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Should skepticism be divorced from values? PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by D.J. Grothe   

An argument that I have heard a number of earnest skeptics make is that skepticism and values are like oil and water: they don’t mix, or that they shouldn’t even if they could. 

I disagree. I’d argue that the fact/value distinction in the philosophy of science is rather unlike the skepticism/value distinction that some well-meaning skeptics marshall.  Skepticism is itself a value, and human values strongly motivate the work of the skeptic, and cannot — indeed, must not — be separated from the skeptical enterprise.

I made the case when I gave the keynote address at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism last year that “Skepticism is a Humanism.” I argued in that speech that skepticism is about important moral values that matter to us. A number of other skeptic leaders make the same kind of case, including Tim Farley’s WhatsTheHarm.net and Robert Lancaster’s StopSylviaBrown.com, Randi in his books, and Carl Sagan. As skeptics, we want to expose the harm of unfounded belief to public scrutiny, and we want to stop celebrity psychics like Sylvia Brown, James Van Praagh and their ilk, precisely because our ethics motivate us to challenge harmful belief, not just because we happen to think they are merely factually incorrect about the claims they make.

Skepticism is more than you think 

Skepticism is not just about rejecting other people’s false or unwarranted beliefs, even though for most people, that’s about all that it amounts to: “I’m skeptical of your claim; I’m a skeptic and I’m right — you’re not a skeptic and you’re wrong,” whether you’re talking about ghosts or UFOs or Bigfoot or CAM or any of the myriad other claims that attract skeptics’ attention. 

The definition of skepticism as merely the rejection of others' false beliefs doesn’t go far enough for me. I think skepticism is best when it is self-applied, and when it is not just used as a weapon to bonk others in the head. The method of skepticism — a method of finding out the truth by using reason and and looking at evidence — should be widely applied, and not just be restricted to a limited set of spooky claims. When seen in this way, skepticism is continuous with critical thinking, and is an important way of practicing a kind of intellectual self-defense. As an example, think of going car shopping. Smart and savvy people will get a mechanic to take a look at a used car before buying it, or at least lift the hood and kick the tires themselves to make sure it is a good deal. So if it is smart to use critical thinking and skepticism when buying something like a car, why not also use it to take a very close, skeptical look before buying someone else’s opinion, in order to make sure that it is also worthwhile, and that it holds up under scrutiny? In this sense, skepticism is the kind of practice that works for everybody, and not just the science-minded Capital S “Skeptic.” The real point here is that it should be widely applied in one's life, and not just exclusively in one area like the paranormal. It is true that at the JREF we focus on the paranormal and pseudoscience — that's our unique and important mission — but I think everyone benefits when they apply skepticism and critical thinking to all the claims they hear on a daily basis, whether they come from the paranormalists, the media, politicians, religionists or the corporations. 

But I submit that the most important way of thinking about skepticism is to explore the values question that some folks want to remove from discussions of the skeptical enterprise. What brings self-identified skeptics together in this fledgling but growing worldwide movement is not just a shared commitment to a method of inquiry that is based on evidence.  Skeptics come together to organize because there are real problems in the world resulting from undue credulity — and these are the problems that we are trying to fix. Through our skepticism (call this “movement skepticism”), we are trying to make the world a better place. We are responding to an ethical imperative that most all of us feel — its something we express when we rage against a huckster or a charlatan. This ethical imperative to do something about all these harmful nonsense beliefs is certainly not divorced from our skepticism. Instead, these ethical motivations actually seem to fuel most of our activity in skepticism.

Skepticism Is All About Human Values

Skepticism is about what is right and what is wrong in the moral sense, not just in the epistemological sense. Some examples: 

  • When we get riled up as skeptics because a huckster is peddling quack medicine, it is because quack medicine harms people and we know that that is wrong. If the majority of people believe in the ability of a TV preacher to supernaturally heal their illnesses, there are potentially real-world disastrous consequences: the believers don't go to medical doctors, and can get sicker or die as a result, not to mention that they get swindled from their money and are often the least able to afford such huckstering. 

  • The same is true for unfounded belief in homeopathy, or the belief that vaccines should be avoided because they are dangerous — there is absolutely no scientific evidence for these beliefs, and if you assent to them, you could be harmed.  We know it is morally wrong to peddle quackery and supernatural belief that results in believers getting sick or dying. 

  • If military officials believe that the ADE 651, which is nothing more than a glorified dowsing rod, actually detects bombs, and the device is used in Iraq or other theaters of war, it isn't only the fact that some fraudster gets rich by selling a fake product to the tune of over $90 million that enrages us as skeptics, but the fact that real people can die as a result of putting faith in these fake bomb detectors. We know it is wrong to let people die because of a scam. 

  • If people believe a psychic medium is talking to their deceased loved-ones, when instead the psychic is just using old magician methods of cold-reading to beguile their customers, or “hot-reading” by being pumped information about their clients through an earpiece or headset and then claiming it came from a supernatural or occult source, skeptics get riled not just because the fake psychic is bilking the gullible public out of their money dishonestly, but because the believers experience other real harm as a result: they get stuck in their grief, and often refuse to go through the healthy but hard process of dealing with the loss of a loved-one. As skeptics, we know that it is morally wrong to inspire belief in clients that they are talking to their deceased relatives. 

Skeptics care about these issues precisely because of our values, and not at all because skepticism is divorced from human values.

Randi is the perfect example in this regard. Early on in his life, it was Randi’s moral intuitions (maybe it is better to think in terms of his righteous indignation) that motivated his skepticism. When, as a teenager, he busted a minister who was using a magic trick during a Spiritualist church service in Toronto, it was because Randi knew the scam was morally wrong. When, years later, he exposed the televangelist Peter Popoff cheating his congregation by using a magic trick (a wireless earpiece) to make it seem like the Holy Spirit was revealing hidden details of their lives, when it was in fact his wife feeding him the information from backstage, Randi was not motivated merely to correct something that was untrue, but was motivated to right a wrong. What such cheats do hurts people, and that harm motivates Randi to help. It motivates Randi because his skepticism is fueled by his values, and they certainly aren’t separate.

Randi’s skepticism is all about the morality of these issues. For him, skepticism is as much about right versus wrong as it is about true and false. And I think it is the same for the rest of us, mostly.

 

D.J. Grothe is President of the James Randi Educational Foundation.

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Another attempt at skeptics to kick out those that don't agree with the politics., Lowly rated comment [Show]
The Moral Obligation to be Skeptical
written by JamesTTodd, September 28, 2011
Mr. Grothe:

Randi is an excellent example of your point. He is one in a storied tradition.

If we go back to 1805, we find William Frederick Pinchbeck's, The Expositor, the first conjuring book written and produced in North America. In it, Pinchbeck exposed a number of tricks that had been adopted by hucksters and fakes, including a method to simulate genuine communication when there is only signaling. That is, in 1805, Pinchbeck had already described the basic elements of the modern-day autism ruses Facilitated Communication and Rapid Prompting--things Randi continues the fight against.

The sentiment of your essay, skepticism as a value, is well expressed in Pinchbeck's preface:

"The intention of this work was not only to amuse and instruct, but also to convince superstition of her many ridiculous errors,--to show the disadvantages arising to society from a vague as well as irrational belief of man's intimacy with familiar spirits,--to oppose the idea of supernatural agency in any production of man,--and lastly, how dangerous such a belief is to society, how destructive to the improvement of the human capacity, and how totally ruinous to the common interests of mankind." (p. 2)

To this we might add John Erskine's 1915 essay, "The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent." The title says it all.

James T. Todd, Ph.D.
Eastern Michigan University
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written by GrandEloquence, September 28, 2011
One, why do you insist on spelling Grothe's name wrong? That is weird. Two, he didn't mention politics orkicking anyone out of the organization at all. That is weird hand-waving, and changing the subject. From my perspective he just seems to be saying that skeptics focus on the harm of quack beliefs because of their values. How can you disagree with that!
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written by Lord Kenneth, September 28, 2011
I misread the name the first time I wrote it down--I'm standing a distance away from my TV, so forgive me.

Skeptics already do focus on the harm of the beliefs. What is the point of this editorial, then? Why advocate what nobody disagrees with? If anything Mr. Grothe is just attacking a strawman; nobody is talking about downplaying the harm of things like homeopathy and the believe in psychic powers. This is no more correct than claiming that science is about "helping people" or "humanity," perhaps that is an intended goal a lot of people share while getting into science, perhaps it is a prime motivator, but these motives do not have to be the exclusive ones or dominant in every individual. If "skepticism" includes a shared moral code, then a "true skeptic" has to be someone that advocates skepticism for the benefit of humankind. That's abusing the commonplace meaning of the term. Is anyone *actually* advocating that we downplay the harm of pseudoscience and quack "medicine?" Using that as a rhetorical point or motivation is different from (for example) requiring people to take particular policy stances to remain a good and proper "skeptic."

I've seen enough skeptics describe certain beliefs strictly on the "value" side of the fact/value description as "woo" and "unskeptical" on the JREF forums. And I sure as hell am not the only one to note how some skeptics try to inject politics into the movement. Am I really supposed to believe that this isn't another case of that?

Hopefully Grothe is just confused over what it means for skepticism to also be "about" certain moral inclinations and for skeptics to have certain motivations for their advocacy of skeptism. The two ARE different things. And Grothe has no right to proclaim that all skeptics are motivated out of a moral code anyway. Again, perhaps some people are just motivated out of an entirely personal love of truth and knowledge and the spread of both thereof.
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written by Lord Kenneth, September 28, 2011
I had another paragraph written up but due to some bug or something it didn't post or I can't see it. In any case, Grothe is attacking a strawman, nobody is claiming that skepticism shouldn't be used in informing one's values--and that's a very different thing from saying that skepticism is about a particular set of values. It's not. One can be a skeptic and have entirely selfish and/or personal motivations, such as a simple love of truth and knowledge and the spread of both thereof, with an apathy for whether or not any particular thing they are skeptical about could be harmful to another person. He has no right to speak for other skeptics in regard to this. Just because many or most skeptics are specifically motivated by the potential for harm on certain issues does not mean skepticism itself contains any particular set of values. You might as well claim atheism is about a set of values, as well, because many atheists are concerned with the perceived harm or hindrance of progress caused by religion.
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written by GrandEloquence, September 28, 2011
LOL he isn't saying skepticism informs our value judgements but instead (as I understand it anyway) that our values motivate our skepticism and that therefore the two can't be separated. Did you even read his entire article??

Oh and by the way voting down a comment is not intolerance it is disagreement.
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"Randi’s skepticism is all about the morality of these issues", Lowly rated comment [Show]
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written by Lord Kenneth, September 28, 2011
What do you base your like/dislike of broccoli on?
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written by GrandEloquence, September 28, 2011
Lord Kenneth, he isn't telling you what motivates your skepticism (who knows why you care about skepticism, maybe it is just because you like telling everyone else they are wrong?), he is, and I quote, saying "RANDI'S skepticism is all about the morality of these issues" and that for Randi, "skepticism is as much about right versus wrong as it is about true and false." And he says he thinks it is the same for other skeptics, MOSTLY. Your obviously just being argumentative here.
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written by Lord Kenneth, September 28, 2011
No, GrandEloquence, he's using Randi as an example for his argument, he's not really arguing anything about Randi himself.

Didn't you just state that he was arguing that we're skeptics because of our moral values? Now you're backpedaling to oppose anything I say.
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written by lytrigian, September 28, 2011
Oh and by the way voting down a comment is not intolerance it is disagreement.

No, it's intolerance.

Intolerance isn't always a bad thing. Votes down should be applied to clearly fallacious arguments, insults, poor expression, or seriously deranged facts. That's why comments with enough down votes are hidden. You don't hide a comment because you disagree with it. You hide it because it's a poor comment. That's good. We should be intolerant of comments that aren't useful contributions to the conversation.

If you merely disagree, don't vote to partly censor the comment. Offer counterarguments. Voting down so that the comment is eventually hidden amounts to shouting a speaker down, not refuting him.

Not that Kenneth is correct. Once a person starts saying that another has no "right" to say this or that, they've already lost.
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written by daveg703, September 28, 2011
To state with certainty that a simple numerical change of minus one represents "intolerance" for some, "disagreement" for others, when there is absolutely no background of explanation nor context in which to evaluate the motivation, would seem to represent a claim of psychic infallibility. Who let THEM in, anyway? smilies/sad.gif
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written by Bernard L, September 28, 2011
@Davis
Again, what is the ultimate source of morality for an atheist?
This argument stems from the definitional move which goes like this: God is the ultimate source/very essence of morality - if there is no god or belief in god, there is no ultimate source of morality. Hence morality comes from god and Athiests have no "ultimate source of morality".
I would encourage you to read Sam Harris - "The Moral Landscape"
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written by lytrigian, September 28, 2011
To state with certainty that a simple numerical change of minus one represents "intolerance" for some, "disagreement" for others, when there is absolutely no background of explanation nor context in which to evaluate the motivation, would seem to represent a claim of psychic infallibility.

For my own part, no. It was a judgment based on the cumulative effect of a large number of downvotes. Whatever the individual intent of a downvote, lots of them, in the end, have an effect indistinguishable from intolerance. Ducks, and all that.

If a comment gets a large enough negative score, then it's hidden. You can see it if you want, but it's hidden by default. Is mere general disagreement sufficient reason to gag an opinion? I think its fairly clear that it ought not be. Refutation, yes. Counterargument, yes. Civil discussion yes. But shutting down those with whom we disagree just BECAUSE we disagree gets us nowhere. Not one of us is infallible. We're not even collectively infallible. That kind of thing is for churches and their dogmas, not human beings who disclaim divine guidance. The truly open-minded person must be prepared to be shown that he's wrong.

I would therefore hope that this comment board is not set up as it is in order to shut down dissent from the consensus. There are those you DO want to shut down though: the uncivil, the repetitious, the fraudsters, the advertisers, and so on. These are things we might reasonably choose not to tolerate. We can either rely on the admins for that. Or, we can vote them down.
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written by mariamyrback, September 28, 2011
Since this has been a heated debate, are there any posts you all would like me to republish (aka: make visible again)?

Leave a comment here and let me know.
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Skepticism and Morality.....Having some Fun with Words at the Expense of Reason (or, Why you Kant get there from here)
written by feldesq, September 28, 2011
D.J.’s essay suggests that skepticism is no more (nor less) than a human
value.
What’s essentially missing here, however, is a useful definition of the term
value.
D.J. equates value with morality. To establish moral values humans use various frames of reference, the most common being religious ones. With few exceptions, religious frames of reference are faith-based, derived from magical thinking and base emotions. Emmanuel Kant’s categorical imperative (just to enter a different frame of reference for a moment) proposes that the moral imperative is reason. Here too we run into issues with definitions, but, if we view reason as a process (not a value in and of itself), we don’t run into the problem that D.J. creates for skepticism.

I view skepticism as a way of reasoning, a methodology, an magnificent instrument derived from that other magnificent instrument, the human brain. It is a way of thinking about things, not a thing in itself. Like its corollary, the scientific method, skepticism is a mental tool for analyzing reality. It is not a value per se (though we skeptics may count it among our most prized and valuable possessions).

The three examples of Randi’s achievements in the field of claims examination, and the resultant exposes of these particular deceits, are extremely laudable, but hardly do these examples reveal any essential values (though they are essentially valuable!)

While it may be fun to tinker with such notions (skepticism as a value), I think we risk diverting our attention from the more critical battles for the minds of the masses (or at least for the minds of the predisposed – a very good place to start). If we promote skepticism as a methodology, a process, a way of searching for truth, a path toward a more accurate view of reality, a tool for honing in on truth, and a means to an end, we can provisionally agree that the end we seek is moral (has some form of ultimate value – is a moral imperative), said end being an understanding of reality and a basis for arriving at truth. Those who would argue that it is immoral to seek to understand reality and or arrive at the truth (think Genesis, think the
tree of wisdom
for starters), may be relegated to a minority (though this was certainly not the historic case). If we must assert some value to skepticism, why not let it stop there (provisionally, at least)?

Some may argue that I too have fallen prey to definition problems (or semantic ones). But, if we can be somewhat comfortable with this notion (our value resides in an effective, perhaps the most effective, means at understanding reality and arriving at truth), we can deem such a value a denouement (and then drop the subject).
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written by popsaw, September 28, 2011
I do not see skepticism and values as related since skepticism is evidence based whilst values are personal and will differ between two skeptics.
Take for instance recreational drug use such as cannabis. There are no doubt many skeptices that would hold that it is 'their body' and as long as nobody else is harmed why should it be wrong or immoral to use cannabis in a recreational capacity?
Other skeptics may be completely against this freedom of choice, preferring to keep such practice unlawful and in the realms of the socially unacceptable. This is clearly a question of values that cannot be reconciled using skepticism.
Then we have the minefield of abortion, conscientious objection in war and sex before marriage. All matters of 'personal values' which skepticism cannot possibly reconcuile or provide guidance.
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written by Puddinhead, September 29, 2011
Feldesq,

I don't know that I would call skepticism "a way of reasoning" or "a way of thinking about things". Skepticism is simply an attitude which values logic, reason, science, and fact as appropriate tools and methods (ways of thinking about things) for arriving at an objective grasp on reality.

Popsaw,

While reason, logic, science, and fact do not lie solely in the dominion of those of us who self identify as "skeptics" (this being a claim akin to morality being the exclusive charge of religion), I'd suggest that our valuing these tools and methods is a defining characteristic of skepticism. To me, the question becomes, without these tools, how does one make a value judgement or arrive at a sense of morality? From my perspective, your example of smoking herb argues the exact opposite of your framing of it. People will certainly hold opinions about damn near anything, but unless those opinions can be defended, unless reasons can be given to support those opinions, the opinions are not of much worth.

Even the most ardent fundamentalist will defend their beliefs and moral judgements with reason and what they perceive as facts. The difficult part is getting them to acknowledge what, in actuality, constitutes fact. You will even, at times, get VALID arguments in defense of their position. What's important to recognize is that they are not SOUND arguments because they are ultimately based on unfounded assumptions about the existence of god.

I agree there is an issue of semantics here. The very nature of skepticism is to assess the value of a given claim or perspective. But since skepticism is not exclusively applied to issues of morality, or assessing the value of our Values, I agree that the term "skepticism" can not be said to be inextricably linked to morality. However, the tools and methods of the skeptic certainly play an inextricable role in moral judgement and how we value our Values.

I think DJ's perspective here has a great deal of merit.
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written by Lord Kenneth, September 29, 2011
"I would encourage you to read Sam Harris - "The Moral Landscape" "

The fact that you clowns think Sam Harris has anything insightful to say about ethics pretty much reveals how little you guys understand about this issue. Sam Harris's views on morality borderline hilarity and the only reason an atheist thinks he says anything of substance is through severe ignorance and a dogmatic love of the "famous names" of the atheist movement. Why exactly do we pay attention to Sam Harris, again, when he is an atheist famous for... being an atheist? What?! If you want a decent account of morality, look up emotivism.

I AM correct here, and if you think DJ's rather obvious point even comes close to addressing what people are actually saying when they say that skepticism and morality/values should not mix, then you're part of the problem. DJ's throwing out something that nobody disagrees with and is pretending he's providing a counter-argument when he's not. If he wants to win he has to start playing in the same ball game.

Also, guys, read feldesq's response, he actually has something to say here--skepticism, like science, is a "methodology" (I would prefer "attitude," myself) of sorts.
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written by Lord Kenneth, September 29, 2011
Also, popsaw totally gets it. Right on target.

The moral realism within the skeptic movement could entertain me for ages. Do you guys even recognize what sorts of metaphysical commitments you hold when you hold moral realist positions?

lytrigian:

Words have multiple connotations and meaning, sometimes they differ ever-so-subtly that most people fool themselves or others through a sort of equivocation that occurs in one's cognitive faculties by not recognizing that words mean different things. When one claims that one does not have the "right" to say something, they may mean that they do not have the proper authority or understanding to say one thing or another, that they have not established themselves as a proper reporter of truth, or such. I hope you can learn to grasp this difference!
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written by lytrigian, September 29, 2011
@Kenneth -- You said this on more than once occasion. At least once, yes, it carried the connotation you describe here, but not always.
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written by lytrigian, September 29, 2011
Those who would argue that it is immoral to seek to understand reality and or arrive at the truth (think Genesis, think the "tree of wisdom" for starters)

See, it's things like this that so often make it impossible to take a skeptical critique of religion seriously. I know of no tradition, Jewish, Christian, or otherwise, who reads Gen 3 as declaring it immoral to "understand reality and or [sic] arrive at the truth".

Religion is far from beyond critique, but do please critique the real thing and not a version which, if not actually a straw man, is held by such a small minority as to not be worth considering.
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quick response
written by djgrothe, September 29, 2011
I appreciate the comments here. Allow me a short break from work for a quick response:

First, the randi.org website is currently being redesigned, and like other commenters on my posthere, I do not favor the down votes on comments resulting in low-rated comments becoming hidden. This functionality won't be carried over to the new site.

Second, to feldesq: the term "value" in the field of ethics, when used as a noun, refers to the worth of something in terms of figuring out what one ought to do. That is, it is an action that is deemed desirable or worth doing. In this sense, skepticism is a value in and of itself, preferred above the alternatives, even if it is also valued as an instrument to get other moral goods or values (health, truth, etc., etc.). But the point of my post obviously is not to sort out the 2,000 year old debate as to whether there is such a thing as intrinsic value. The point of my post is that the skepticism as practiced by the "skeptics movement" is also motivated by human values, namely the ethical imperative to reduce harm.

You say that with few exceptions, ethics are derived from "magical thinking and base emotions." In fact, there is a long tradition in both Eastern and Western intellectual history of secular ethical thinking. You mention Kant's deontological thinking as an example, but there are countless other alternatives, none of which are based in supernaturalism or magical thinking. I personally favor a kind of consequentialism, but that is of no consequence for the basic argument I'm making in the post, which is that our skepticism should not be separated from our values. As I say in the post: skepticism is as much about right and wrong in the moral sense as it is in the epistemological sense.

You say that Randi's skeptical triumphs do not "reveal any essential values." While I'm only guessing as to what you might mean by "essential values" (you didn't define the nonstandard term), in fact, Randi's skeptical activism does demonstrate some of his values (or you can say "ethics," or you can say "humanism," which I'd define as a set of secular values that prize human well-being, etc.): these values that his skepticism demonstrate include reducing the harm that results from undue credulity. Randi's values say that the consequences of unwarranted belief are harmful, and that we have an obligation to respond, especially when the harm can easily be avoided, and so there is an ethical imperative to work to reduce the harm. The best method we know of reducing that harm is skepticism.

You talk about skepticism as a method. Indeed! As I say above in the post: "The method of skepticism (is) a method of finding out the truth by using reason and and looking at evidence." Again, I merely argue, contra some other increasingly vocal skeptics, that the motivation for applying such a method to claims is an ethical motivation, and that it is not just a motivation to be correct. Organized skepticism isn't practiced in a value-neutral vacuum. Indeed, we often apply skepticism to paranormal and pseudoscientific claims precisely for ethical considerations.

Third, to popsaw: I whole-heartedly agree with you that not all ethical commitments, especially those surrounding social issues like abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, etc., should become part of the more limited scope of "organized skepticism." The JREF's mission is to apply skepticism to paranormal and pseudoscientific claims in the public interest. Many allies of this important work would get bogged down in disagreements on social issues if we diverted our attention from this important and under-served mission onto more widely attended social issues where people of good will can and do disagree ("culture war" issues, as an example). And so we remain focused on our limited mission, unapologetically. That said, organized skepticism can have an important role to play when pseudoscience is used to support certain positions regarding controversial social issues, such as when religious ideologues use junk pseudoscience to argue against gay rights.

Fourth, to Lord Kenneth: No one has argued for "moral realism," much less that one should derive one's values from skepticism, nor that there can be a "science of ethics." I only argue contra some folks that human values undergird or motivate the actions of most skeptics. One surely doesn't need to buy any particular secular ethics, neither cognitivist views like moral realism, nor deontological systems like Kant, nor utilitarian/consequentialist views, etc. in order to have ethical motivations to advance skepticism in our society. Indeed, there are many religious people who are motivated in this way to advance skeptical inquiry to paranormal and pseudoscientific claims.
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Davis,
written by Puddinhead, September 29, 2011
Your question about "If atheists don't believe in god, what keeps them from just killing everyone they want to" is one of the oldest and saddest examples of rhetoric presented in an attempt to necessitate god. The question assumes that humans are born with some default setting which obligates them to kill everyone and that they can only overcome this through some imaginary divine mandate. Perhaps, instead, you should grant people the de novo realization that murder is absurd, and accept that an individual generally needs to convince them self (or be convinced) that they have ample reason to kill another person. You go at it from this angle and the question becomes not "why don't atheists kill everyone" to "how can anyone justify murder to them self or others? How can anyone justify the notion that their personal consciousness and their own interests are more important than another person's existence?"

Do you think Germany would have allowed Hitler to do what he did if all involved had been reasonable people challenged to justify their claims of genetic and nationalistic superiority? Those claims fall apart really quickly under the scalpel of any logical assessment. The Holocaust occurred because people wanted to believe someone else was responsible for all of their problems. Had Hitler been forced to justify his claims of inferiority and fault with factual evidence, the Holocaust would likely never have happened. Too bad people are more easily swayed by fairy tales.

But Hitler takes a lot of heat and has become a cliche when it comes to validating arguments pertaining to evil. I think there is even a "Hitler fallacy" commonly employed in arguments attempting to establish absolutes of morality, though I don't think I'm relying on it to make my point here. Anyhow, let's give Hitler a rest and look at the one construct that has, throughout history, had the greatest success at enticing people to murder others en mass: religion. Not only does it teach fear, hatred, and violence, even glorifying genocide, but it intentionally undermines reason and strips people of their ability to think critically and challenge its adulation of these most base attributes of humanity. Do you think the crusades would have ever occurred had the masses been educated and stood up to the church to ask "and we're going to do this why?". Oh yeah, imaginary sky daddy told you to tell us to go do it. Roger.

Given the pertinent facts, only the honest application of reason can yield a true appreciation of justice. It is perhaps the greatest tragedy of human nature that we don't challenge ourselves to understand morality, but instead rely on childish mythology to merely dictate what is right and wrong.
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@puddinhead
written by Davis, September 30, 2011
Thanks for the response, but please answer the question. You basically believe that over the eons, based upon some grand trial and error, humans have finally discovered the proper way to treat each other. I assume we evolved this morality as a defense mechanism or because it somehow appears to be the most beneficial to our species. Tim McVeigh must not have read your brochure. He believed he had the authority to make society better and he acted upon it. Who gives you the right to believe your morality is superior to his? Majority rules? Thats fine when the majority is correct, but not so good when they are wrong. But not to worry- according to you morality just comes naturally to our species. Ain't evolution great?
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written by feldesq, September 30, 2011
Tricky thing, this term "values." Essentially what I am stating is that I think we (in terms of a movement) are best if we avoid value debates (and sun-debates involving skeptics and atheism) and focus our attention on the core benefits to society of skepticism. These value-heavy debates and sub-issues like atheism are worth investing discussion time and are enjoyable (especially for me); however, I am always trying to further the movement towards a reasoning world, and anything that may work as a distraction or worse, a divisive point, I try to avoid or critique from that standpoint. No other offense intended.
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@feldesq
written by Davis, September 30, 2011
I wish atheism was a "sub-issue" to skepticism but its not. JREF promotes itself as a skeptic organization but it is amazing how often the topic of atheism is discussed. Obviously, its Randi's site and he do as he chooses but atheism the most important tenet of his skepticism. (He has even stated this.) JREF has been a great benefit to me personally over the years. I have found useful information to educate (or at least attempt to educate) friends and family on subjects such as homeopathy, UFOS, dowsing, sham products and quackery. But we agree to disagree on atheism and its role in skepticism.
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written by Puddinhead, September 30, 2011
Davis,

That's not what I said. If you want to argue a straw man, well... have fun talking to yourself. How do McVeigh's actions invalidate a system of morality? He obviously didn't learn what he was supposed to from the bible either so, using your logic, christian morality must be void as well. It's a non sequitur.

Your original question was "what is the ultimate source of morality for an atheist?". Depends on the atheist. All I'm suggesting is that it is possible for a person to make sound moral decisions based solely on reason. As long as you don't make any unfounded assumptions about the value of your self-interests relative to the value of another person's well being. It's the very same notion that lies at the core of "do unto others" (which, before you suggest it, is not a notion monopolized by christianity, but rather a perfectly logical conclusion regarding the value of my life relative to another), it is impossible to convince oneself that "I" have the right to abuse or kill anyone. It's pretty simple.

The power of the humanist approach is that it relies on a self-consistent understanding of morality and the consequence of actions, and that's it. It requires no self-serving delusional misinterpretation of mandates spewing from some esoteric mythology of dubious authority. The beauty of it is that, once you realize the absurdity of abusing others, you don't have to consciously go through any series of logical arguments to talk yourself out of doing anything. You simply recognize it as a universal principle and, wouldn't you know it, you've got morality. There are loads of us who embrace this idea, and we do just fine.

In McVeigh's case, I'm certain we can find all sorts of flaws in the reasoning he used to justify his actions.
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written by RichVR, September 30, 2011
First, the randi.org website is currently being redesigned, and like other commenters on my posthere, I do not favor the down votes on comments resulting in low-rated comments becoming hidden. This functionality won't be carried over to the new site.


Too bad. I won't be coming back then. To much noise to information here already. Good luck.
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written by lytrigian, September 30, 2011
Do you think the crusades would have ever occurred had the masses been educated and stood up to the church to ask "and we're going to do this why?".

Really, invoking the Crusades in an argument like this isn't much better than invoking Hitler. It's simply not true that the Roman Church had all the military powers of Europe at its beck and call. It could cajole, manipulate, wheedle, and threaten, but it could not simply order. The Crusades would not have happened without the promise of loot and territory to go with them.

It's hard for us to grasp now, but wars of aggression were actually pretty popular back then. Ordinary life was unpleasant enough, and risky enough, that war wasn't all that much more unpleasant or risky, and carried with it the promise of significant reward if you were successful. The Hundred Years' War did not last for 116 years because England was THAT MAD at France, but because everyone from commoners up to the kings involved loved the loot. In the end the Crusades weren't that much different.
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written by Lord Kenneth / Kenneth Kaczor, September 30, 2011
---> "I only argue contra some folks that human values undergird or motivate the actions of most skeptics."

Yeah, but who is *actually* arguing against this? I think you are misinterpreting what people are saying when they argue that skepticism should be divorced from values, because I highly doubt anyone is arguing against *that* statement. Given a few of the responses here and on facebook, I know I am not the only one that reads "divorcing skepticism from values" in an entirely different context from merely the motivations of skeptics themselves. It seems like you are (unintentionally) shifting between two different arguments--that skeptics are *motivated* by (a generally overlapping) set of moral principles, and that skepticism per se regards some particular set of values. You may not actually be doing this, or may not intend to be doing this, but we are all potentially weak to equivocating to ourselves. I find it to be one of the most insidious forms of fallacy as it can be one of the hardest to recognize.

There is a particular reason that the comparison to science and the fact/value distinction is brought up, and you addressed that, but not in a way I found that hit upon what I think the real argument actually is. If this was a question of merely what motivates skeptics, then there would be no need to bring up the fact/value distinction, as indeed what one's motives are is a fact, or stating what one's values are is a fact; again, I point to my argument regarding comparing skepticism and science and the motivations of scientists versus what is meant when one claims that "science is value-free" (or tries to be). (Note that I am ignoring the issue on whether epistemological claims themselves are inherently ethical ones, but that's another can of worms.) I have difficulty believing people are seriously arguing that ethical considerations are not a motivating factor for most skeptics... it's obviously wrong, and a moot point at that. Let us go back to your opening sentence: "an argument that I have heard a number of earnest skeptics make is that skepticism and values are like oil and water: they don’t mix, or that they shouldn’t even if they could. " Note that the words "skepticism" and "values" are employed, not "skeptics" and "values."

---> "No one has argued for "moral realism," much less that one should derive one's values from skepticism, nor that there can be a "science of ethics." "

Those who cite Sam Harris actually are; there is a surprising number of skeptics and atheists that believe in a "science of morality" and there is even a rather long wikipedia page on the subject. Apparently even Dawkins buys into it, and the argument is rather poor, Dawkins stating, "once one defines the moral goal as maximizing the wellbeing of creatures, science has much to say about what is actually morally good." Of course, I hope you recognize that they simply shift the subjectivity of the word "good" to the word "wellbeing"--such a term, "wellbeing," does not help me decide if I should (for example) prefer healthy foods to live longer or eat whatever I want and enjoy the moment, or whether others should. A shame Dawkins got suckered into such silliness... Of course I am digressing a bit...

Indeed, among a few of my own friends on facebook this exact phenomenon has become a recurring joke in our status feeds, a running gag of sorts where we poke fun at Harris and his argument. I'm certainly not the only one that reads that line of argumentation that way...
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written by Puddinhead, September 30, 2011
Yeah, I was thinking about the Crusades being as hackneyed as the Hitler argument when I was writing that, but I was only using it as an example and not as the crux of my argument. That being said, you might have a difficult time defending the notion that the crusades were less about a papal mandate, blind piety, and indulgences offered for service, and more about the desire of Europeans to walk several thousand miles to steal stuff.

Granted, there was more going on there than simply the driving force of church doctrine, but in reference to my earlier post, the point remains that murder and all sorts of abuse of human beings were initiated, officially sanctioned by, and actively encouraged by the church over the course of 200 years. It simply stands as an example of the laughably empty claims of religious moral authority; a point which I feel was certainly pertinent in my response to Davis.
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written by Lord Kenneth / Kenneth Kaczor, September 30, 2011
"Too bad. I won't be coming back then. To much noise to information here already. Good luck. "

Downvote/upvote systems inevitably lead to echo chambers. Just look at reddit. I understand that the feeling of validation from reading people agree with you is pleasant, but it's hardly helpful.
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written by latsot, October 04, 2011
My skepticism is something I seem to have developed at a very early age, to the consternation of my parents.

My skeptical activism developed later as a response to injustice. I don't like people getting hurt, bullied, swindled or brainwashed. This is a product of my values: since I know that ideas such as homoeopathy are scams, I can't sit around and do nothing while people are conned, perhaps harmfully.

But that's what motivates me. Other people may differ. Still others agree in principle, but their values differ. For example, I'm strongly in favour of applying skeptical thinking to religion, where others prefer religion to have a free pass in the name of diplomacy.

I don't think these differences in opinion matter in the slightest unless one group tries to force their opinions on others. We've seen this happen quite a lot in the 'accommodationism' debate, for example. Various influential people have told those of us who are wilfully antagonistic to religion to shut up because - according to them - we're not helping. I'd be just as critical if this were the other way around and influential people were suggesting that accommodationists don't belong in the skeptical or atheist communities. It takes all sorts and either strategy and everything in between is bound to be helpful to someone. There's no need for a party line.

DJ isn't suggesting a party line. He isn't suggesting that anyone be excluded from the skeptical community for any particular value they might hold (although there are certainly some values that are incompatible with skepticism).

He's saying that values among skeptics are something we should... well.... value. Because values are the things that call us to activism. They're the things that make us persist in our efforts even when at times it seems futile.

If we're to build a skeptical movement then it's sensible and possibly even essential to harness the things skeptics care about. What DJ doesn't really talk about is what this might mean in practice.

I think it probably means calling people to action based on emotive issues. What kind of issues? How about worrying proposals to introduce Sharia Law in Britain? Or universities that offer degrees in nonsense? Or women who are accosted outside abortion clinics or doctors who are attacked and sometimes killed for carrying out abortions? What about laws that forbid homosexuals from marrying or having the same rights as a couple that heterosexuals enjoy by default? What about the media deliberately whipping up the faked experimental evidence of a man desperate for attention into a movement against vaccines?

We surely all differ in how much we care about these things and what we're prepared to do about them. But what they have in common is that a skeptical attitude can help us understand the issues more than an unskeptical one can.

OK, so what kind of actions are we talking about? What can we do in practice to make use of skeptical values?

This is where the skeptical sphere intersects the political. We can write to our representatives. We can form lobbies. We can campaign. And we can bring skeptics into those initiatives in two ways: our displeasure at people being wrong and our dismay at people being hurt.

It shouldn't matter whether we all agree with any or all of these issues or with the actions people are suggesting. We're all free to bring up our own issues and create our own responses to them and try to get people on board.

What matters, from the point of view of skeptical activism, is that issues that could use some skeptical expertise are disseminated within the skeptical community so that people can use their expertise to try to do something about them. There are lots of ways to ignore the posts about things we're personally not interested in.

Personally, I'd be happy to see organisations like the JREF point us to causes we might want to help with. I'd expect them to be truthful, but not to hold back on the sense of outrage or pain or helplessness felt by that organisation about that particular issue. We join and follow those organisations for a reason.

I agree with DJ that being a skeptic means more than the dictionary definition. It's a big part of our way of life and informs and is informed by our values. So let's harness values to make as much of a difference in the world as we can.
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written by latsot, October 04, 2011
BTW I don't understand what the votes on posts are telling us, so I doubt they are useful. It's often the posts people hate that stimulate discussion, so perhaps voting is also counter-productive.
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@Latsot
written by popsaw, October 04, 2011
"Or women who are accosted outside abortion clinics or doctors who are attacked and sometimes killed for carrying out abortions?"

The abortion issue is a moral matter, a question of right or wrong. How can skepticism which is fact based, establish whether abortion is moral or immoral? Surely it cannot. Surely, many skeptics themselves cannot agree on thie moral aspect of abortion
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written by latsot, October 04, 2011
@popsaw:

1. They are all moral issues, that was my point.

2. I didn't raise the issue of abortion, I raised the issue of people being attacked for having or carrying out abortions. Regardless of whether you agree with abortion and regardless of your reasons for that conclusion, it's difficult to argue that attacking people outside or inside abortion clinics is a rational response to personal opinion. Skepticism has a great deal to tell us about this kind of behaviour.

3. At no point did I argue that skepticism could establish whether abortion is moral. You must have been reading a completely different comment. However, I think skepticism can help us understand why we feel a particular way about issues like abortion. It can help us work out whether we need to know more about the biology or the sociology before we feel confident that we've made a good decision. Because the bread and butter of skepticism is questioning our own opinions and recognising our bias and ignorance.

Part of my point was that skeptics don't necessarily have to agree. We'll fight the battles that are important to us. But I think the skeptical community and organisations like the JREF have a role to play in bringing issues like these to our attention and perhaps helping to organise some responses. If we're not interested in a particular issue, disagree with the stance taken or the response proposed then so what? Just ignore that one or propose a different stance or response. Argue about it on skeptical forums. But I think its disingenuous to say that we have no fish to fry and that skepticism is separate from values.
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@Latsot
written by popsaw, October 04, 2011
Regardless of whether you agree with abortion and regardless of your reasons for that conclusion, it's difficult to argue that attacking people outside or inside abortion clinics is a rational response to personal opinion. Skepticism has a great deal to tell us about this kind of behaviour.

I don't see how skepticism is related to an issue of criminal behaviour, besides, hose skeptics that disapprove of abortion may condone mildly violent acts, believing the end justifies the means! At any rate, skepticism requires that evidence be produced to support claims. In the above case of an attack, there is no claim being made and therefore no case for skepticism to resolve., It is a matter for the law.


But I think its disingenuous to say that we have no fish to fry and that skepticism is separate from values.

Since skepticism, like science, relies on factand evidence, I see no relation with skepticism and human values which are more of a personal moral construct. For instance, if I covet my neighbors belongings , is this right or wrong? Can skepticism supply the answer?
Since values and morals are neither universal nor absolute, yet skepticism relies on absolute established truth and fact, I cannot see how skepticiam can be applied to values.
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Popsaw,
written by Puddinhead, October 04, 2011
While the relation between skepticism and morals is certainly worth discussing, we can probably come up with a better example than "coveting your neighbor's belongings". There is a difference between dealing with a problem of morality and making an appropriate decision and simply avoiding a problem of morality. All too often, religious constructs of morality and faith eschew actually dealing with challenges and simply preach avoidance. I'm sure many of us here have encountered the situation where we encourage a fundamentalist to read a book on science or philosophy, or to consider an insight which would cause a reasonable person to take pause, only to have them reply that they don't need to to be tempted by such heresy. Avoidance of temptation is not the same thing as having the strength to overcome temptation. I find faith founded in such avoidance to be a simple matter of convenience and arrogance and, indeed, not faith at all.

Likewise, the commandment of "thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's possessions" does nothing to address a moral decision but simply prescribes avoidance of a moral decision. There's nothing inherently wrong with wanting something that belongs to someone else**; it's what you actually do when you find yourself in a position to acquire the item in question that determines whether you are capable of making a moral decision. Once again, the decision can be made by simply "doing unto others" which, as outlined above, is a notion that is remarkably simple and perfectly logical.

**Of course,there is the notion that desire is the root of all suffering and it is, therefore, in and of itself immoral. Does simply ignoring desire because of a commandment really address the underlying weakness that leads to desire? Of course not. But honest introspection and reasoning about the nature of desire can certainly help one understand why they desire something they don't have and thereby realize the absurdity of it.

Again, skepticism is not necessarily employed to solve moral questions, but I find the defining tools of the skeptic to be far and away more fruitful than any dogmatic mandate when it comes to truly realizing the nature of right and wrong.
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written by latsot, October 04, 2011
@popsaw:

Well, each to their own, but to me it seems churlish to pass up the opportunity to do good things by hiding behind a dictionary definition.

But you seem determined to miss my point. I'm not suggesting that all skeptics should unite under shared moral codes or that skepticism as a movement should determine the morality of particular issues. I certainly have no interest (on this forum, at least) in trying to persuade anyone into one or another view of abortion or any other such topic.

I'm saying that there are some things that skeptics are likely to value quite highly. The most obvious one - and the thing that unites us all - is an interest in critical thinking. But there are others. For example, how many of us value science and education? Evidence-based politics? Perhaps skeptics as a group tend toward the more liberal end of the political and moral spectrum compared to groups who rely more on dogma and structured leadership. Perhaps we tend to be more sympathetic to issues involving the treatment of homosexuals or women or minorities not because we use our skeptical abilities to determine their morality, but simply because we can see that there's no good reason to discriminate.

I'm not suggesting that skeptics ought to share all or even any of these values: I'm suggesting there's a good chance that a skeptic picked at random will share some of them. Influential skeptics and skeptical groups can do good works by bringing issues to our attention which intersect with some of these values. For example, they might describe the plight of women in countries like Saudi Arabia. They might explain what we can do about it, either by posting links or promoting or organising collective activism. I think a lot of skeptics would be interested and want to help because as skeptics we know that there's no good reason for women to be treated in this way.

This kind of activity draws on both the fact of our skepticism to recognise that an injustice exists and on our values in wanting to do something about it. It doesn't mean we all have to share the same values or that we need a party line on questions of morality.

We're skeptics partly because we value the truth. We become skeptical activists because we value other things too. We use our skepticism and its many tools to perceive injustice and fight against it. While skepticism can remain separate from value in principle, in practice it does not. Nor, I think, should it.
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values-driven?
written by @blamer, October 05, 2011
Your personal skepticism needn't be values-driven, but Skepticism must be to be an activist movement. It values social progress based on academia. Plenty don't care for that at all. Hence the activism.
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