Thursday, December 31, 2009

Comedy, Tragedy and Tragicomedy

This post is part of a series I am doing on the Shakespearean comedies. The series is purely an exercise in self-indulgence: I want to explore for myself the humanistic and philosophic themes that are illustrated in Shakespeare's comedies. If you want to come along for the ride, feel free.

This introductory post explains the differences between tragedies and comedies and looks at how Shakespeare blends elements of both.

I am basing my comments largely on an essay by Helen Gardner. I found this in the Signet Classic edition of As You Like It.  The Signet editions are my preferred editions of Shakespeare. They provide good introductions, historical background and critical commentary, along with well-annotated texts of the plays themselves.

The Comedy and Tragedy Compared
In the world of medieval drama, a comedy was something distinct from what we might nowadays call a comedy. It is thus useful to distinguish two senses of comedy that were current in the 16th C:
  • A play which starts in sadness but ends in happiness.
  • A play which imitates or satirises common errors of life.
In the 21st C we are most familiar with the second sense of comedy. Watch any stand-up comedian or sitcom and you will usually be watching someone highlighting the absurdities in everyday life. Still we must accept the relevance of the first variety of comedy when it comes to a consideration of Shakespeare.

Is there anything more to be said about the comedic form? Yes, indeed, there is plenty more. But to explore these as yet untapped depths, it becomes useful to contrast the comedy with that other great dramatic form: the tragedy.

The Marks of Comedy
A comedy usually deals, in symbolic form, with humanity's ability to triumph over the disorder, chaos and randomness that populates the universe. The triumph is usually underscored by the play ending in marriage, or at a minimum, with the unification of lovers. The lovers represent the continued cycle of life, and the renewal of opportunities.

Time and plot play interesting roles in the comedy. Interesting mainly because of their almost total absence. The clock is not always ticking in a comedy, nor is there any great concern with plot. It is rare that there are great intrigues to be set up or problems to be resolved. Instead, in the comedic-form, a space or forum is opened up (such as the forests in As You Like It and A Midsummer Night's Dream) in which the characters can explore the perplexities of life and grow into some sort of enlightenment.

The Marks of Tragedy
The tragedy is diametrically opposed to the comedy. There is no triumph over adversity, no renewal, no second chances. In the tragedy, death looms large. A story is told of a character who is destined, due to perhaps their own choices or outside events, for an unhappy end.

Time and plot play crucial roles in the tragedy. The ticking of the clock is ever present: we know that events are unfolding in a logical and deterministic fashion. The plot structures the sequence of events so that we know where they must lead.

The keyword comparisons between comedy and tragedy are illustrated in the table below.

The Tragicomedy
The tragicomedy, obviously, blends elements of both the tragedy and the comedy. The great genius of Shakespeare was his ability to successfully weave tragic and comic elements into nearly all his plays, even the ones that have a predominantly comic form. This has led to many of them being reclassified as "problem plays".

Just consider some examples. As You Like It seems, on the surface, to be a straightforward comedy. Most of the play takes place in a pastoral setting (the Forest of Arden) which provides the stage for the usual comedic events. But Shakespeare places within this environment a cynical character (Jaques) who is willing to point to the cruelty and potential meaninglessness of life. Or take Love's Labour's Lost a play which is dappled with plenty of humorous conversation and witty wordplay, but which does not end with the expected union of lovers.

Personal Opinion
I enjoy the way in which Shakespeare marries elements of comedy and tragedy. But I still prefer the plays in which the comedic form dominates. I suppose we all do. But I prefer them because they accord most closely with my own philosophy of life.

I agree that we live a time-bound existence and that the grim spectre of death is ever-looming. But I do not see this as a tragedy. I see it as a crucial element of the landscape in which comedy can blossom. Death, heartbreak, oppression and adversity, along with love, kindness, friendship and music provide the fuel for ironic enlightenment, which is the ability to step back and laugh when necessary and to re-engage with passion when profitable.

Abortion (Part 1) by Mary Ann Warren

I'm blogging my way through every essay in The Blackwell Companion to Ethics. Today, I deal with the cheery topic of abortion, following the article by Mary Ann Warren.

In Part 1 I look at some background issues, consequentialist arguments in favour of abortion, and arguments based on the right to choose. In Part 2 I will look at the issue of foetal personhood.

Abortion: The Trick is to Ask the Right Question

We've all been there. One moment the dinner party is going well; the guests seem satisfied with the spread; the wine glasses are perpetually full; life is good. But then something terrible happens. The conversation switches from the superficial and light-hearted to the prickly and controversial. You are talking about abortion.

If you ever find yourself in this situation, I recommend you follow Warren's lead: structure the discussion by asking the right questions. The questions can be divided into two main groups (a) the moral group and (b) the legal group.

In the moral group we find questions like the following: should women have the right to abort unwanted pregnancies? Does the foetus have a right to life that should be protected?

In the legal group we find questions like the following: should abortion be made illegal? Should doctors or women who avail of abortion be held liable for murder or for some other offence? Should abortion be made legal? Should the state have an obligation to ensure that women have access to safe abortions?

The groups of questions certainly overlap, but there are important distinctions. Just because we find something to be morally opprobrious does not mean we should bring the full weight of the law to bear on its resolution; and just because we permit something does not mean the state should encourage it. This distinction was at the heart of one of Chris Matthews recent "interviews".

A History Lesson: How the Debate has Changed
Warren begins her article with a brief history lesson on abortion, just to illustrate how the public debate has changed. I have not done any research to verify her historical claims so caution is recommended.

Warren says that abortion was only made into a criminal offence in the latter half of the 19th C in industrialised nations. At that time, proponents of the ban used medical arguments to support their arguments, i.e. they argued that abortion was medically unsafe.

Medical arguments against abortion dissolved in the 20th C when it was turned into a safe medical procedure. As a result, the arguments against abortion shifted away from concerns about the physical safety of women towards the moral status of the foetus.

Those in favour of a right to choose abortion have responded to this shift with three arguments:
  1. Abortion should be permitted because prohibition leads to disastrous consequences (disastrous consequences argument).
  2. There is a moral right to choose abortion (rights argument).
  3. A foetus is not a person and so has no moral status (non-personhood argument).
Warren looks at each of these arguments in turn.

The Disastrous Consequences Argument
This argument has two main components. First, it is argued that a lack of reproductive autonomy is detrimental to women's welfare. In societies where women do not have access to contraception or abortion they are reduced to a form of chattelhood. Second, population control is essential to the future sustainability of biological and social systems.

Now you may say that we have alternative means of contraception available to us (pills, IUDs, condoms and so forth) and that these are preferable to abortion (although some Catholics would disagree). This may be true, but abortion is a fallback if these other methods fail.

The pro-lifers have an obvious riposte to these arguments. They will say that heterosexual sex is a voluntary option. If our goals are birth control and population control, then we can simply ask women to refrain from sexual activity. They can strengthen their argument by pointing out that sex may be physically harmful (cervical cancer, HIV and other STIs) or even psychologically harmful (feelings of guilt, exploitation, worthlessness).

There are obvious pro-choice responses to these arguments. Celibacy is impossible (women are always vulnerable to rape), undesirable (who would want to live a life devoid of sexual pleasure), and psychologically harmful (stunted emotional development etc.).

The Rights Argument
A right is an entitlement or power that is available to a person thanks to a legal document or, more controversially, due to some inherent natural order. The basic moral rights are the right to life, right to self-determination, right to bodily integrity, and right to ownership of property.

A prohibition on abortion infringes women's basic moral rights. First, it infringes their right to life. This is shown by the UN statistics on the number of women who seek out and die from unsafe abortions in countries where abortion is not legalised. Likewise, there are actual deaths resulting from involuntary childbirth.

Second, it infringes their right to self-determination and bodily integrity. Pregnancy is not simply an inconvenience. It is arduous, potentially risky and disrupts lifestyle choices (work, education etc). Also, as a parent, one has duties to discharge towards the child that last a lifetime. This is only partially relieved by the prospect of giving up the child for adoption.

There is of course a white elephant lurking in the room: the rights of the unborn. Could it be that the foetus has a right to life that trumps the woman's rights? I will look at this in more depth in Part 2 when I cover the whole topic of foetal personhood, but a couple of things can be said about the purported rights of the foetus.

First, there could be an equivalence between the rights of the mother and the rights of the unborn. In such a situation, it is difficult to say who should win out. Second, as pointed out by Judith Jarvis Thomson in her famous 1971 article, just because the foetus has a right to live does not mean the mother should be forced to carry it to term.

Thomsom illustrated this argument with a thought experiment. She asked you to imagine that you woke up one morning to find a famous violinist was "plugged-in" to your body. Doctors inform you that he has some kidney-related disease and is using your kidneys to clean his blood. You are told the arrangement will only last nine months, by then he will be cured.

Thomson argued that such an arrangement would be preposterous, as would be any law that forced you to maintain the surgical link. In no aspect of human life, apart from pregnancy, would we ever force someone else to sacrifice their rights simply to preserve the life of another. But then why should we treat pregnancy any differently?

God and Morality (Part 1): Is there a moral argument for God?

Welcome to my series on Nicholas Everitt's book The Non-Existence of God. For an index, see here.

In the next few posts I will be looking at chapter 7 of Everitt's book, which has the deliberately ambiguous title "God and Morality". I say "ambiguous" because Everitt's book is supposed to deal with arguments for the existence of God. The problem is that it is not clear if there is a moral argument for God's existence. That said, people often speak of God and morality in the same breadth.

In this part, I want to explain why there is a problem with the idea of a moral argument, and why God and morality share the same air supply.

What is Morality Anyway?
Morality is primarily about behavioural restrictions; about telling us what we should and should not do. We are all familiar with moral prescriptions, e.g. "you should not profit from the misfortunes of others", "you should not treat others as a means to an end but as an end in themselves", "you should not steal, murder, lie etc.".

When confronted with such moral prescriptions, we have two concerns (see my post on moral realism):
  1. Are they objectively true? In other words, are they more than simply the subjective whim or bias of the individual prescribing them?
  2. Do they provide me with reasons-for-action? In other words, upon knowing them am I motivated to do otherwise than I might have done?
These two questions provide us with two criteria for moral truth: the objectivity criterion and the motivational criterion. Keep these in mind in the ensuing discussion.

How God and Morality are Usually Connected
Cosmological and teleological arguments usually start from some widely agreed-upon fact and use that to support the claim that God exists. So, for instance, cosmological arguments begin with some general structural feature of the universe (temporality, causality, contingency) that everyone agrees exists. They argue that there cannot be an infinite regress of this feature and that God is needed to halt the long unending march to oblivion.

When it comes to morality there is no such widely-agreed-upon fact with which to begin the argument. For it is not at all clear that there are genuine moral truths. When we look at the moral prescriptions that are accepted by others it is not clear that they are doing anything other than:
  • following whatever is congenial to their own subjectivity; 
  • uncritically accepting the morality of their family, tribe, sect, or state; or 
  • accepting restrictions imposed by others out of fear or some other form of self-interest. 
Furthermore, the diversity of moral opinion around the world should give us pause.

Now, it is certainly true that most people want there to be moral truths. It seems to be a popular craving. But because there are no widely agreed-upon moral truths to anchors our discussion, God's existence is most often used to solidify or justify moral beliefs. In other words, religious believers try to show how God provides us with the objectively morality that we crave. They do not usually argue that because morality exists, so too must God.

Craig's Moral Argument
Despite what has just been said, it is possible to imagine a formal moral argument for the existence of God. William Lane Craig provides one simple example of this (see his website for details). Craig's argument is the following:

P1. If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
P2. Objective moral values exist.
C1. God exists.

As syllogisms go, this is perfectly valid, but that's not saying much. Craig is trying to make an appeal to everyone's craving for an objective morality in P2 and using this to switch the focus to arguments in favour of P1. It is interesting that he never supports P2 with anything beyond a mere appeal.

Still, we have to take the argument as we find it. Most of Everitt's discussion in Chapter 7 concerns P1 and is guided by two questions: (i) Does God's existence actually support an objective morality? and (ii) Is objective morality impossibe without God? Both questions must be answered in the affirmative if P1 is to survive.

Discussing P1 is edifying in itself but bear in mind that without P2 there can really be no moral argument for the existence of God.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Explanations: A Gentle Introduction

Welcome to yet another series! This time out I am going to be covering explanations. The series is going to be quite wide-ranging but will have one question at its core: what makes for a good explanation?

There is a danger here. The form of this question could tempt us into an arcane and esoteric exercise in academic self-indulgence. You know the kind. If we are not careful, we could well spend all our time with sentences like the following: "x is a good expanation iff it has P, Q, and R, and has no S, T or U."

I want to avoid this kind of dry treatment. Explanations are the glue that hold together the fragile and disparate territories of the intellectual commonwealth: understanding their complexities and their simplicities, and their successes and their failures, is essential.

So, in order to give the topic the treatment it deserves, I want to avoid abstract analyses and use instead the medium of practical illustration. In other words, I want to compare and contrast several types of explanations across several different domains: philosophical, historical, scientific and religious.

This introductory post has two goals. First, it gets the necessary abstractions out of the way by considering the form that a good explanation should take. Second, it offers a simple example of explanation-in-action by going over one of Sherlock Holmes's fictional cases.

1. Abductive Inference and Explanatory Virtues
When I speak about explanation, I speak in particular about explanations that are arrived at through abductive inference. This was a method first formalised by Charles Sanders Pierce, one of the three great American pragmatists.

An abductive inference looks like this:

D is some collection of data (includes facts, observations, and givens)
H is some hypothesis that would, if true, explain D
No other hypothesis explains D as well as H
Therefore, H is probably true

As can be seen, abductive inference reaches probabilistic conclusions, not definitive conclusions. It also involves the comparison of different hypothesis: weighing their respective merits against one another. Human inquiry always begins in the middle, i.e. with the contradictions and tensions in our present worldview, we must always consider different ways of resolving these tensions and contradiction. We cannot consider one hypothesis in isolation from everything else that we know.

But how can we weigh one explanation against another? How can we know when one explanation is stronger? This is where the idea of explanatory virtues becomes important. The virtues are a set of criteria that can be used to assess explanations. Luke over at commonsenseatheism provides a good list of these virtues here. I can't improve upon it.

The image below summarises the formal aspects of abductive inference and includes a list of the explanatory virtues.

2. Explanation in action: Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Three Students
To ease our way into future practical examples, it will be useful to consider something frothy, frivolous and yet instructive.

Everybody's favourite fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, is often thought to be the embodiment of abductive reasoning. In solving the cases presented to him by the troubled citizens of London he marshals the evidence, considers the different hypotheses, eliminates the impossible ones and accepts the remaining one, however improbable it may at first appear to be. (This is a paraphrase of one of Holmes's famous sayings, but it is questionable, see here - an improbable answer is more likely to be the result of an improper question).

To show how Holmes uses abduction, I will look at how he solves the case presented in the story "The Adventure of the Three Students". It is one of the more forgettable of Conan Doyle's efforts, but its academic setting appeals to the student in me.

The Problem
The story begins with Holmes and Watson firmly ensconced in one of England's famous university towns (the precise location is never divulged). They are interrupted by one of the professors, a man named Soames, who presents Holmes with a problem befitting his intellect.

Earlier that afternoon, Soames was going over the proofs for the Greek scholarship exams, which are being held the following morning. He had to visit a colleague and so left the proofs on the desk in his room.

When he returned he found that the proofs had been disturbed. They were left in various positions around the room, including one left by the window overlooking the quad. There were other notable disturbances: strange globules of mud were deposited in various locations, and a broken pencil had been left behind. The latter was presumably used by the intruder to copy the proof.

Soames alerted his servant, named Bannister, as soon as he suspected that there had been an intruder. Bannister became quite upset upon hearing this and collapsed into one the chairs in Soames's room. After calming him, Soames walked straight over to Holmes to seek his help.

Soames informs Holmes that the intruder is likely to be one of the three students with whom he shares the building in which he lives. All three are due to sit the exam, so all three have an incentive to cheat.

The student living on the ground floor is a hard-working, scholarly and athletic but disadvantaged youth named Gilchrist. His father had once been rich, but had lost all his money in that all too common vice of the English gent: gambling.

The second floor is occupied by an Indian student named Daulat Ras. He is quiet and intelligent, although Greek is his weakest subject.

The third floor is inhabited by Miles McLaren. He is brilliant but intemperate, wild, and morally circumspect. He has had previous run-ins with the college authorities and was almost expelled on one occasion.

Holmes goes over Soames's room with his usual care, interviews the servant Bannister and visits each of the student's rooms, with the exception of McLaren's who wouldn't let them in. Satisfied with his efforts, he promises Soames that he will resolve the case first thing the following morning (just before the exam is due to start).

The following morning Holmes delivers the goods: Gilchrist is revealed to be the guilty party and, what's more, the servant Bannister is implicated in the events. Gilchrist confesses, withdraws from university and all is right in the world.

How did Holmes manage to correctly identify the intruder?

The Explanation
As noted, all three students had an incentive to cheat on the exam. So we are weighing three hypotheses (i.e. potential explanations of the events) against each other: (i) Gilchrist did it; (ii) Ras did it; or (iii) McLaren.

For the most part, the available data is equally well accounted for by each hypotheses. But there are three crucial points at which the Ras- and McLaren-hypotheses break down:
  • Holmes reasons that the intruder was likely to have seen the proofs on Soames's desk as they passed his window - to have simply stumbled into the room and find them was too much to ask. Neither Ras, nor McLaren were tall enough to see in the window.
  • The strange balls of mud found in the room came from the sandpit over on the long jump practice ground. Gilchrist was a long jumper and had been practicing that afternoon. That's almost a QED right there.
  • The other puzzling fact was the behaviour of Bannister. His collapsing into the chair on being told that there may have been an intruder seemed over-the-top to Holmes. He reckoned Bannister was trying to cover up for Gilchrist because Gilchrist was still hiding in the room. After Soames left to see Holmes, Bannister could sneak Gilchrist out. This is revealed to have been true. Indeed, Bannister and Gilchrist were connected because Bannister used to work for his father.
What we have then is a classic example of an abductive inference: three hypotheses are on the table, they are compared on the basis of their explanatory virtues, and one is left standing.

The diagram below illustrates the form and virtue of Holmes's explanation. It fills in some details missing from the summary to this point.

Alas, that brings this post to a close. In future contributions to this series I will look at various scientific, philosophic and religious explanations. All the time adhering to the abductive method.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Reformed Epistemology (Part 3): The Revenge of the Sceptic

This post is part of my series on Nicholas Everitt's The Non-Existence of God. For an index see here.

I am currently going through Chapter 2 of Everitt's book, which deals with Alvin Plantinga's arguments for a reformed epistemology (RE).

In Part 2, I covered Plantinga's arguments. In essence, they amount to following: God-belief is properly basic, experientially grounded and requires no positive justification; it may be defeated by argument, but there may also be defeaters to those arguments.

In this Part, I will cover Everitt's objections to Plantinga. One of the chief virtues of Everitt's book is that it packs a lot into a condensed space. In just four pages he raises a number of interesting objections. It's hard to be any briefer than he is, but I will try.

Fortunately, there is some order to what he says. He offers two main arguments against Plantinga: (i) God-belief cannot be properly basic, even granting some of what Plantinga has to say; and (ii) even if it works, Plantinga's reformed epistemology has very little effect on the role of reason in the assessment of God's existence.

1. The Unstable Grounding of God-Belief
If you recall from Part 2, Plantinga suggested that although you cannot reason your way to a basic belief, these basic beliefs can be experientially grounded. Everitt argues that experiential grounding makes some sense when applied to other types of basic belief, but none at all when it comes to God-belief.

Consider my belief that I am in pain or that there is a laptop in front of me (both of which are basic beliefs). In both cases the experience that grounds the belief (sensory perception of pain/laptop) directly corresponds with the actual belief. In other words, the content of the experience forms the content of the belief. This is not true of God-belief.

This becomes apparent when we look at the two experiences that Plantinga suggests can ground a properly basic belief in God. They are: (a) when reading the Bible you get the feeling that God is talking to you; and (b) when you do something wrong, you get a pang of conscience which is suggestive of a moral lawgiver. In neither case is the content of the experience actually a three-omni God.

There's also something more dubious about the beliefs that can be grounded by both experiences. In my leisure time I like reading the comic novels of P.G. Wodehouse. The numerous Jeeves and Wooster stories are a particular favourite. The stories are written in the first-person, from the perspective of Bertram Wooster. The characterisation is so well done that while reading them I really get the feeling that he is talking to me. Does this make Wooster-belief properly basic?

You may object that in the case of Wooster-belief we have a good defeater readily at hand: we know that Wodehouse was the real author. But we know similar things about the authors of the various books of the Bible. We know that there were several authors of genesis and we know that the New Testament writers had their own axes to grind.

A similar point can be made about the pang of conscience. When I started out my odyssey as a PhD student, I made a rule about my study-behaviour: I had to read and summarise three academic articles every day. I often broke this rule, and when I did I felt a pang of conscience. What beliefs did this pang-of-conscience experience entitle me to hold? Surely nothing more than that I had broken a rule, not that the rule was made by God.

The point here is that pangs-of-conscience arise for a variety of mundane reasons that have nothing to do with an eternal moral lawgiver.

Now there is more to be said about moral lawgivers and hearing God talking to you. But what can be said is more properly said when looking at two other types of argument: arguments from experience and arguments from morality. What is important for now is that Plantinga's suggestions don't make God-belief properly basic.

2. Two Different Sense of "Belief"
In his second line of attack, Everitt argues that there is a critical duality in the concepts of epistemic approval used by philosophers.

Most of Plantinga's arguments concern the duty-sense of belief. In other words, they answer the questions: is it permissible for me to believe in God? Am I being epistemically negligent in believing as I do? All these questions are directed at the act of believing.

There is a second sense of belief, the truth-indicator sense. Here, the concern is with questions like the following: is what I believe true? Does my belief pick out a real ontological entity? These questions are not directed at the act of believing but at the content of the belief.

Now here's the rub. Plantinga's arguments may succeed insofar as they target the duty-sense of belief. It may be illegitimate to criticise or chastise a believer in God for failing in their epistemic duties. But even so, the truthfulness of the beliefs is still open to assessment with logic and evidence.

3. Some Closing Observations
Everitt says some other interesting things, but that summary covers the main details. I think there is one major blindspot in both Everitt's attack and Plantinga's arguments for RE that is worth raising.

One of Plantinga's arguments against classical foundationalism is that it is self-defeating. This is because belief in classical foundationalism is not itself a basic belief.

Surely this objection applies equally as well to Plantinga's reformed foundationalism? And yet it is never raised again.

I am basing this observation purely on Everitt's summary. Perhaps Plantinga addresses this in his original papers?

Friday, December 25, 2009

Reformed Epistemology (Part 2): The Attack of the Plantingas

This post is part of my series on Nicholas Everitt's The Non-Existence of God. For an index, see here.

I am currently working my way through Chapter 2 of Everitt's book, which deals with Alvin Plantinga's arguments for Reformed epistemology (RE).

I closed out Part 1 with a summary of classical foundationalism: a theory of epistemic justification that rests on the notion of basic beliefs. Basic beliefs are beliefs that need no justification: all other beliefs must be derived from them.

As we saw, for classical foundationalists, there are two types of basic belief: (i) self-evident or logical truths; and (ii) beliefs about conscious states. Plantinga wants to bless God-belief with proper basicality.

The Flaws of Foundationalism
Plantinga paves the way for a reformed epistemology by first pointing out the flaws in classical foundationalism. They are twofold.

First, there seem to be certain beliefs that we are justified in having that are neither basic, nor derived from basic beliefs. Everitt uses the following example: "I ate toast for breakfast." This belief is not self-evidently true; nor is it about a current conscious state (the memory might be, but the content of the belief is not equivalent to the memory). Maybe evidence could be adduced to support this belief, but surely this is unnecessary; surely I can just know that ate toast for breakfast without the need for further justification.

This first objection can be simplified: classical foundationalism is too strict. It would commit us to a thoroughgoing scepticism which is unheard of in most types of inquiry.

Second, and more seriously, Plantinga charges classical foundationalism with self-refutation. Recall, that are supposedly two types of basic belief, every justified belief must either be a basic belief or be derived from one. But what about the belief in classical foundationalism? It is neither self-evidently true, nor is it about a present conscious state. Thus, it would seem to be bankrupt.

The dismissal of classical foundationalism is a core component of reformed epistemology. Plantinga suggests that many objections to the proper basicality of God-belief can be traced back to the failure to fully appreciate the rejection of classical foundationalism.

A Reformed Epistemology?
Pinpointing the flaws in classical foundationalism is easy. Plantinga also has to make the positive case for RE. Let's see what this case is. (I hope you are sitting comfortably, because you are about to be exposed to some brain-liquefying ideas.)

First off, Plantinga is actually proposing a reformed foundationalism. This foundationalism would have a much broader typology of basic beliefs. Indeed, basicality would now include memory beliefs and, no surprises here, God-belief.

These basic beliefs would no longer need to incorrigible or infallible: there may well be reasonable objections to them (defeaters). For example, my belief that I had toast for breakfast could be defeated by video evidence to the contrary. However, and this is crucial, the person with the basic belief is entitled to continue to believe provided (i) they have never heard the objection or (ii) they have defeaters for the defeaters.

This last point is crucial because religious apologists will often play the possibility-card in debates about God's existence. In other words, they will say that because God-belief is properly basic, they need only show possible objections to atheistic arguments. The objections might be highly improbable, but that doesn't matter.

Is Belief in the Great Pumpkin Properly Basic?
One standard objection to RE is that it is too open-ended: any arbitrary belief, such as belief in the Great Pumpkin, can count. Plantinga thinks this is not true, but admits he does not have precise criteria for distinguishing basic beliefs from other beliefs.

He argues that this is not a major problem because we often "know" the difference between two things without being able to adduce specific demarcation-criteria. For example, we all know that a mouse is not the same as an elephant, but we may not be able to articulate the precise criteria for mouse-hood (such essentialism is ruled-out by evolution anyway).

Instead, he proposes that we proceed inductively: that we gather many examples of basic beliefs and infer demarcation-criteria from these examples. In so proposing, Plantinga is endorsing a view called particularism, which uses what we know to infer criteria for how we know it (see here).

Sceptics will be quick to point out that this task is impossible because there is no neutral starting point from which to begin: atheists think God-belief not properly basic and theists do, we need to appeal to some independent criteria (like those of classical foundationalism).

Plantinga argues that neutral starting points are not needed. The theist can feel secure that they are right to believe as they do. How so?

Grounded, but not Reasonable
This is where the idea of groundedness becomes important. Plantinga argues that although basic beliefs need no justification (and so cannot be "reasonable"), they can be experientially grounded. For example, my belief that I am in pain can be grounded in the conscious experience of pain.

How can God-belief be experientially grounded? There are some examples. For instance, you could start reading the Bible and become convinced that God is speaking to you through the text; or by having a guilty conscience after doing something wrong and becoming convinced that there must be a moral lawgiver.

These two examples would seem to take us beyond the general theistic god and into a more specific religious god. But if they work, all the better for the religious believer.

That's it for now. In the next part, I will detail Everitt's objections to RE.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Reformed Epistemology (Part 1): The Foundationalist Menace

This post is part of my series on Nicholas Everitt's The Non-Existence of God. For an index, see here.

The first two chapters of Everitt's book are about the role of reason in the debate about God's existence. It would be nice if we could agree that logic and evidence are the tools with which we examine the legitimacy of God-belief, but we can't. As we saw in the summary of chapter 1, many religious thinkers object to the use of logic and evidence when it comes to God. Everitt dismisses these objections with, I would argue, considerable aplomb.

Chapter 2 of Everitt's book deals with a slightly more sophisticated criticism of logic and evidence. This is the argument in favour of a reformed epistemology, which is associated with the work of Alvin Plantinga. Let's see what this means.

A Plantinger Plants Seeds of Faith
Daniel Dennett's Philosophical Lexicon offers an amusing take on contemporary philosophy. It has the outward form of a dictionary, but inside beats the cold heart of satire. Each entry in the lexicon turns the surname of a leading figure in contemporary philosophy into a noun, verb or adjective. The definitions of which ridicule the opinions the philosopher.

The entry on Plantinga reads as follows:
planting, v. To use twentieth-century fertilizer to encourage new shoots from eleventh -century ideas which everyone thought had gone to seed; hence, plantinger, n. one who plantings.
This gives us a pretty good idea of what Plantinga's reformed epistemology is all about. It dresses up an old argument in the trappings of modern analytical philosophy. That's no real criticism, but it works well as a rhetorical cheap shot.

Plantinga's argument is essentially the following: belief in God requires no rational justification because it is properly basic. To see what this means we need to look first at foundationalism and basic beliefs.

The Foundations of Belief
Do you believe that Barack Obama is president of the United States? Unless you are a member of the bizarre "birther" group, I presume that you do. Now ask yourself: why do you believe this? Maybe its because you were present at his inauguration and saw him being sworn in (admittedly mistakenly the first time round). But why does this support your Obama-is-president belief? Presumably because you already believe in the legitimacy of the November 4th election and the authority of the U.S. constitution. But why do you believe those things? We could play this game for quite some time.

It seems that for any particular belief we care to have, there is huge supporting cast of supplementary confirmatory beliefs? Do these beliefs rest on anything more substantial than yet more beliefs? This is a key question in epistemology because it deals with the concept of justification: what are you justified in believing?

There are two schools of thought on the matter. First, there are the coherentists. These peculiar specimens argue that there is nothing substantial supporting your Obama-is-president belief. There is simply a circle of beliefs, where each belief supports another, but no belief is more important than any other. Think of the game in which people sit on each other's laps in circular formation: if done properly, the circle is self-supporting.

Second, there are foundationalists. They reject the coherentist approach by arguing that a self-supporting circle provides no real justification. Instead, there must be certain foundational beliefs: i.e. beliefs that require no further justification. Such beliefs are deemed "basic beliefs". All other beliefs must be derived from them.

Which beliefs are basic? Traditional foundationalists have allowed for two categories of basic belief. They are:
  1. Self-Evident Truths: any logical truths such as "If A=B, and B=C, then A=C", "All A is A", "If P then Q; P, therefore Q".
  2. Beliefs about Conscious States: for example if you believe you are in pain, your belief requires no further justification. Some foundationalists have been willing to extend this category to include sensations about the external world. In other words, my visual perception of a laptop in front of me at this instant could be considered a properly basic belief (but what about Macbeth's floating dagger?).

Can Belief in God be Properly Basic?
It would seem odd to suppose that God-belief is properly basic. The proposition "God exists" is certainly not a self-evident truth, but nor does it seem that we know God from immediate conscious sensation.

This is where Plantinga's reformed epistemology enters the intellectual battlefield. As the name suggests, he wants to reform classic foundationalism in such a way that God-belief becomes properly basic. We will see how he tries to do this in the next post.

The Rationality Assumption

Welcome to my brief series on the economic analysis of law (EAL). I am trying to explain what I see as the strengths and weaknesses of this school of thought.

In the last entry, I suggested that EAL was built around four propositions. The first of those propositions was "People are rational". In this post I want to examine what rationality means for the purposes of EAL.

Rationality and the Practical-Reasoning-Syllogism
"Rationality" is one of those terms that is used with reckless abandon. How many conversations have you had where either you or someone else has been accused of "irrationality"? It often seems like "rationality" is used as a rhetorical bludgeon: something with which to batter one's intellectual opponents.

If rationality is to be a useful concept in EAL it needs to avoid this rhetorical vapidity. We need to take a more systematic, bottom-up approach to reasoning and decision-making. This way we can be clear about what the rationality assumption entails. As we shall see, it does not entail a great deal.

Let's begin then with the practical-reasoning-syllogism. Many people will be familiar with syllogisms. They  are the most common form of logical argument. They consist of two premises (major and minor) and a conclusion. The conclusion is supposed to follow automatically (or without further assumption) from the premises. The most oft-repeated -- and frankly boring -- syllogism in history is the following:

P1. All men are mortal. (Major Premise)
P2. Socrates is a man. (Minor Premise)
C1. Socrates is mortal

A practical-reasoning-syllogism takes the form of the Socrates-Mortality argument, with the sole difference being that the conclusion is a decision-to-act.

In a practical-reasoning-syllogism, desires (or preferences) form the major premises, and beliefs form the minor premises. The decision-to-act is what follows from the conjunction of the desires and beliefs. premises. As follows:

P1. I want ice-cream
P2. The ice-cream man will give me ice-cream in return for money.
C1. I should give the ice-cream man some money.

So far so good. Where does rationality enter the picture? As with all logical arguments, we can challenge two aspects of the practical-reasoning-syllogism: (i) the truthfulness/acceptability of the premises; and (ii) the validity of the conclusion. In other words, we can check to see whether the beliefs and desires are true or acceptable (to see why I am using the term "acceptable" see here) and whether the decision-to-act really follows from them.

Now in everyday conversation, rationality/irrationality is often used to describe beliefs and desires. For example, I may call your belief that the Lord of the Rings is a historical document "irrational"; or I may say similarly unkind things about your desire to be an elf.

This type of rationality-talk is categorically not what is implied by the rationality assumption of EAL. Let me repeat that for dramatic effect: this type of rationality-talk is categorically not what is implied by the rationality assumption of EAL.

EAL does not care about the rationality of beliefs and desires; it only cares about the validity of someone's decisions-to-act. Actually, it cares about one more thing: if you have many preferences (and who doesn't?) then they should be transitive. That is to say: they should form a coherent logical hierarchy. So, if A is preferred to B and B is preferred to C, A should definitely be preferred to C.

That's it. That's all the rationality assumption entails. Given that it doesn't assess beliefs and desires it would seem to be a fairly modest assumption, right?

The Irrationality Hypothesis
Most people have a hard time with the rationality assumption. They look at the world around them and say "Fie! There be no rationality here".

Most of their worries can be dismissed if we drop the questioning of beliefs and desires. But not all of their worries can be dismissed in this fashion.

I know this was something that bothered me when I first came across EAL. At the time, I had been reading-up quite a bit on cognitive, behavioural and social psychology and the relevant experimental literature seemed to demonstrate all manner of quirks and biases in the way people think, reason and act.

There has been a veritable cottage industry of popular books explaining and outlining these peculiarities and irrationalities in recent years (this article provides a decent overview). However, it has become clear to me -- as some of the books linked to above will testify -- that these peculiarities can be incorporated into a suitably sophisticated analysis of rationality.

To say that is not to say that EAL has always been suitably sophisticated in its approach (see here for a discussion). Indeed, in the early days its proponents always assumed a type of hyper- or super-rationality. This was in keeping with classical economic theory. Nonetheless, it is the fact that these assumptions are not essential to EAL that persuades me of its continued relevance.

The Generality of Law
If there is a problem in using the rationality assumption in the analysis law, it will stem from the generality of legal provisions. Laws are not typically aimed at particular people and particular circumstances: they are supposed to be of general application.

This is problematic because in order to be of general application, a legal system needs to assume a certain homogeneity in the beliefs and desires of its subjects. Take an obvious example: the reasonable-person test in the criminal law. If we are trying to determine whether a person can avail of the defence of self-defence, we need to determine whether their actions were reasonable, all things considered. This means we compare their behaviour to that of a fictional reasonable person, a person who's beliefs and desires are within the bounds of acceptability.*

Does this type assessment of beliefs and desires pose a problem for the rationality assumption? Not necessarily. It strikes me that this assessment is a normative one, not something that affects the analytical potential of EAL. We can still use EAL, and make allowances for all sorts of crazy beliefs and desires and yet still grant that there are certain normative limitations on which beliefs and desires are acceptable in a legal system. That is simply an additional consideration.

Okay, that's it for now. In the next post I will look at proposition 2 of 4: "the interactive 'games' that rational actors play, can lead to all sorts of problems".

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What is the Economic Analysis of Law?

This is part of my series on the Economic Analysis of Law (EAL). I am trying to explain why I went from being an EAL-sceptic to a modest supporter.  In this post, I want to give the general gist of EAL.

EAL is obviously an attempt to use the tools of economic analysis in the legal arena. In my introductory post, I mentioned that EAL has descriptive, analytical, and normative dimensions. Let me elaborate on each of these:
  • Descriptive EAL: tries to show how economic principles and ideas (such as the idea of "efficiency") are already embedded in legal decision-making. This take on EAL is most readily apparent in some of Richard Posner's early work. I think it is best categorised as a brand of legal formalism. This is a topic which will probably only be of interest to a handful of legal philosophers. Nonetheless, I will give it an airing in an appendix to this series.
  • Analytical EAL: this is the core dimension of EAL ("analysis" is right there in title). It is the use of the assumptions, methods and techniques of economics to sharpen and deepen our understanding of legal disputes, disagreements and dissensions.
  • Normative EAL: this is the most contentious aspect of EAL, and what switches most people off. You see EAL, which rose to prominence in the 1960s and 70s, was touted, in the main, by those associated with the Chicago School of Economics. As such, EAL took on the normative excrescences of this school -- i.e. pro-free market. I'll explain roughly what this entails later.
It is the analytical and normative dimensions that I think are the most important aspects of EAL. You can think of these as the two main "chunks" of the theory. As it happens I think that the analytical chunk can survive the cutting-loose of the normative chunk. And this fact is what persuaded me to reverse my position on EAL. Not that I am particularly opposed to free market principles. There's a time and a place...

    Four Key Propositions
    Although EAL consists of two main chunks, four key propositions can be adduced from these chunks. These four propositions form a very inexact and informal argument. Still, I will use them to structure the remainder of this series.

    The propositions are:
    1. People are rational.
    2. The interactive "games" played by rational people can lead to all sorts of problems.
    3. Law can be used to solve these problems.
    4. But we can go too far in proposing legal solutions; sometimes, the market can find the most efficient solution.
    As you can see, these four propositions marry the analytical and normative dimensions of EAL. Roughly: propositions 1 and 2 cover the analytical dimension, while propositions 3 and 4 cover the normative.

    That's it for now. In the next post I will tease out the complexities of the first proposition: are people really rational and what on earth could this mean?

    Musings on the Economic Analysis of the Law (Introduction)

    If there can be a division between one's internet persona and one's real self (a question to which I must return), then my real self spends several hours a week tutoring in the philosophy of law. One of the topics that I cover is the economic analysis of law (EAL).

    EAL is a brand of legal theory with descriptive, prescriptive and analytical dimensions. It rose to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s in American law schools, being particularly associated with the work of Richard Posner.

    When I studied EAL as an undergraduate at an Irish university, I had a general dislike for it. I thought the assumptions which undergirded the theory were dubious, and the normative dimensions to it were odious. This was reinforced by the general antipathy I found among my lecturers.

    I have spent the past three years looking at behavioural science and the law. This has led to me reversing many of my earlier conclusions about EAL. Many not all.

    I have now come to the conclusion that EAL is actually a powerful analytical tool, one which is underappreciated in my neck of the woods (it is hugely popular in the U.S.).

    I want to spend some posts outlining my current position on EAL. I appreciate that this may seem a thoroughly uninteresting thing to do to. But I think the topic is interesting and it offers a gentle introduction to later series in which I examine behavioural science, game theory and normative systems -- the three topics with which I spend most of my time.

    Here's an index for the series:

    1. What is Economic Analysis of Law? Four Key Points

    2. The Rationality Assumption

    3. The Poisoned Chalice: An Illustration of Interactive Games

    4. The Soldiers' Dilemma: The Problem of the Stable Equilibrium

    5. Leviathan: Lifting Us Out of the State of War

    6. The Law Has Gone Too Far: The Problem of Social Cost

    7. The Market is Failing: The Problem of Normative Economics

    8. Appendix: Descriptive EAL and Legal Formalism

    NOTE: This series is based largely on notes compiled for my philosophy of law tutorials - I will try to make the disjointed bullet points as smooth as possible.

    Friday, December 18, 2009

    C.S. Lewis as Christian Apologist - The Rationality of Belief?

    Welcome to my series on John Beversluis's book C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion. In this post I cover Chapter 1 "C.S. Lewis as Christian Apologist".

    "I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of evidence is against it." (Mere Christianity, p. 123)

    1. The Rationality of Belief

    C.S. Lewis's defense of Christianity is notable, at least initially, for its attempt to be rational. Lewis was writing from the perspective of a former atheist. He was converted not because of faith, but because of the unpleasant weight of evidence. This is clear from his own description of his conversion:

    "That which I had greatly feared had at last come upon me...I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England."
    So he disagrees with those other Christian writers who begin their apologetics or proselytisation by extolling the virtues of faith. He thinks faith is important, but that its importance comes after one has accepted the rational arguments for belief.

    It is this willingness to be clearheaded, to confront logic and evidence head on, that has made Lewis such an attractive apologist. Not for him are the vague and poetic pronouncements on Divine Grace, he wants to be able to convince his readers with sound, sensible argument.

    2. Faith A and Faith B
    Although willing to luxuriate in the argumentative form, Lewis did not think reason was everything. This is apparent from his distinction between two types of faith.

    Faith-A was intellectual and philosophical in form. It involved assenting to a series of propositions (e.g. "God exists", "God is creator, first cause, and necessary being", "Jesus was resurrected" and so on). Faith-B was religious in form. It was not simply the assent to a bunch of propositions, but rather involved an act of will: the placing of trust in God.

    Lewis admitted that reason could only get you to Faith-A. He thinks that there are knockdown arguments for the existence of God, in the sense that God is first cause or necessary being. He does not think such arguments can get you the God of Christian theology.

    That said, he seems to embrace probabilistic arguments for Faith-B. In other words, he thinks you might be able to show the Christian God to be more probable than the god of other faiths. However, Beversluis thinks it hard to pin him down on this matter. There are inconsistent passages spread throughout Lewis's many writings.

    One question that arises is the following: if logic and evidence can only get you to Faith-A, why bother? Lewis makes a pragmatic argument in response. He thinks shoring-up the rationality of Faith-A paves the way for Faith-B.

    3. Getting to Faith-A
    In his apologetic writings, Lewis uses three main arguments in favour of the God of Faith-A. They are:
    • The Argument From Desire: there must be an object of the profound existential longing or desire that we all experience. That object is God.
    • The Moral Argument: God is the best explanation for the reality and objectivity of morality.
    • The Argument from Reason: the rationality of logic and evidence is only possible on the presupposition of God.
    These arguments, along with others focusing more directly on Christianity, will be covered in future posts.

    C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion (Index)

    Ah yes! Clive Staples Lewis: a donnish, deep-voiced professor of Medieval English; a writer of children's fairy tales with thinly-disguised religious messages; and a stalwart defender and apologist for the Christian faith.

    Lewis was famous for his atheist-turned-true-believer shtick. He wrote passionately about the rationality of Christianity, the argument from desire, the argument from reason, the character of Christ and the problem of pain. Many have been persuaded.

    Many that is until John Beversluis came along and wrote his excellent book-length takedown of Lewis's apologetics: C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion (Revised Edn, Prometheus Press, 2007).

    This is a series about Beversluis's book. I begin with an unexciting index.













    Thursday, December 17, 2009

    Utility and the Good by Robert E. Goodin

    I'm blogging my way through every article in The Blackwell Companion to Ethics. Today, the essay entitled "Utility and the Good" by Robert Goodin goes under the knife.

    1. The Right, The Good and the Utilitarian
    We must begin with some distinctions. Ethical theories are usually divided into two component parts: a theory of right and a theory of good. The theory of right specifies which actions help to realise or respect the good. The theory of good specifies what is valuable and worthwhile (see my post on consequentialism for more).

    Now you may not know this, but utilitarianism is a theory of good, not a theory of right. As it happens, there is very little agreement among about what is good. Some Aristotelians might specify virtuous character traits and some natural lawyers might pinpoint abstractions like "knowledge", "friendship" and "play".

    For utilitarians, the matter is more straightforward: ethics is about people, and the only things that are good are those things that are good for people. These things should be maximised. Goodin points out three variations on this basic utilitarian theme.

    2. Three Types of Utility
    The first variant of is hedonic. It was popularised by that irrepressible social reformer Jeremy Bentham. He took the view that something was good for people if it resulted in sentient pleasure. In other words, if it resulted in some conscious feeling of contentment or euphoria. Thus, the moral society was one that maximised sentient pleasure.

    The hedonic version of utilitarianism is frequently caricatured. It would seem to encourage us to become a "mad assembly of pleasure hogs constantly out for a buzz" (Goodin's words). But Goodin counters this by saying Bentham's theory was simply premised on the factual accuracy of the hedonic psychology, i.e. on the assumption that it was empirically true that people acted so as to obtain pleasure. This can easily be corrected with a more accurate and sophisticated psychology.

    This brings us to the second variant: preference utilitarianism. This replaces the picture of human beings as short-term pleasure hogs, with the picture of human beings as longer-term preference-satisficers. Actually, "replace" is not a good word because hedonic utilitarianism is really subsumed within preference utilitarianism: short term pleasures are a subset of preferences.

    A problem for both of these versions of utilitarianism is that they are egalitarian in their treatment of pleasures/preferences. In other words, the goal is simply one of maximisation, the quality of what it being maximised is irrelvant. The sadist and the saint all count for the same or, in Bentham's famous words, "pushpin [a child's game] is as good as poetry".

    This seemed unpalatable to some (John Stuart Mill and G.E. Moore), so much so that they tried to introduce some qualitative distinctions between pleasures/preferences. A certain weighting could then be given to the superior or higher pleasures/preferences.

    Goodin thinks there is a more convincing answer to this worry: welfare utilitarianism. This variant does not focus on subjective pleasures or preferences. Instead, it focuses on objective welfare interests. For example: life expectancy, access to education, employment, health, access to housing and so on.

    3. The Attraction of Welfare Utilitarianism
    Goodin thinks welfare utilitarianism an attractive concept. It seems to solve some of the problems that confront the other variants of utilitarianism. For example, the other variants would force us to "get inside each others heads"; welfare utilitarianism does not.

    Further, it would be difficult to develop an impersonal way of measuring subjective pleasures and pains; objective welfare interests (such as life expectancy, access to education and employment) are easier to quantify and compare.

    That said, problems undeniably remain. Two biggies concern the way in which the pie of pleasures, preferences or welfare interests is divided up. Because utilitarians advocate an impersonal summing and maximisation of utilities, they could end up with a society where one individual gets everything. Likewise, they could end up with a society where there is a radical redistribution of utilities (irrespective of merit). Both would seem to be justified on the utilitarian logic.

    Goodin responds to each of these scenarios as follows:
    • The phenomenon of diminishing marginal utility (e.g. getting less out of the third mars bar than the first) makes the radically inegalitarian society unlikely.
    • The costs to security, stability and productive output would make the radically egalitarian society unlikely.
    These responses are probably accurate but note: they are contingent upon empirical facts. There is nothing within utilitarianism itself that prevents the inegalitarian or radically communist society from maximising utility. The mere possibility of such societies is enough to make rights-theorists quake in their boots.

    Nonetheless, Goodin maintains that welfare utilitarianism is the most pragmatic and effective guide for policy-makers.

    Wednesday, December 16, 2009

    Christian Ethics by Ronald Preston (Part 2)

    Welcome to the second part of my summary of Ronald Preston's essay on Christian Ethics.

    In part 1, I looked at the basic ethical message drawn from the gospel accounts of Jesus. The key innovation of Christian ethics was its radicalised form of love or agape. This was a completely disinterested and selfless form of love.

    In this part, I look at how that message was adopted and transformed by St. Paul and other early leaders of the Christian church. I close by examining some common criticisms of Christian ethics.

    1. St. Paul and the Early Church
    Although there is no direct account of the teachings of Christ in Paul's various letters, Preston thinks it clear that he grasped the basic message as being one of love (Romans 13).

    Unlike Jesus, Paul offered specific guidance to members of the early church. A good example of this comes in 1 Corinthians 7, when he answers questions on the subject of marriage. When giving this specific guidance, Preston argues that Paul demonstrates a failure to fully absorb the Christian message. This is particularly evident in his sexist teachings with respect to the place of women.

    One notable aspect of Paul's teachings is that they were not otherworldly. He did not suggest that the followers of Christ abandon the interests worldly existence and sit about waiting for the End Times. So he did not embrace the full apocalyptic import of Jesus's teachings.

    Moving beyond Paul, the later books of the New Testament (Colossians, Ephesians etc) show the early church struggling to keep to the radicalism of Jesus. This is perhaps understandable: after the apocalypse failed to come, the church leaders had to find some way to keep Jesus's message relevant. Preston argues that they did so by regressing slightly, by downplaying the centrality of agape and by adopting a patriarchal view of society.

    One final development can be observed in Hebrews and Revelations: the almost complete abandonment of the message of love. For example, in Revelations there is no express desire that sinners will repent and accept Christ; rather, there is an exultation in their expected punishment. This seems contrary to Jesus's core message.

    Preston closes this part of his discussion with the observation that it has always been difficult to make the Christian message relevant. This has led to innumerable distortions, mutations and revivals.

    2. Common Criticisms of Christian Ethics
    Preston ends his article with a brief list of the common criticisms of Christian ethics. They are:

    1. Christianity is intolerant and breeds intolerance: Preston accepts the force of this criticism, pointing out the fierce factional fighting that has often overcome followers. He also makes reference to the legacy of anti-semitism.
    2. Christianity offers only a morality of reward/punishment: This is the idea that people are scared into good deeds by the threat of damnation and the hope of salvation. This, it is argued, is a corruption of the true nature of agape, which encourages us to abandon these self-interested goals.
    3. Christianity is repressive: This is the idea that the impossible goal of agape gives rise to a repressive and guilt-ridden psychology. It is detrimental to true personal growth and fulfillment. This is tied to a final criticism.
    4. Christianity provides an ethics of immaturity: Here, the claim is that Christian teachings encourages people to abandon careful, contextual thought about ethical questions. Instead, they are encouraged to develop reactionary attitudes based on the virtue of "conscience". Preston thinks this is a mistake. The doctrine of conscience does not necessarily mean the abandonment of thought; it only means that actions should be done out of proper conviction.