came across when I was listening to The Skeptics Guide to the Universe Episode 581, where they discussed an article in The Guardian by Richard P Grant. The rogues on SGU tore this one sufficiently apart and you are capable of listening to their commentary, so I won’t waste time on all the problems with this post. One section of the post, however, was problematic.

Most science communication isn’t about persuading people; it’s self-affirmation for those already on the inside. Look at us, it says, aren’t we clever? We are exclusive, we are a gang, we are family.

That’s not communication. It’s not changing minds and it’s certainly not winning hearts and minds.

I’m leading off with this example because it’s so incredibly unjustified. First and foremost is the claim that the skeptics and science communicators are apparently stroking off to their big brains. I don’t know how he gets to this conclusion.

At best, the thesis of his essay is that science communicators are doing a poor job. That’s certainly within the realm of possibility, and we must always be critical of the ways that we communicate to the public. He may have some (flawed) reasons why he thinks we are doing a poor job of getting across our message. But if that’s the case, he simply has to make the point that SciComm is doing a poor job. He has no justification jumping from “people do poorly” to “people don’t want to do well”.

If Grant had simply kept with the rest of his message, then he could have simply made a somewhat reasonable point. Instead, he made a personal attack at the skeptical community. This paints the entire movement as filled with hoity-toity know-it-alls for no reason. This is a poor faith statement, and extends no charitable contribution in the discussion towards the people he criticizes. If he wants to make SciComm better, he could do better without any unfalsifiable claims, stop the strawmanning, and engage in actual discussion.

Kapernick doesn’t actually care about inequality

I have a couple of examples for this one. Both of these address NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick sitting down for the national anthem before a football game to speak out against inequality. This upset a large portion of America, because they dismiss protests unless they’re active marches.

Oh wait, they dismiss those too? Weird.

The first person I want to bring up is pathological sayer-of-wrong-things Matt Walsh (things he calls absolute truths on his blog). He has weighed in on this statement, insisting that Colin Kaepernick is just doing it to stir up controversy a couple of weeks before he is presumably going to lose his job. According to Walsh, this is another job at posturing. It’s funny how often posturing seems to come up when we try to read others’ minds, isn’t it?

Walsh tried to give evidence that Kaepernick didn’t care, among which is that Kaepernick gets a football player’s salary and has lots of shoes. Seriously? Walsh is perfectly able to use this as evidence if he wants, but he should eat some crow when he finds out that Kaepernick is perfectly willing to use his wealth and privilege towards his cause. This is one problem with making unjustified claims that you have scant evidence to support. You look like an asshole when your narrative is disrupted.

Of course, let’s make the totally unjustified assertion that Walsh is making and assume that Kaepernick indeed realized he probably would be out of the job soon, and began his protest as a result of that. This does not automatically mean he’s going to go and play victim as soon as it happens. That remains to be seen. Until then, I’m perfectly capable of constructing my own narrative, with just as much justification. For example, Kaepernick realized that he would be out of the job soon, realized that he is losing the largest platform he would likely have, and knows that there is an inequality problem in the United States. As such, time was of the essence for him to speak out. I have no grounds to make this assertion, because I’m human and cannot read minds, but neither can Walsh. Now we’re on even grounds. Since our narratives can’t be demonstrated either way, let’s stick to the facts from now on, shall we?

Side note: while it’s incredibly unlikely Matt will ever see this, we have an atheist podcast with a pretty sizeable audience that I’d love to welcome him on. Reach out, Matt.

While I expect that right-wingers and Christians will tend to make arguments on gut instincts instead of demonstrable facts, I’m no stranger to atheists and skeptics making similarly terrible claims. I’m disappointed that skeptics will say stupid stuff not supported by the evidence, but we’re all human so I can’t say I’m surprised. One such skeptic weighed in on this Kaepernick controversy-that-shouldn’t-be-a-controversy. While I have blocked out his name, he is a somewhat well-known atheist activist who is a veteran.


We already know what’s going on in this country. Then he’ll never stand because there are always issues.

This skeptic effectively knows what Colin Kaepernick is going to do in the future. How, I don’t know. Apparently on top of being a mind-reader, he can see into the future.

What I find funny is that both of these criticisms of Kaepernick appear incompatible. This guy claims that everyone in America already knows that there are racial-based issues in America, while Walsh claims that there aren’t really any race-based problems. As such, Kaepernick is wrong to protest for two entirely different, conflicting reasons. I’d love to see these two people duke it out to say exactly why Kaepernick is wrong. Until then, perhaps the best thing to do is to rally against police murdering people.

Atheists want to donate to impoverished children… cause… they’re… evil?

Another big news story came out this week involving atheists from Muskogee, Oklahoma. This story was notable for teaching me how to spell and pronounce Muskogee, but it was also a bizarre clusterfuck of human interactions. Briefly and avoiding details, the events occurred as follows:

-Matt Wilbourn of the Muskogee Atheist Community tried to donate $100 to the Murrow Indian Children’s Home.

-Said Children’s home said, “no way, Jose” because they were atheists.

-Wilbourn set up a gofundme, raising $28,280 for the home.

-The home continued to refuse the money.

-Wilbourn offered to give it through another local church so it wouldn’t be “from atheists”.

-The Children’s home said, “Nu-uh!”

Such is the case when you set up an arbitrary moral system based around the words in an ancient tome from some guys who said the guy they are collecting money for totally exists. While the Children’s home was incredibly silent about the reasons why they refused the money from the atheists (but still begged for money after refusing multiple times), plenty of Christians tried to frame it as a power grab, tending to emphasize that Wilbourn wanted to advertise that the donation was made by atheists (these donations were for a pow-wow, which would list the donors who contributed).

This was pretty bad, but the biggest harm came from a spiteful Christian named Tracy Hoos who tried to fundraise against the atheists. While Wilbourn has since demonstrated that he doesn’t need the notoriety (as he was willing to donate via other Churches, exempting himself from recognition), the counter-gofundme doubled down on knowing what Wilbourn’s true intentions were.

A powwow is a sacred event that in my opinion was selected by this organization not out of their goodwill but to only stir the pot. I am inspired by Murrow’s faithfulness. So we are starting another go fund me page to support their powwow. If you feel led to support then please do, if not do not. Second if the other group is so inclined to donate, just cut them a check. No strings attached, no need for recognition. But that is not your intention.

Wow, Tracy Hoos. I’m so glad that you’re an expert on what they really feel.

Of course, atheists started donating to his campaign, which of course meant that Hoos had to shut that one down since it had been touched by filthy heathen dollars. So much for the kids!

The other examples I’ve provided have tended to be pretty dialogue and opinion heavy, based in political and social discourse. While there is certainly harm in preventing this open discourse and misrepresenting the other side, this example more concretely shows the harm into trying to “read into” someone else. Because a few Christians thought that atheists were only donating money to earn a few social brownie points for their side, some impoverished kids missed out on almost $30,000! That is a big fucking deal. Especially since, as noted before, The Murrow Indian Children’s Home is behind on funds this year.

What would have happened if the Christians had simply accepted the money? I can’t be certain, but the most likely thing would have been that the home would have had a hundred more dollars, the home would have printed “atheist” in their pow-wow bulletin, and nobody would have looked like an asshole. If they had refused initially, but realized later that the atheists had nothing but goodwill in their hearts, then they would have been $28k richer, at the expense of still kind of looking like jerks. But now some kids are going to probably starve. Great job.

Reading into intentions has real world consequences

I’m not saying you should take everyone at their word. I’m not saying you shouldn’t keep your guard up for possible hidden reasons that people may have. That would be anti-skepticism. I’m just saying that reading too far into what other people think, something that anyone without a spare fMRI on hand can’t come close to demonstrating, has actual harms come of it. Not only can it stifle discourse, but it has actual casualties in the culture wars.

What happens when we have made up our minds that the other side cannot possibly have an ounce of goodness in their heart? What happens when we assume a narrative for someone else, and we have decided for ourselves that everyone else is just a jerk? We should take a cue from Hanlon’s razor, which states, “don’t assume bad intentions over neglect and misunderstanding.”

For a few of these examples, I could very easily come to the conclusion that a lot of these come from ignorance, and we shouldn’t fault anyone for that unless it’s willful. For example, the religious children’s home has a Christian narrative that likely informs them that anyone who does not follow Jesus Christ cannot truly do any good, and thus they have an active interest in stopping anything that shows otherwise. To be clear, this is wrong. This is ludicrous and demonstrably wrong. But it fits within the fundamentalist Christian narrative. We must hold them accountable, but at the same time, we must avoid their pitfalls. What if we just assume that all Christians are evil charlatans trying to score points for Jesus? This makes us look like we are jumping to conclusions just as much as all the examples in this article. It makes us look like mindless zealots for our own cause. And by the time the next children’s home pops up, there will be no hope of reaching across the aisle for a good cause. And the victims will not be us, but the innocents.

If you care about discussion and putting your best foot forward, then don’t make any unjustified claims. You can’t know what someone’s thinking better than they do, so stop pretending that you’re capable of filling in the gaps. So stop doing so, and prove that you’re better than any of these examples. If more people did this, then maybe we could truly bridge the gaps, be constructive, and truly have open dialogue as a result, and perhaps avoid collateral damage along the way.

Intent vs. Consequences: A Middle-Ground Model

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

There’s always a topic going around social media feeds that cannot be divorced from perpetual flame wars and arguments in the comments. At the time of writing this, the flame war flavor of the month is Ellen’s recent tweet of the Olympics, where she put out a humorous photo of her riding on the shoulders of Olympic athlete Usain Bolt, with the caption, “This is how I’m running errands from now on.” I don’t care to get into the specifics of the debate, but I will attempt to summarize in a fair way. The negative reactions stem from people who bring up America’s racist past of treating black slaves as literal beasts of burden, such that even on occasion slaves were forced to literally carry masters on their backs. The pushback to this insists that there is no foul, since Ellen is clearly a strong social liberal with a history of promoting equality, and Usain Bolt clearly found no problem with the post since he retweeted the photo.

I don’t feel qualified to discuss whether or not this was racist, but this argument has dredged up the debate over whether intent matters or not. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to grant two things, each one conceding an important point to each side of the debate:

  1. Ellen genuinely meant no harm or malice to either Bolt or the black community. We have little evidence of bad intent, and we can’t read her mind.
  2. By posting the tweet, she subtly reinforced a harmful narrative that still exists within a deeply racist America that degrading physical labor is a suitable role for colored people.

I’ve seen people on either side of the issue concede both these points. Not everyone, mind you. However, from what I can tell, people seem to think that one is a far more important focus than the other. If we both concede these points, then we agree on two relevant things: that Ellen did not intend for there to be harm, but there was harm anyway.

The struggle appears to be with how we set up our moral model. Most secular humanists subscribe to a consequential ethics model. We characterize something as good when it promotes well-being or reduces harm. It is immoral if it causes someone harm. So, clearly, we value it when someone’s actions improve the lives of others. However, if we are going to promote actions that improve the lives of others, shouldn’t we incentivize that people perform actions in the future that they think will also benefit others? If someone thinks an act improves the well-being of someone else, and they are justified in that belief, shouldn’t we encourage them to follow through?


[Image: a fucking adorable sad kitten with the words “I didn’t mean it”]

Part of the struggle appears to be that we don’t want to punish someone for not having malicious intent. After all, accidents happen all the time, and humans are far from perfect. Why would we treat someone poorly for causing something they didn’t intend to happen? However, we do recognize that we have to own up to our harms regardless of what we meant. This is the main point of the “intent is not magic” side, of which I generally consider myself a part of. A classic example is one that Ania Bula discusses in her take on the issue. Her example is that of stepping on someone else’s toe. Most toe-steppings are unintentional, yet we would seem like a dickhole if we did it to someone without apologizing and trying to rectify the situation.

I think this is a perfectly good analogy, yet it might seem less analogous if we are talking about non-physical harm. In this case, Ellen reinforced roles of humiliating labor that black people are apparently fit to perform. There is an extra layer of abstraction from mere physical harm, since Ellen had the medium of culture to spread the message of the meme and for it to make its impact on other humans. Yet that harm still exists. Even if Ellen didn’t purposefully try to reinforce those race-based roles, she did. If she actually cares about making sure that harm isn’t further perpetuated, then shouldn’t she apologize and try and rectify it. We don’t even have to think she had malicious intent against black people to spread racism, as a lot of racism is unconscious and unintentional. Does it make sense that racists are intentionally trying to screw over an entire group of people, or does it make sense that they think they have verifiable facts and reasons for treating people of different races worse? My mind’s on the latter.

We have an analogous state to racism that also unintentionally causes harm: ignorance. While racism and ignorance are hardly exclusive to each other (the latter undoubtedly perpetuates the former), we can look at them separately and find they have similar consequences. Ignorance causes children to not get vaccinated or understand evolution properly. It causes people to spend money on homeopathy. It causes policies to allow humans to dump carbon into the atmosphere and increase the temperature of the Earth. But would we call the people who do these things immoral? Only if they’re not ignorant and willingly causing these harms in spite of the evidence.

As skeptics, we have a lot to say about ignorance. We don’t think it’s immoral, and in fact we find it’s usually the product of our environment which we have varying degrees of control over. If someone is uninformed on an issue and says something completely wrong, we don’t jump to the conclusion that they are automatically a terrible person (or at least we shouldn’t). Rather, we try to inform them or give them resources to improve their situation. If the person appreciates the gesture and reacts in a way that seems like they acknowledge that they were uninformed, then we even value their behavior. We even give them brownie points for doing the research and informing themselves afterward. However, it’s only willful ignorance, where they double down and refuse to acknowledge any points you give that we label their actions as harmful. They are purposefully wanting to disregard any contradictory info, which will lead to harm down the road, which is immoral.

It is here that I suggest the middle ground between people who think that we need to focus on one or the other in terms of harm. We don’t think ignorance is the mark of a bad person, it can easily be the mark of poor circumstances. However, we recognize that it does harm. For that reason, the ignorance is bad, but the person is not, unless they are consciously promoting that ignorance.

Under this proposed model, the intent and the consequences are both important, but for different reasons. Intent is important for assessing the moral character of the person. Did they want to be ignorant, racist, or malicious? No? Then they aren’t a person of questionable character, at least not based on this interaction. However, the damage is still there. This is why the consequences are so important, as they’re important for assessing the nature of the behavior. If the person is a person with strong morals, then they should want to rectify that harm, or at least acknowledge that harm was performed. If they seem to put the focus on their intent instead of the harm, as Ellen disappointingly seemed to do, then we are less likely to trust that they actually care about doing their best.

Perhaps this rubs the humanists who rely on consequential ethics the wrong way. If we judge actions on the consequences they cause, isn’t this rejecting consequential ethics? This is currently the best model that atheists have for a moral system, and it relies on our ever-useful skepticism that follows evidence-based methodology.

I’d argue that it’s not a rejection, seeing as a person could conceivably think that they are informed and think they are performing an action that causes the best possible outcome and still fail. If a person is acting on their best evidence and their evidence is flawed, can we really hold that against them? I don’t think we should. However, we should still expect that if they care about the consequences of their actions, that even if they weren’t fully informed in a particular situation, they were an active agent and a component of the harm that was perpetuated.

Furthermore, holding people somewhat accountable to the harms they’ve unintentionally caused is actually rooted in consequential ethics. If we don’t want someone to make the same mistake twice, we need to call them out on their actions and point out the damage they have caused. For rational and ethical people, this causes them to be more aware in similar situations in the future and act accordingly. If we care about the consequences of someone’s actions then we should make sure those consequences are the best they can be, which includes raising flags when someone trips up. This is how we already behave in multiple areas of life, such as setting interpersonal boundaries or bringing up specific needs that someone has. If I share some brownies with my coworkers and someone is allergic to one of the ingredients, nobody should call me an immoral person for bringing the dessert to work. I would feel an obligation to apologize for bringing something to work that they were specifically singled out from enjoying.

For that reason, we should keep in mind that a statement telling someone that they have done harm is not an accusation of immorality. I think this is where the people who value intent over consequences get it entirely wrong. When someone is accused of hurting someone else, it could very easily mean that they have made a mistake, not that they are a bad person. Similarly, I have been ignorant on a good many things, but that doesn’t mean someone should call me stupid or immoral.

This ties into racism as well. I recognize that as a white person raised in a predominantly white environment for most of my life that I almost certainly have unconscious biases that lead me to act in a way that treats non-whites as inferior. I am more likely to support policies that marginalize blacks, even though that is not my intention. As a result of my biases, I recognize that I am probably racist to an extent. This is not a malicious indictment of people who don’t look like me, but rather an unfortunate consequence of being human. It is for this reason that we as a culture shouldn’t be defensive so much when we are accused of perpetuating racism or being racist. In this light, it’s less of an attack on character and simply something we should both recognize and try to consciously counteract.

Ultimately, I don’t think either “side” is working from completely different sets of assumptions, but rather their focus. To me, both intent and consequences are important, but for different reasons. For assessing the moral character of the person, we are allowed to assess their intentions. This helps us realize that even if they hurt someone we can still value them as an individual and the good things they continue to bring to the table. But the consequences still mean we need to hold people accountable for their actions. It’s very similar to the common skeptical ideal of criticizing ideas and not people, but rather in this case we are criticizing actions. As skeptics, we know we make mistakes, and being criticized doesn’t usually feel good, but if we care about improving ourselves and the world around us we will need to constantly improve. Accepting criticism is a must. Therefore, get on the defensive less and change your behaviors that are harmful. And if your intentions are sincerely good-natured, then you should be able to recognize that harm and have better actions in the future.

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