Monday, July 28, 2008

So PZ Myers stuck a nail through a cracker…

Following a series of hotly debated posts on Pharyngula (including this and this and this), and a campaign by hysterical cranks to have him fired for suggesting such a thing, PZ Myers has stuck a rusty nail through a communion wafer, and a few pages from the Qur’an and (for good measure) The God Delusion. There’s further yelling going on as we speak, all over the place. I’m not even going to try to give a roundup, but I will tip a nod to Michael over at Ionian Enchantment.

Is there anything wrong with what he did? Was anyone harmed in any sense of ‘harm’ that we should respect? No. No.

It is simply intolerable to allow it to count as harmful for one person to do something that another person doesn’t think should be done.

Some things definitely are harmful. Killing someone is, for example. So is physically hurting them. More generally, in any way obstructing their free pursuit of their own desires and interests, as long as that pursuit doesn’t harm anyone else, is harmful. What PZ did falls on the other side of the lines, and so there’s nothing wrong with it.

I regularly run into people who seem genuinely furious that gay people they don’t know, and will never know, are getting married in some distant country. I’m no longer surprised when I run into another dose of that kind of bigotry, but I still find the state of mind baffling. What the fuck do they think it has to do with them?

There’s an important point here that complicates matters a little, but doesn’t change the main conclusion. You can harm some people by harming others. That’s because how (at least some) others feel is actually worth something to us. Most of us, to say the same thing another way, would make an effort to prevent harm to people we care about, and voluntarily suffer outcomes that we’d seek to avoid if all that was at issue was how we felt. So we step in to break up fights where our friends might get hurt, and we give to charities that benefit people we don’t know at all, but whose well being concerns us.

The crusading bigot types like to think that their apoplectic hostility to the happiness of, for example, gay people they’ll never meet is somehow like this -- that they’re protecting someone or other, maybe even the poor deluded gay folks themselves.

But there’s a key test that has to be applied here: do those we want to help accept having us take an interest in them? If some person on the other side of the world refuses to use a mosquito net, for example, then the charity I give to doesn’t get to force her to do so. And if it is my considered conviction in the light of biology, human history, and everything we know about the properties of matter that the idea that wafers turn into flesh is outrageous bollocks, I don’t get to demand that people who participate in (what I take to be) this idiocy get to be fired or otherwise harassed.

If there is a God, and s/he/it’s annoyed about maltreatment of (a little piece of) the kid some people supposedly had to torture to death because of something to do with a very weird kind of love and forgiveness, then s/he/it can take the matter up with PZ. Worrying that somebody might have insulted one of your imaginary friends isn't a good enough reason to interfere with a real person.

(PS I’m leaving out direct consideration of children, and others where there's a serious presumption of rights to be protected, but that really isn’t relevant to whether PZ has annoyed God, or whether any crazed kooks have a legitimate grievance with him.)

(PPS The image at the top was stolen from cynical-c.com.)

5 comments:

Michael Meadon said...

Well said... The key difference, were I to analyze this from a political philosophy perspective, is between "self-regarding" and "other-regarding" preferences. Clearly, the Catholic preference for the non-abuse of the Eucharist is other-regarding and they can thus go jump in a lake.

Doctor Spurt said...

Thanks. I'm not sure that I know that distinction correctly, if my concern that, e.g., harm not come to people I care about and who accept my care is still "self-regarding" in the required way, then it would do the job I was after, otherwise not. Pity JS Mill doesn't have a blog...

Michael Meadon said...

Well, I'm not sure we DO want to attach too much weight to your concern that someone else not come to harm. The reason we protect the rights of a child, and prosecute those who violate them, is not because of the parents' right not to have what they care for hurt - but because the child himself has rights. The child's parents may be motivated to provide extra protection to the child based on their other-regarding preferences, but these are (1) limited and (2) secondary.

(I say limited because I don't want to protect the other-regarding preferences of, say, Jehovah's Witnesses who don't want their children to undergo certain medical procedures).

Doctor Spurt said...

Isn't it just a fact that some of our preferences concern others? I take it we agree about that much. I don't want it to turn out that all such concerns are illegitimate is all. The fanatics seem typically to think that they have some kind of entitlement to interfere, which I want to reject without having to give up on the legitimacy of all other-regarding preferences.
I prefer to steer clear of the case of children, and others with reduced autonomy because there are special complications there. But the volunteer who helps out with disaster relief, and helps people who are grateful for the effort, shouldn't turn out to be in the same class as the fanatic who, for example, wants to stop two gay people she doesn't even know from living together...

Michael Meadon said...

I don't think we disagree. My point is simply that self-regarding preferences trump other-regarding preferences. Indeed, a large class of other-regarding preferences (i.e. that homosexual people don't have sex) are entirely illegitimate. That doesn't mean other-regarding prefs don't exist or should never be taken into account, it's just that, as you point out correctly, a charity does not get to force someone to use a bednet if they don't want to.