Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Actual Magic Sticks For Sale! Amazing!

There are important moral questions that crop up when skeptics sell woo to goofballs. One end of the position spectrum states that secular types should never do this because it's immoral to take advantage of what you know to be bad reasoning, and it reinforces other people's bad reasoning. At the other end, people are free to buy and sell as they please, and it's amazingly arrogant to decide whether any individual is intellectually fit enough to buy or sell something.

I've previously used the example of magic sticks, although amazingly it's now more than a thought experiment:

Above: life imitates blogs. An actual magic stick that someone is selling. I'm mostly just pissed off that I didn't do it when I first blogged about it. But mine will be better. Note that at $20, mine is $5 cheaper too. But every bit as magical.

So here's the rub. Let's say I'm a magic stick atheist, and I think they're just inert pieces of wood, but a bunch of other people believe the magic sticks have special powers and are willing to give me large sums of money for them. Hey, maybe I'm wrong; who am I to force my beliefs on others? (Christians have said that to me enough times, and suddenly it's making a lot of sense.)

So I would like to get in on the magic stick business. I'm not kidding. This is no longer a thought experiment. I'm going to make one and put it up for sale online. I'll link to it from this post and from a new one once I do it.

Moral questions raised:

- Is it immoral for me to take advantage of someone else's different ideas about the value of the product? The answer to this is a clear no (disagree? go here for more). The bottom line is that maybe $20 is worth more to me than what I consider merely a piece of wood, but to them, $20 is worth much less than a powerful totem. You might even argue that the more money I can drain away from these goofy people and use to support skeptical causes, the better! And the best part is, the magic-stick-buying-goofball is sure they got a good deal, because hey, magic stick for twenty smackeroos! What a steal! After all, who am I to force my beliefs on them? Right, Christians? (If you're religious and run across this post and it makes you angry, I sincerely invite you to try to explain in the comments what I'm doing wrong here.)

Whoa there progressives, settle down! Remember every $20 I part from a Christian buying one of my magic sticks is $20 that does not go into this woman's campaign chest, and goes to a pro-Separation secular humanist. And those other magic sticks might actually be made by Christians who believe in them. Feel better now?

- Complication: what if they don't know I'm a magic stick atheist? Is it immoral then? If they don't ask, I'm not going to tell them. Let's turn the tables here to see if the golden rule applies to my actions. Let's say I have a disease that's treatable, but with an expensive drug. Somehow I find someone who has a (verifiably real) stash of this drug. Would I really care whether she believes it works? Not in the slightest. Golden rule upheld.

- Additional complication: what if they do ask me, and I lie? Now I admit it's getting complicated. Golden rule test: after I buy the drugs, the lady who sold them to me says, "Ha ha sucker, I'm a homeopath and I just sold you a bunch of worthless big pharma poison." I still don't care that she doesn't believe or even that she lied to me, since I got what I wanted; golden rule upheld again. However, people who buy "magic" things often don't think this way, and want to buy them from other people who believe the same things. So, following the golden rule here is not the same as treating people how they want to be treated - a situation which, by the way, happens far more than anyone would like to admit. As in, most of the time.

But are we obligated to indulge people's irrationality by offering information that doesn't really make a difference? That is, what if there's a weird guy who comes to my clinic and says I can't use a reflex hammer on him that's ever been near a magnet; if I lie and tell him "we always protect our hammers from magnets" while winking at my attending physician, am I doing something wrong? If that's okay (which I think it is, because his concern is ridiculous) then why would it not be okay to tell observant Jews there's no pork in the food you're selling them even though there is? Swine flesh won't really hurt them any more than magnets. If there's an answer here that doesn't honestly reduce to "more people have believed in one of them for longer", then I don't know what it is. (On a related note, here's a post about the use of a meaningless word to get a scholarship, that some might find deceptive.)

- Final complication: even if I lie and get lots of money and they're none the wiser, I will still be reinforcing their worldview by trading under these pretenses.

As stated above, there are now real people, selling real magic sticks! (Most proximately, H/T to Vorjack at Unreasonable Faith). And how do we know the seller isn't already an atheist who is fleecing Christians and giving money to secular causes?

In this case there's a clear answer. These other magic sticks are highly immoral, and the reason is obvious. I should be getting magic stick royalties, and I'm not.


dbonfitto said...

There is simply no way I can comment on an article you wrote about 'magic sticks' without being uncouth, but I'm going to try.

Is it immoral to sell people what they want when what they want is fiction? Not really.

Is it immoral to encourage belief in fiction? Most likely. Certainly when such fiction causes actual harm.

Your magic phallus sales encourage a market where fraud is given a wink and a nod. Doing it as an atheist, erodes any moral high ground we might have as reality-based ethical agents.

Better to tax the dickens out of magic stick sales and encourage a secular government to redistribute that wealth towards common good projects like health care, education, or park benches.

Also, I don't think that the stick in your picture is supposed to have magic powers. It's supposed to make people ask you what the fuck it is so that you can yammer on about magic daddy to them. It doesn't keep you from being attacked by tigers or help you find water.

Also, sticks are penis totems.

Michael Caton said...

I agree that encouraging belief in fiction is the rub. But I disagree that moral high ground is lost, because it's not fraud if you sell them what you say you're selling them, but misrepresent your own (irrelevant) background, i.e. tell them you're a (Christian/Republican/Eagles fan) when in reality you're not. That's not part of the deal unless it's explicitly discussed.

Your most observation that stick=penis, is at once important and so self-evident as to be trivial.

dbonfitto said...

It's not usually damaging fraud to make up white lies about your interests in sports, religion, or prurient interest in plush animals to make a sale because it's irrelevant to the sale. I concur.

However, it does call into question your trustworthiness as a person. When your customer runs into you at a party and you're rooting against the Eagles, you transform into a liar.

As an atheist, we are under constant, blatant attack for having 'no moral compass' by much of the religious rhetoric in this country. It is not enough for us to merely meet minimal ethical standards as human beings. We must also strive to be more ethical, more moral, more honest, and more reality-based than those who defame us.

As a vocal atheist, you'd better be a motherfuckin' white knight of upstanding honesty. I will put on my Nipsy Russell voice modulator and say: "When it comes to the nitty-gritty, you've gotta have integrity."

Is it really worth the opportunity cost of slowing the acceptance of atheists as moral and ethical humans just to sell a few cheap sticks?

Michael Caton said...

You're right that this act would be viewed by theists as dishonest and confirmatory of most of their ideas of atheists. Why it's unclear for me is that by placing such importance on the seller's beliefs, we're playing their game - we're acting like it all matters and that it's not just silly nonsense. There must be some point at which we base our moral thinking on things we consider important and/or real, rather than that of people we think are wrong,
even if they're going to think we're bastards for it. And though this doesn't provide justification, from a practical standpoint many of them are going to do that anyway.

I think the most immoral thing to do in this situation would be for a non-magic-stick believer to realize they can make a sh*t-ton of money selling these sticks, and to keep their mouths shut. Certainly that's less immoral than if they sell a few and then announce ha-ha, they were a fake the whole time.

So, to boil down the trade-off: get called dishonest for acting in a way that benefits the atheist movement and is consistent with the values of myself and the people I respect, or be seen as moral by people we think are profoundly mistaken about how to think about moral behavior (which has very practical consequences for the movement.)

Stated generally like this, this is going to come up any time people with different sets of values sincerely try to cooperate.

dbonfitto said...

Placing value on the opinions of theists is important because civilization is not a zero-sum game of wealth distribution. I don't mean that we have to respect silly bronze-age beliefs. I mean that we have to be able to work with them as people.

It benefits all of us when more of us are rational decision-makers, not when a few of us can benefit by supplying magic sticks to a populace who then uses those sticks to oppress others. (Sticks are beliefs in that last sentence and not necessarily phalli.)

Our goal should be education and progress, not playing at piddling trickery for pennies. Atheists should be opposed to theism not just because their beliefs are false, but because their methods are harmful.

If you want to be able to steer humanity towards any long-term goal, (say...getting settled around another star before Sol goes red giant in 4.5 billion years?) you've got to be a real leader, an honest, consistent figure.

If you're a con artist who sells magic sticks you know are just sticks, you are shitting where you eat.