I’ve been working on expanding the number of blogs I read regularly in general and the ones dealing with atheism in particular. In my wanderings I came across Alonzo Fyfe’s blog called Atheist Ethicist and it’s quickly become a daily read. Alonzo explores the realms of ethics and morality from the standpoint of an atheist and he puts forth a number of excellent arguments on everything from Secular vs Non-Secular Acceptance of Torture to The Limits of Religious Tolerance and he’s already helped me to clarify my own thinking on several of these topics in doing so. I don’t know how widely read his blog is, but I’d like to do my part to raise awareness of it.
In my experience most folks haven’t spent a lot of time examining the reasons why they have and hold certain moral viewpoints—this is true of atheists as much as it is any believer—and when it comes time to explain to other people why their particular viewpoint is correct, or even valid, they have a hard time articulating those reasons because they’ve not really thought about them all that much. Most often they’ve heard the viewpoint from someone else and it just seemed to make sense to them so they accepted it as correct. I like to think I’ve spent more time than most, but I have to admit that there’s been more than one viewpoint I’ve simply accepted as correct without devoting much thought to it and have been caught with my pants down when called on to explain my reasoning.
This is what makes Atheist Ethicist such a valuable blog. Alonzo has clearly spent a considerable bit of time not only thinking about his views, but studying various moral and ethical frameworks and he can argue his stance versus other proposed models very effectively. Occasionally it gets a bit thick in the tech-speak of ethics discussion and may make you a bit cross-eyed trying to follow along if you haven’t had similar training, but it’s worth the effort to work your way through it as you may be surprised at what you learn about yourself along the way. Take for example his most recent entry on Media Bias:
Last night, I read the article. “I Agree With You, Completely” from Jack Shafer on Slate.com. Slater’s article discusses what he called “a math-heavy paper” called “Media Bias and Reputation,” written by two economists, Matthew Gentzko and Jesse M. Shapiro.
One of the findings that the pair reported was that if you own a news outlet (or, I assume, a blog), and you want your audience to be objective, you will tell your [audience] what they want (expect) to hear. If you should tell your audience something that they do not already believe, they will be more likely to attribute your claims to your lack of objectivity than to their own bias. In short, media acquire a reputation for ‘objectivity’ by slanting news stories so that they conform to their audience’s preconceptions.
From this beginning Alonzo discusses some other related findings and what some folks really seem to mean when they claim that someone else isn’t being ‘objective’ or is showing ‘bias’ based on what these studies show us to be actually happening in our heads. He proposes that instead of trying to consider how ‘objective’ someone is we should consider how honestly or accurately they’ve provided both sides of an issue:
I sometimes think that the concept of “objectivity” was invented by people with poor arguments as a way of arguing that others pretend that their position has more strength than it actually has. “If you point out my false assumptions and blatantly invalid reasoning, then you are not being objective,” is an effective way to hide false assumptions and invalid reasoning.
In place of objectivity, I would like to substitute honesty. “Has the author presented the case on each side of the issue accurately?” It may well be the case that “accuracy” in this case simply supports the conclusion, “Those people are wrong.” The people who say that the earth is flat are wrong. There is nothing wrong with saying that.
Finally his conclusion for this entry should cause you to take a moment to consider your own beliefs and how you arrived at them:
Here, once again, we need to return to the studies that I cited above. They say that an individual may do a good job in identifying the mistakes made by a partisan writer for “the other side,” whatever side that is. At the same time, they tend to blind themselves to the contradictions and inconsistencies to the writers working on the author’s own side. If you find yourself agreeing with somebody, this does not mean that he is right. In fact, it means that you should not trust yourself to determine whether he or she is right. You may be blinding yourself to the contradictions and inconsistencies carried within his argument.
All of this argues in favor of being a bit skeptical of one’s own beliefs. And that hearing or reading somebody who agrees with you is poor evidence that you are right. It argues in favor of recognizing the possibility of error and listening well to critics.
Strangely, people blame the media for media bias. Ultimately, it seems, the problem does not come from the media, but from us. We are too quick to grant the label of “objective” to those who have merely demonstrated the capacity to say what we want to believe, and to deny objectivity based on nothing more than the fact that the speaker or writer does not share our opinions.
Rational and responsible thought requires a bit more effort than that.
Of course I’ve only snipped small segments of the essay and you really should go read the whole thing, but I hope this gets across why I think he’s got such a great blog that should be widely read by everyone, believers and non-believers, alike. For those of us who value reason and rationality it’ll help you to understand your own way of thinking a bit more as well as help you to spot when you’re making mistakes and for those believers who are always asking how an atheist can have any morals without a God to enforce them it’ll provide some of the answers they’re looking for. Good stuff and highly recommended.