Friday, January 06, 2006

The Ideal Atheist State


I know it is off topic ...but I am interested.

How does an atheist like Dawkins or Dennet or Myers suggest a legal system should be contructed from first principles?

In other words upon what basis precisely does a leader have the authority to command obedience to any rules... and how is the leader supposed to get a satisfactory set of rules in a state.

In my little experiment....imagine that the Pilgrim Fathers were all persecuted atheists who wanted to set up an ideal atheistic state.... or if you like ... put Dawkins, Dennet and Myers on a boat and send them off to build the nation of their dreams...what would it look like? Any suggestions? I am especially interested in how they would go about building a new legal system from scratch.

13 Comments:

Anonymous Hector said...

Before I bite, are you saying that an atheist has no moral framework within which to construct those laws? If so, that's a broader question than merely constructing legal systems.

Also, do you mean "atheist" or "non-Christian"?

9:56 pm  
Blogger Lifewish said...

Now, I find this extremely interesting cos I once tried to build a legal system from scratch myself. The primary conclusion was that lawyers are not overpaid, but I did get a few ideas out.

Firstly, the basic reason why society as a whole should get together and set limits on what its citizens can do is because those limits improve matters for society as a whole. It's the "enlightened self-interest" thing writ large. So laws have to be judged primarily by whether their consistent application works towards the benefit of the group.

Secondly, there are far more factors than are immediately obvious that come into play regards whether a given law is beneficial to the populace. There are several factors that by default imply that we should avoid passing laws:
1) The monetary cost of applying the law (this is slowly pushing marijuana use over into legality). It's an open question as to whether this is a valid concern.
2) The monetary cost to the population of avoiding breaching the law (red tape is a horrible thing).
3) The negative impact from the fear of the population that they might be falsely accused (this is strangling capital punishment and is resulting in challenges to the DMCA)

There's also a couple of factors that argue for an increase in the number of laws:
1) Greater ability for the police to arrest someone who they think is playing silly buggers (for example with most anti-terrorism laws). It's an open question as to whether this is a good thing, but the govt certainly seems to think so.
2) The monetary gain that can be generated for the govt by applying fines for lawbreaking (for example with speed cameras). Again, it's an open question as to whether this is a valid reason.
3) The sense of security that apparently a big chunk of society gets from knowing that "deviants" are being taken care of (for example, Texas. No specifics needed, just Texas. :P)

As you can probably guess from the distribution of "open question" riders, I personally feel that as few laws as possible is best. Sadly, I'm not an adviser to the EU :-/

Beyond that, sad to say, an heuristic case-by-case handling of the situation seems to be the only valid approach, along with appropriate attempts to generalise legal principles (freedom of speech, for example). This is, by the way, why it's easy for an atheist like myself to support the current legal system - the only problems I have with it are those I would still have if I were a devout Christian.

A valid toolkit for deciding whether an action should be made illegal might go as follows:
1) First, assume that the action is legal (many governments sadly ignore this step)
2) What negative impacts does the behaviour have that it's valid to blame it for? For example, homophobic reactions to a gay couple couldn't validly be laid at that couple's door unless they were in fact doing it in the street scaring the horses.
3) What positive impacts does the behaviour have? Weight them similarly for validity - for example, stealing from a bank helps keep the money in circulation but this still isn't a valid reason to do so.

Any thoughts? Incidentally, please tell me to give it a rest if my excessively long posts are getting irritating.

10:52 pm  
Blogger Andrew Rowell said...

Hello hector,

I meant atheist.

11:17 pm  
Blogger Andrew Rowell said...

Lifewish,
Do you mean might is right?

11:20 pm  
Blogger Lifewish said...

Not that I was aware of, no. Broadly speaking I was saying that what's good for society as a whole is generally good for individuals and vice-versa. As such it's valid for said individuals to devise "rules of play" to ensure that no individual is able to consistently act to the detriment of others.

If you want to discuss the concept of "might makes right" I'm happy to do so, but I'm pretty sure that it's not directly relevant here.

12:35 am  
Blogger Andrew Rowell said...

Lifewish,

What I meant was...what do you do if some group(s) differ with you about the specific laws that will be best...how do you get the right set? How should a state decide?

9:16 am  
Blogger Lifewish said...

Argue it out, the same way we do at the moment. Ask each side to state their position, then tear those positions apart looking for logical fallacies and/or dodgy assumptions. Hopefully you'll eventually figure out that one side or the other is logically inconsistent. If neither side is, you're stuck with going with the weight of evidence.

As an example, assume that group A is proposing an amendment that would legalise discrimination against black people. Group B is fighting this tooth and nail. There's no obvious logical fallacy in group B's position - it's internally consistent to resist discrimination, as far as I can tell. The possible logical fallacy in group A's position is whether they'd be equally happy about discrimination against a white person. If the answer is no, there's a fallacy of special pleading. If the answer is yes, then at least they're internally consistent.

Assuming logical consistency, we can then look at the consequences. The main effect of allowing discrimination will be to increase people's personal freedom of choice, which makes it a good default position. The negative effects would be to increase interracial tension and to fail to fully utilise the human resources that the black population represents - the next Einstein could be out there, but if he/she can't get into a university because of his/her colour then he/she is screwed, and so are the people that would have benefited from his/her discoveries.

You're right that the majority vote in and of itself is not sufficient to ensure that a law is good. If it were, there'd probably be a law saying that traffic wardens should be euthanised by now. However, the majority vote of a portion of the population that's been explicitly trained in rational thought and has fully studied the situation will, IMO, generally come to the "right" (most accurate) conclusion.

Which, now I come to think about it, is exactly what the scientific method represents. Score one for Popper's Open Society generalisation!

2:23 pm  
Blogger Sergio Méndez said...

Hmm..."Command and obedience"...those are the basis of the theist state? Sounds a bit fascistoid if you ask me...

6:50 pm  
Anonymous Ian H Spedding said...

As an agnostic, I would base my moral and legal systems on the principles set out by J S Mill in On Liberty

The question I would ask any Christians squatting complacently on the moral high ground is: bearing in mind the fact that in the Old Testament God endorses behaviours we would regard as criminal or atrocious, is an act only right or moral because God says it is or does right or goodness or morality exist independent of God's will?

12:14 pm  
Blogger Ed Darrell said...

In the United States we use the concept pioneered by the immigrants aboard the Mayflower: Consent of the governed. As Thomas Jefferson noted in the Declaration of Independence, just governments rely on it.

What did you think we used? Unjust government?

4:37 am  
Blogger Andrew Rowell said...

Ed,

And by the consent of the governed do you mean a straight majority of the entire population or a majority of the elected respresentatives?

9:51 am  
Blogger beervolcano said...

I think it would look pretty similar to a legal system of a secular country, like the United States. For instance, the laws wouldn't be based on the 10 commandments. There would be no laws requiring women to have their heads covered. Things like that.

I would think that an atheist legal system would look like a secular legal system. I think it would be pretty neutral to religion. I don't think it would be discriminatory

4:55 am  
Blogger Andrew Rowell said...

Beervolcano,

The US is not and never was a secular country. The separation of church and state was not intended to establish a secular state.

A secular state is one which seeks to establish everything on an atheistic basis which ends up to my mind with morality simply being entirely arbitrary and based on who is strongest.

12:50 pm  

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