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Here’s what I currently think about morality. Perhaps the pros in the audience can tell me whether this has a name.

It is very hard to come up with a general theory about what makes something right which isn’t open to objections based on hard cases where the theory contradicts our intuitions (consider the dust speck problem if you’re a utilitarian; or the thought that God might command us to eat babies, if you’re a believer in Divine Command Theory). Russell Blackford says:

I’ve seen many attempts to get around the problem with morality – that it cannot possibly be everything that it is widely thought to be (action guiding, intrinsically prescriptive, objectively correct, etc.). In my experience, this is like trying to get rid of the bump in the carpet. The bump always pops up somewhere else. We have to live with it.

Call something an “intuition” if it’s something we just seem to feel is true. Perhaps there’s no empirical evidence for it, perhaps it even doesn’t seem to be the sort of thing there could be empirical evidence for. There’s a question of whether intuitions are reliable, but since one of the things we want from a theory is that it seems compelling, and the abovementioned problems with the conflict of theory and intuitions typically result in us not finding the theory compelling, a successful theory seems to involve satisfying our intuitions (or at least, our meta-intuitions, the means by which we can change some of our intuitions, since there are convinced utilitarians who really believe in torture over dust specks, Divine Command Theorists who believe God can justly command genocide, and so on).

In the case of free standing feelings that we ought to do something regardless of other benefits to us (assuming that such feelings exist and aren’t always just concealed desires for our own benefit, for example, the pleasure we get by doing good), it seems that our upbringing or genes have gifted us with these goals (even in the case of the pleasure, something has arranged it so that doing good feels pleasurable to us).

Assuming that we could work out any particular person’s process for deciding whether something is right, we could possibly present it to them and say “there you go, that’s morality, at least as far as you’re concerned”. There’s the amusing possibility that they’d disagree, I suppose, since I think a lot of the process isn’t consciously available to us. I think the carpet bump occurs at least in part because the typical human process is a lot more complex than any of the grand philosophical theories make it out to be.

We might also encounter people who disagree with us but are persuadable based on intuitions common to most humans, humans who aren’t persuadable, human sociopaths, or (theoretically) paperclip maximizers. In the cases where someone else’s morality is so alien that we cannot persuade them that it’d be bad to kill people for fun or turn the Earth and all that it contains into a collection of paperclips, we can still think they ought not to do that, but it doesn’t really do us much good unless we can enforce it somehow. I see no reason to suppose there’s a universal solvent, a way of persuading any rational mind that it ought to do something independent of threats of enforcement.

And that’s about it: when I say you ought or ought not to do something, I’m appealing to intuitions I hope we have in common, or possibly making a veiled threat or promise of reward. This works because it turns out that many humans do have a lot in common, especially if we were raised in similar cultures. But there’s no reason to suppose there’s more to it than that, moral laws floating around in a Platonic space or being grounded by God, or similar.

I don’t find that this gives me much trouble in using moral language like “right” and “wrong”, though to the extent that other people use those terms while thinking that there are rights and wrongs floating around in Platonic space which would compel any reasoning mind, I’m kind of an error theorist, I suppose, but I don’t suppose that everyone does do that.

Many years ago, I signed up for Bloglines. It’s a service which aggregates the feeds from various blogging sites, so you can read them in one place without having to do the rounds of your favourite sites looking for updates. (On LiveJournal, your friends page serves the same function, and you can add the feeds of external sites if you’re a paying customer).

I left Bloglines for Google Reader when Bloglines became unreliable. Google Reader is nice: it looks clean, and there’s an app for it for my Android phone. I recommend it over LiveJournal, which is dying of spam; and Bloglines, for the reasons I’ll now get into.

A while back, Bloglines was taken over by a company called MerchantCircle. They sent me an email to say they were the new owners, which is fair enough. As far as I remember, I hadn’t logged into Bloglines since I moved to the superior Google Reader service, so I just ignored it.

Yesterday I got an unsolicited bulk email (spam) from MerchantCircle advertising a service not related to Bloglines. Worse, the link they offered to unsubscribe from their mailing list didn’t work, as it required a login and password (first mistake: removal links from mailing lists should authenticate the user sufficiently to get off the list). Worse still, giving the email address to which MerchantCircle sent spam to the “forgot password” box gave an error saying that the address was not known: MerchchantCircle don’t even know who they’re spamming. Logging back into Bloglines doesn’t give an “unsubscribe” option either.

I consider Bloglines/MerchantCircle to have gone rogue. I’ve removed the “subscribe with Bloglines” buttons from my blog, and advise anyone else who still has those buttons to do the same. Use Google Reader instead: Google don’t spam.

Edited to add: MerchantCircle have emailed back to apologise, saying they had a “weird glitch” in their email system which caused some Bloglines users to get MerchantCircle emails. In recognition of this, I’m downgrading them from “rogue” to “incompetent”.

LiveJournal coughs to their crimes, sort of

So, LiveJournal finally sort of owned up to getting blacklisted for helping spammers, as mentioned previously. This posting is their response to the situation. They say they’re doing the right things, although you do have to wonder what took them so long.

They didn’t name Spamhaus or properly explain why they’d been blacklisted, so I explained in the comments.

The spice must flow

Notifications are coming through now because LJ have changed the IP address of their outgoing mail server from 208.93.0.128 (the address of www.livejournal.com) to 208.93.0.49 (which calls itself mail.livejournal.net, but isn’t accepting inbound mail). The blacklisting for the old address is still in place. The spammy journals specifically mentioned in the SBL listing seem to have been suspended, though.

It’s not clear if this change of IP address is part of some agreement between Spamhaus and LJ or whether LJ think they can avoid the blacklist and continue to ignore complaints. If it’s the latter, I’m fetching popcorn. It’s the work of a few keystrokes for Spamhaus to block LJ’s entire address range, and I vaguely recall they’ve been happy to do that in the past for people who’ve taken the piss.

(Disclaimer: I’m not Spamhaus, I just used to hang out on news.admin.net-abuse.email in the 1990s, when it was cool).

Postings in news have been a bit cagey about what’s going on with comment notification emails. They’ve mentioned that there’s a “third party” involved. It turns out that LiveJournal have got themselves blacklisted by the Spamhaus Block List for providing spam support services, in this case, hosting websites for spammers.

This is why comment notifications aren’t getting through: the SBL is a widely respected and widely used email blacklist. They’re not saying LJ are spammers or indeed sending spam email, they are saying that LJ aren’t taking down journals set up by spammers, so they’re effectively helping the spammers to spam. Most email spam directs the mark to a website, so providing those websites is a serious matter to Spamhaus.

This is worrying: it means LJ probably aren’t responding to complaints about hosting the spammers’ sites. I think Spamhaus would have tried sending email to abuse@lj, though possibly not under their own names, as you want to be sure that reports from ordinary users are handled correctly, same way as restaurant reviewers don’t book saying “I’m Jones from the Times“. The detailed information from Spamhaus lists a huge number of spammy journals, and at least a couple of them were still there when I tried them. This doesn’t bode well for LJ’s future, to my mind.

livredor brought this to my attention. There’s a thread on a news posting discussing the problem. azurelunatic (who is head of anti-spam for Dreamwidth) has more here, and I’ve commented on their posting.

Top Christian Nicky Gumbel, of Alpha Course fame, has a point when he says that cultural Christianity isn’t worth much if you’ve never never darkened the doors of a church (save for weddings, Christenings and funerals) or accepted Jesus as your personal saviour or been slain in the Spirit or whatever.

I’m not sure the success of the Census Campaign would do much more than annoy those Christians who like to bang on about how this is a Christian country in online discussions. But that seems a worthy goal, so I’m happy to support it.

You never know, it might even help get the bishops out of the Lords, which would be even better.

The poster on the right wasn’t endorsed by Gumbel or McDonalds (in fact, I’m told Gumbel got the quote from Keith Green): it’s a mashup from Hampshire Humanists which Crispian Jago found. His site has plenty of other census posters for you to enjoy.

I’ve got some links about this queued up in the link blog, but it seemed worth a proper post as well as the silly one about frogs.

What the Court really said

So, what happened in the recent case of Owen and Eunice Johns is that both sides (the Johns and Derby Council) asked the court for a ruling on an abstract point. Contrary to what you’ve read in the press about a “ban” on Christians fostering, Derby Council hadn’t decided that they couldn’t be foster parents, so the Johns were not seeking to overturn a decision, merely to establish a principle. (It’s also worth mentioning that many Christians do not have bigoted views on homosexuality, and so talk of a ban on “Christians” is too broad).

The full text of the judgement should be required reading for anyone tempted to spout off about the case. It’s a bit long, but there are moments of light relief, such as when the Court rounds on the Johns’ barrister, Paul Diamond, who was funded by the infamous Christian Legal Centre:

In his skeleton argument and in his oral submissions, Mr Diamond lays much emphasis upon various arguments, many of them couched in extravagant rhetoric, which, to speak plainly, are for the greater part, in our judgment, simply wrong as to the factual premises on which they are based and at best tendentious in their analysis of the issues.

The Court makes reference to previous cases of anti-gay Christians seeking legal relief, such as the Gary McFarlane case, in which the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, intervened. The judges consider the previous judgements both correct and binding on them. As such, at the end of the case, they don’t grant either side what they’re asking for, and it’s still up to the council to make their decision.

Old time religion

The courts are clear, both in this judgement and previous ones, that they are not ruling that anti-gay Christians are bigots: that’s my language, not theirs. For my part, I have Christian friends who probably share some of the Johns’ views. I think the best analogy I can find to that is the way much-loved elderly relatives sometimes start going on about “darkies” and immigrants and whatnot: it’s obviously nasty, but you feel more embarrassed for the relatives than worried about the effect on black or Asian people. Usually, it’s easier just to stay off the topic. (Edit: I elaborate on this analogy in discussion with tifferrobinson on an old post, here). However, when that sort of thing comes from the mouths of people paid to act for the State, I don’t think it can be allowed to stand.

A couple of Christian commentators have distinguished themselves by writing sensible stuff on this most recent court case: I commend to you Christian journalist Gavin Drake, who sounds even more annoyed with the CLC than me (perhaps because they’re letting the side down); and Peter Ould (who I remember from my uk.religion.christian days).

At the end of his piece, Ould goes into the consequences for bigoted Christians: their continued attempts to make hay in the courts are failing, and he suggests that they should switch tactics, and instead look to the legislature, though I have to say that I don’t expect them to do particularly well there, either: the Lib-Dems are liberal, and Cameron has been careful to disassociate himself from the crazy anti-gay right in his party.

Ould also points out the oddity of a monarch sworn to uphold the laws of God and a judiciary who no longer think that Christianity has a special place in UK law. I can’t help but agree: disestablishment would now seem to be unfinished business, and I’d be in favour of it. It’d get the bishops out of the House of Lords, and maybe it’d stop bigoted Christians from wasting the courts’ time with these fruitless lawsuits.

Edited: Bishop Alan Wilson also has some useful thoughts on the matter.

As spokesfrog for the Melanesian Frog Worshippers’ Legal Centre, I am offended by the statements of Canon Dr Sugden, of the Fellowship of Mainstream Confessing Anglican Christians (Except If You’re Gay), as reported in the Telegraph.

We of the MFWLC object to the increasing marginalisation of frog worship in this country. If this sort of thing continues, we will have no alternative but to embark on series of fruitless lawsuits backed by suspiciously friendly articles in the Daily Mail. This is bound to increase the public’s dwindling respect for our faith.

Over on Less Wrong, an interesting post on ordinary skills that readers happent to lack has developed into an interesting sub-thread about guys asking women out at dancing. I’ve contributed a bit. As I’m male, though, I may be completely wrong, so if any dancing women want to comment, I’m sure it’d be appreciated.

PS: Read Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. It’s great!

Here are what I think are my best posts of 2010:

As I hinted at in that last post of mine, this has been a difficult year for me, culminating in my ongoing divorce proceedings after my then wife unexpectedly told me that she considered that whole “forsaking all others” thing as less of a solemn vow and more of a guideline. I’ve taken a long look at my priorities as a result, and resolved to spent less time arguing with idiots on the Internet (so, if you see me back on the Premier Christian Radio forums, remind me of my resolution) and more time going out dancing. There’ll probably be fewer posts of substance from me in 2011; however, I’m perfectly happy to argue with sane and sensible people, and I doubt I’ll be able to resist that urge entirely.

Thanks to my friends and family for all their support, and to the strangers who wrote to ask where I’d gone during the hiatus in my postings. May 2011 be a better year for us all.