Thursday, February 28, 2013

Pulling Back The Hand Of God Over Government

Dear to my heart is the preservation on our great secular democracy. Opponents on both sides of the secular debate like to point out that their stance on the issue is under attack. But it is worthy to note that some of the complaints made by anti-secularists are really just in response to attempts to get our nation back on track with its secular roots after blatant violations made over the years. For instance, take the following oath all president-elects must swear in order to become president. 

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

Did you notice what's missing? Let me give you some help. There is no "so help me God" written in the oath and the words "God" nor "Creator" do not appear anywhere in the US Constitution. Likewise, the Pledge of Allegiance was modified in 1954 at the height of the McCarthy era when the fear of communism inspired some Americans to violate our separation of church and state by including the words "under God".

The original:
"I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands; one Nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all." 
The modified version:
"I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

Attempts to remove these augmentations have been met with stiff resistance mostly from theists who complain of the secularization of the US by godless atheists. But us godless atheists really just want to see our nation get back to being a secular democracy as it originally was, as intended by our founding fathers.

The communism scare of the fifties was also when the phrase "In God We Trust" got stamped onto our paper currency, replacing the previous motto, "E pluribus unum" or "Out of many, one". In 1956, the 84TH UNITED STATES CONGRESS passed Public Law 84-851 which declared that the national motto of the US to be "In God We Trust". While not exactly establishing a religion as the first amendment prohibits, this is a form of "ceremonial deism" forcing others to officially recognize god.

So when secularists fight against these intrusions of god into our official government, they are really just fighting to make our country as secular as it originally was. Some anti-secularists forget that these mentions of "God" were inserted years later often as attempts to make the US appear as a god-fearing nation to distinguish it from the godless communists. There are also people who actually think that if we acknowledge god, he will aid the United States and protect Americans from enemies during wars and conflicts. These are the people that also believe that god in the Old Testament chooses sides with tribes at war and that the outcome of what tribe won the war depended on what side god was on. Many of these people are in Congress and have occupied the White House. This has me concerned. I'm weary of elected officials who think that trying to make America as much of a Christian nation as possible will somehow ensure its people's prosperity into the future. These are the same lawmakers however who are lining the pockets of big business and are doing almost everything they can to cash in on opportunity of getting rich, while sending the future of American down the drain. It makes little moral sense for the god-fearing, but that's another story.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Road Towards Antitheism

Christopher Hitchens introduced the word antitheist to me years ago when I began listening to his debates. It struck me kind of oddly at the time for me to consider if I was one myself. I've always been an atheist or an agnostic as far as I could remember, and I always remember being highly skeptical towards religious claims whenever they confronted me. Before my mid-twenties though, I cannot remember being openly hostile towards religious faith other than simply being skeptical. I did occasionally at times mock the creationist viewpoint of religion but I don't recall ever going out of my way to chastise the religion or its believers.

That is, until I started paying attention to creationism/evolution debate, which sparked my interest in the theism/atheism debate, to which I naturally sided with the atheists. Around this time I began reading the Bible and the Qur'an, which I had several copies of thanks to my religious mother. It was only when I began familiarizing myself with what religions actually say, that I began travelling down the road towards antitheism. Perhaps I could say that the Bible and the Qur'an made me an antitheist, but I don't think that's the full story. Christopher Hitchens' and Richard Dawkins' polemics helped give me the final push. Considering these religions are pushing to create a world that I do not want to see actualized at any time while I'm alive or even after I'm dead, I was naturally destined towards antitheism.

So you could say that before when I was ignorant towards what religions actually say, I was merely an atheist, but after having known what they're about and what they stand for, I became an antitheist.


To Propagate, Or Not To Propagate?

I sometimes think there's something wrong with me. I don't quite understand why I have absolutely no interest in kids - either having my own, or other people's kids. I've never even had  the desire to have my own. I actually find kids to be very annoying, and I find almost no pleasure in being around them. Why is this? It goes against everything biology and evolution is supposed to give us. The desire for kids is supposed to ensure the survival of the species, but I somehow lack it. Perhaps evolution also ensures that some of us will not desire kids in order to mitigate potential overpopulation, which mankind clearly faces. I don't know for sure what may be the causes of my lack of desire for kids, but I know it has caused some rifts in my interpersonal relationships.

I am already passed that age where my family is putting pressure on me to marry and have kids, and there have been many women I've dated who were less than enthusiastic when they discovered my desire to remain childless. I try to justify my stance by appealing to the fact that there are many bad parents out there, and bad parents often give us bad kids who grow up to become bad adults who are responsible for much of the world's problems. Therefore, the only those who truly desire and can care for their kids and who are responsible enough to do so should be having kids. The rest of us should simply refrain from doing so. Of course this won't happen for most of us, but the evidence shows that the more educated women get, the more likely they are to reduce the number of kids they have to what they feel is necessary.

This eludes to a moral concern: is access to contraception a universal human right? Perhaps. I'm not going to engage in such a debate here, but withholding access to contraception would seem about as immoral as withholding access to a desperately needed medicinal cure.

A few people have asked me why I wouldn't want to live on through my children after I'm dead. First of all, having kids in no way guarantees that they'll be anything like you. My father and I are so different on so many levels, that with me the apple fell very far from the tree. Indeed it rolled down a hill and over a river. Second, I am not merely concerned with my genes living on in other people, that's based on a naturalistic egotism. I'd much rather have my words, thoughts and ideas live on beyond me. I find that much more satisfying. If I can contribute something positive to the ideas I'm passionate about, then I could really die a happy man. I wish I could, in some small way, leave this world with a better impression that when I lived in it. The things I am passionate about - freedom, reason that is free of dogma, scientific education and literacy, and morality, are all things that will best aid humanity in the problems we face. Merely spreading my seed when compared to this most worthy of goals, I don't feel is comparable.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Multiculturalism And The Failures Of Moral Relativism


"Should we tolerate the intolerant?" someone asks.

"No," I reply.

"Our toleration of others should only go so far as it is being reciprocated. This would mean for example that the Islamic extremest who wants to destroy our values and restrict our freedoms should not at all be tolerated. He should be opposed and if necessary, destroyed."

Multiculturalism forces us to address these kind of issues. There are an increasing number of critics of multiculturalism that say it's a failure, especially in many European countries like France, England and Germany. I agree with at least some of this criticism because although I'm a "liberal" on most issues, the bleeding heart tolerance and political correctness of those on the far left asks us to sacrifice our principles because it might offend Muslims when they immigrate to the West. This is because people on the far left are total moral relativists. They've been brainwashed by political correction into thinking all moral values and cultures are equally valid and no better or worse than any other. So the Muslim countries that are now executing homosexuals are no better or worse than ours, they're just different. "Who are we to judge their morals?" says the relativist. "Who are we to impose our morals on theirs? Their morals are just different."

The problems of multiculturalism are exacerbated by the problems of total moral relativism and nihilism, and this is why multiculturalism has failed in the West. I've spoken to a lot of liberals who support such things as gender equality and gay rights, while also supporting intolerant Muslims who stand against nearly everything the liberals hold dear. Even moderate Muslims tend to be against homosexuality and gay rights in larger numbers. A 2009 Gallup poll found that 0% of UK Muslims found homosexuality morally acceptable, compared to 58% of the general UK population. The same poll found that the numbers from other European countries were not as extreme but mirrored similar trends that showed support amongst Muslims for homosexuality, sex outside of marriage, and pornography to be much lower than the general populace.


Given these facts, what is the future of multiculturalism if attitudes don't change? We can expect to see a growing minority of people whose values are at odds with the culture they are surrounded by. This can only spell long term trouble. Countries should therefore be in the business of assimilating immigrants to embrace tolerance, or they should be stopping or limiting immigration based on how tolerant potential immigrants are. It is my view, that immigration should be based in part on how well one can assimilate to the culture. The growing problem of the Islamification of Europe only highlights this problem. The solution to this problem, as I prescribe, is to embrace the kind of ethical realism and naturalism that I subscribe to and reject the relativism and nihilism that leads to these kind of problems produced by multiculturalism. Theists know how to do this but their divine command theory of ethics is wrong on epistemology and ontology. They base their ethics on ancient scribes, not in the unconstrained use of science and reason.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Republicans Love Cheap Labor But Hate The Welfare State: Problem

Bill Maher recently said something interesting about our economy on Real Time the other week. Responding to the negative republican reaction to Pres. Obama's proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $9, Maher commented that we're either going to have a welfare state where the government subsidizes food, housing and medical care of the people, or we're going to have to force businesses to pay people a livable wage so that they're not working 40 hours a week and still in poverty. It's true. The bottom third of the economy who gets by on minimum wage while often raising kids lives virtually at the poverty level at the current rate of $7.25. This makes them more reliant on government aid fostering the welfare state.

Republicans have long argued that raising the minimum wage will hurt businesses and force them to raise their prices which will hurt consumers. Maher thinks that we should let prices go up: people with money will still buy their $11 salads even if it goes up to $12. I agree. We have to pay people a decent livable wage in this country if we don't want working people swelling up the welfare lines. When we become a country like Brazil or Mexico that has enormous economic disparities between the haves and the have-nots, we'll either have to live in a welfare state or we'll have millions living abject poverty dying of simple treatable conditions. The "job creators" that republicans speak so highly of, as if they're saints or prophets, will mostly be creating low paying, dead end jobs with no health benefits or job security if they have their way. The job creators must create good paying jobs that allow a person doing it, not to have to require food stamps in order to survive. Creating jobs alone is not enough if there's going to be constant pressure to keep the wages low.

Whenever I've had more money, I've spent more money. This is true for everybody. The only problem business owners realize, is that if they pay workers higher wages, it means they might have to take home less wages themselves. What many of them want is to keep wages as low as possible so that a larger percentage of their earnings can line their own pockets. This is corporate ethos at its best. But the long term trend for this is a permanent, working, underclass, in need of a welfare state, because they cannot earn enough money to pay their rent and go to the doctor when they're sick. It seems republicans are stuck in a catch-22. They can't have it both ways. We either pay workers more, or we're going to have to live in welfare state.

Another reason why republican ideology is as absurd as creationism.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Rediscovering My Rock & Roll Roots

They say that everything popular gets recycled, and over my relatively short 30 years on this Earth, I've seen evidence of that. As I've gotten older I've become increasingly aware of the possibility that I could become an old fogey. I've been seeing some signs of it already: my plummeting disinterest in popular culture combined with my constant fascination with "intellectual" things like science and philosophy. It's not that these things aren't or cannot be cool, it's just that they aren't typically associated with things that "cool" people do. But "cool" is an extremely relative term, impossible to pinpoint. I think today because of the internet, it is easier than ever to stay "cool" so to speak, by knowing what's going on. Therefore I don't think that my generation as it gets older, will follow in the footsteps of previous generations that quickly shed their youthful coolness in favor of old fogey-dom once they settled down and had kids.

Back in the early 2000s there was a cultural explosion of a rediscovery of the old school and seemingly forgotten garage and indie rock that had been bubbling under the surface for so many years. It was in response to the nauseous commercial rock and rap metal that seemed to be hammering the final nail into the coffin of traditional rock. Grunge had run its course and devolved into the whiny alternative and anger metal that so permeated everyday life. At this time, I felt like an outcast not quite being able to identify with the culture around me. But when garage rock came back into style along with a renewed interest in 70s rock and punk, I found a bandwagon I could jump on. I had already been into many 60s and 70s rock acts like The Doors and The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, and so the culture around me seemed to be mirroring my interests. It was in a sense, perfect timing.

I remember the summer of 2002 quite vividly working part time at my sister's store on first street in the East Village. The hipster culture was exploding around me. Everyone cool looked like a 70s rock star or an Andy Warhol groupie. I grew my hair out long for the first time in my life because I remember at the time wanting to look just like Jimmy Page. I had discovered rock and roll and it seemed there was no going back. (If only I had actually learned how to play guitar back then instead of waiting years later.) But now a decade later this discovery seems to have faded a bit and I've been somewhat rediscovering my rock and roll roots, perhaps in an embarrassing attempt to stay "cool". But nonetheless, if Iggy Pop and Jimmy Page can still rock on while in their sixties, I think I can too considering I'm only half their age.

Pop culture doesn't entirely disinterest me, just parts of it. The Gangnam Style K-pop phenomenon of last year I feel like I saw from the perspective of a 45 year old dad whose teenage daughter forces him to listen to it on TV - that is to say, I took one glance at it, and then kept reading the newspaper. I've gotten into newer musical acts like The Black Keys and LDC Soundsystem, but it seems my heart belongs to 60s and 70s rock and roll. It's funny how I should so strongly identify with the music of my parent's generation, but even my mom and dad weren't cool enough at that time to listen to the popular music of the day. I've discovered that every decade has music I could like; every decade had its "cool". And although musically I'm very nostalgic, I do prefer the times we are living in. I wouldn't really want to go back to any of these bygone eras, not permanently at least.

The past remains alive in the music it produced, as will the music of today for future generations. So as I enter my thirties I enter a new era in which being "cool" never fades - it just gets cooler. Now you can be cooler in your thirties and forties than you were whilst a teenager - as long as you got your shit together. So for me rediscovering my rock and roll roots is in a sense, rediscovering cool. There's nothing wrong with being into nerdy and scholarly things like science and philosophy while simultaneously staying threaded to all the other cool things our free society has allowed us to produce.

They're both worth fighting for.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Betting On Religion: A Few Things To Consider

Pascal's Wager asks the skeptic to consider betting on god just in case. After all he asked, what have you got to loose if you're wrong? While I grew up under a sort of cultural Catholicism, I was never really forced to believe any of the dogma. I never really gave much thought about religion at all to tell you the truth until several years ago when I became interested in the debate between evolution and creationism. I am an atheist perhaps by my inborn nature, and so skepticism and doubt about religious claims always seemed to come quite naturally to me. But hearing the arguments made by theists I've had to confront their religious claims once again, but now as an adult. So, taking Pascal's Wager seriously, let me consider religion once again.

I thought of a criterion when scrutinizing religions. It's a way to compare the belief systems of any religion in a way that helps determine if that religion's beliefs are right for me when compared to atheism.

Step 1: Get rid of fear

When considering any religion, I believe the first step should always be to completely take away any of the fear that the religion uses to sway believers into it. So if the religion is Christianity, take away the concept of hell to allow you to more rationally think its beliefs through. This is important because like it or not, in religions like Christianity, the fear of going to hell looms over all who are exposed to it as a subtle blackmail, and this fear can make even the most rational people aberrant. Just think of the things you would do if someone kidnapped a loved one of yours and was trying to extort you. You'd probably do things you thought were unthinkable. So completely remove any fear of the negative consequences of not believing the religion as a starting point.

Step 2: Consider all of the religion's morals

Now that the fear of hell is removed, think of the religion's moral principles. Ask yourself if you actually agree with them - all of them. It is careful to examine all the religion's moral values and not just a selective modern interpretation of them. Ask yourself if they make logical sense, and if they're actually practical. Are there any moral precepts of the religion that you feel would actually do more harm than good if implemented? Also, it's important to consider of how the religion's moral values were historically believed and implemented and how they evolved.

For me, my greatest exposure to religion was in the form of Christianity. So when I look at Christian morality, I consider many of its general ideas like the golden rule, caring for the poor, not being too greedy, respecting one's family and neighbor etc, all things most people would agree are decent and good to follow. But then I also have to consider the morality I deeply disagree with, like slavery, indentured servitude, loving one's enemy, the barbarous Mosaic marital and family laws, the idea that thinking is the same as doing, the idea that sex should only take place within marriage and only to reproduce, the idea that homosexuals choose their orientation and that they along with witches and adulterers need to be put to death, the inferiority and subordination of women, and perhaps worst of all, the masochistic idea that we're all born with original sin because we're all collectively guilty for the sins of two people (whom many Christians today do not believe even existed).

For me to accept these morals as being true simply because they are believed to have come from god, I feel would lower my integrity as a rational human being. And this puts a huge damper on my ability to reconcile myself with Christianity. Furthermore, the idea that morality, or objective morality, is dictated by a god through various people who declare themselves "prophets", I also think it does not help humanity one bit with the moral struggles we will always have. If something is morally good or right, it must be comprehensible to any rational person; its goodness also must be evident to anyone scrutinizing the moral principle and its effects on society. If that is so, we don't need god to come to know moral truths, or to ground them - they'd naturally be good or bad in and of themselves.

Step 3: Ask yourself if you want what the religion is offering

The next criteria to consider, is whether you actually want what the religion is offering. If heaven is the ultimate reward of being a part of this religion, ask yourself how plausible this idea really is and what is it actually like. Is heaven a place where you get to do all the things you weren't able to do in your earthly life, or is it some place where you are just showered with god's love for eternity? In the latter, there is no free will, no free speech, nothing to learn or achieve on your own or to dedicate your life to helping - nothing but being a mindless robot eternally suspended in the glow of love. Remember that's eternally suspended. It would be like being on the ultimate dose of ecstasy and just being insanely happy forever. And so I ask myself, what could possibly keep me interested in such a catatonic state for eternity except by being divorced of my memories and my personality and being turned into an automated robot? For me, my memories and my flaws are a part of who I am, they make me me, and so I decided that I didn't like that concept of the afterlife. I didn't want to spend eternity as a mindless drone.

There are other descriptions of the hereafter for you to consider.

Perhaps, like the Mormons believe, you want to be able to rule over your own planet in the afterlife, or like the Muslims believe, you want to go to a beautiful lush oasis where rivers flow with the tastiest wine and there are beautiful women all for your taking. (This idea of heaven obviously has greater appeal to one gender.) Maybe you want to be a part of an endless cycle of rebirth and reincarnation as some Buddhists believe. Or perhaps like me, you want to just die and cease to exist physically and mentally, and are fine with just being a complex arrangement of matter. In the end atheism offers me what I really want: finite existence.

Step 4: Do you like the worldview that this religion is proposing?

Next consider the metaphysical worldview the religion proposes. Do you want to be the special created object of a another being, to exist ultimately as nothing more than a means to its end, where you will never ever have sovereignty over yourself? Perhaps you do. Lot's of people do. For me, the whole idea sounds a little too much like living under a celestial dictator. But perhaps you like the idea that the universe was created with you in mind, or that events that happen in your life were created with a purpose for you. Although many theists think the naturalistic world view is depressing, I find it uplifting. I am made from the star dust that was forged in the hearts of stars and exploded out when they died. I am a part of the universe that is able to be conscious of itself, 13.7 billion years in the making. When I die, my atoms will get recycled for trillions of years and will perhaps even become part of other life forms. To me, this fact is as beautiful and poetic as any great work of religion.

There are however, other alternatives. You can like many people today believe in some sort of higher power that is different from the god spoken about in any religions, and this power or force you can believe has whatever attributes you think should apply to it. You can remain a doubter of all claims - theistic and atheistic, and be an agnostic. You can remain an agnostic and adopt a secular humanist ethos to live by. You could declare yourself an atheist by saying "I don't believe in god because there is no verifiable evidence for such a being." If you're sitting on the fence, there are lots of options available to you, and so I would recommend considering what effects the moral system you adopt (or already have) will have on society and the environment as a whole.

Betting on religion

What ever road you go down, it should be done for the right reasons that are true to your heart. For me, when I consider any religion to be a part of, I first take away the fear of hell that many religions use to scare you into it. Without the fear of hell for me, the reasons why I'd join a religion would be either that I like its metaphysical world view, it's morals, customs or traditions or promises of rewards for joining. Of all the religions I know of, Zen Buddhism paints a picture that is not that far different from the naturalism that I subscribe to, but I don't call myself a Zen Buddhist for a variety of moral reasons.

To bet on a religion or a deity as Pascal's Wager induces us to do out of the possible consequences of not doing so, is to essential believe based on fear. And so in the end, the only reason I can think of for joining any religion is solely out of fear. Many theists think doing this reduces religion to mere fire insurance, and I would largely agree with them. If one joins a religion, it should be done without any fear and be primarily based on the sincere appreciation of it's beliefs and principles. For me, no religion offers such a comfort, and so I remain an atheist. But, everyone is different.


Sunday, February 17, 2013

In Praise Of Pleasure

What can we make of our modern lifestyles that seem so hedonistic when compared to our ancestors? Some say that the abundance of resources we have is a noteworthy sign of our progress and evolution from the meager means by which most people used to get by on. I'd certainly say that having access to a wide range of healthy foods that allows us to reach our potential is sign of progress. Hedonism therefore becomes the excess of what one doesn't need but wants. 

I'm not at all stoic, and although I generally believe that everything should be done in moderation, I don't think that there is anything wrong with having excess and enjoying it. Life should be pleasurable. We should do what we enjoy and not feel guilty about enjoying it. The only reasonable yield to our pleasurable pursuits is if and when it prevents others from pursuing their pleasure. When I reflect back on the memorable times I've had that were pleasurable - drinking, smoking, fornicating & partying - I really only wish that I had more of it - but only to such a degree that the excess wouldn't hurt me in the long run. 

If this is the only life we have, we better make it pleasurable because it's always better to have a pleasurable life, than a miserable one. So I say indulge and be merry, but think ahead of the long-term consequences of your actions. And remember, a moral life can also be a pleasurable life. Pleasure can be obtained through a variety of mediums and doesn't at all have to be found only in the excesses of food, drink and sex. 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Another Reason Why Divine Command Morality Fails

I was sparring with another fundamentalist recently on his blog over the biblical genocide of the Canaanites by the Jews. We went head-to-head over whether it was justified for the Jews to kill all the men, women and children of the tribe the Jews claimed god told them to kill. I was trying to make a very simple argument that the fundi tried to weasel his way out of numerous times. What matters to me most about that passage in the Bible, is whether the Canaanite conquest would've been moral to execute, if god had not commanded the Jews to do it.

His contention, is that god owns everything, including all human life, and god therefore can take life as he pleases. So therefore commanding the Jews to kill the Canaanites was justified, because god owned all of their lives. But the Jews were the ones who physically had to kill the Canaanites according to the story, including the women and children to the last baby. He kept accusing me of not understanding his belief that god is able to take life whenever he wants, but I've known of that point of view way before I encountered him. I understand perfectly well the slavish and masochistic obedience to the belief in god ruling over all things that many theists subscribe to. The question is what makes it moral for the Jews to kill the Canaanites. He even said that murder and genocide are wrong "no matter what". Then why was it right for the Jews to do so? My argument was that god's authority makes it right for the Jews to physically do the killing according to the story, but he was just completely hung up on it actually being god doing the killings. He writes:

If God has the authority to do X and He gives that authority to His people to carry out X, then it is only God doing X through the medium of His people. Hence, they can do X. I disagree that X is murder, rape, etc.

I respond:

There you go again appealing to god's authority. What gives the Jews the "authority" or right or permission to do X, when you admitted many times that doing X is not right? Hmm? You're only proving my point over and over again it's pathetic. You even say "[God] gives that authority to His people to carry out X". Yes exactly my point. Your justification of any atrocity or whatever you want to call it, is an appeal to authority, not to reason.

Or, to put it another way, the Jews do not have the authority to do X on their own, they have to be given the authority to do X by god's commandment of it. Like for example, if I just decide to kill my neighbor and take his things and steal his underage daughter for myself, then I will have committed murder, theft and rape. But if god commands that I do those things to my neighbor via a revelation, then when I do those things under god's command, they're no longer considered murder, theft and rape, because god's actually doing it through me. Makes perfect sense right?

Basically what he's saying is that when the Jews physically slice and disembowel the unarmed Canaanite women and children, it was "only God doing [it] through the medium of His people". So god was actually doing the killing according to him, but since god didn't want to do the killing himself, he needed to do it through the Jewish people who were his favorite tribe. First of all, this sets a precedent that says any physical act of harm can be justified by saying "It wasn't me doing it, I was possessed by the holy spirit. Honestly!" I'd like to see that stand up in court today. Second, the fundi said in his words that genocide is always wrong "no matter what", and so he's saying it wouldn't have been right for the Jews to do it without god's commandment. He even says in his own words "One cannot make an argument that he or she is fulfilling God's judgment upon a people unless God has specifically given that person such a revelation".

My main contention was really to argue that Christian morality is ultimately an appeal to authority, whereby an act that is wrong can become right, if it is commanded by god. And when I say "right", I mean that the physical act itself (that is considered wrong) becomes right for the person to do it, when god is commanding it. It is clear even from this theist's own words that this is what he believes too, he just doesn't like to admit it because divine command morality looks so bad when you really think about it. Believing that god is actually doing the killing when he commands men to kill, as deplorable as that is, still doesn't get you out of the problem of why killing becomes justified for people to do when god commands it. For the people who act because they believe god is commanding them, their justification for committing what would otherwise be considered immoral acts, is justified to them because god gave them that authority. Hence, they are appealing to authority.


Friday, February 15, 2013

A Case For Secular Morality: Objective Morality Without God



A Case For Secular Morality

Objective Morality Without God




It is commonly believed especially by those of religious faith that any form of secular morality is doomed to total cultural and moral relativism where morality is regarded as nothing more than a cultural byproduct and a matter of opinion. It always seemed obvious to me at least that morality was more than just a mere convention of culture and the purpose of this paper is to make the case that in the absence of god, a simple case for objective morality can be made. 




Introduction

If you’re a person living without the belief in god you may have at times been challenged that you can’t have any kind of objective foundation for your morality. This is almost always done by someone who believes in god. I’ve personally heard this accusation made over and over again and have noticed that it is one of the most popular talking points of theists. I’ve always been the kind of person who thought that the idea of total moral relativism - the idea that no objective standard can exist to measure morality, was false. To me, there clearly were better and worse morals, but many theists who I was debating with kept to the belief that without god all morality was solely a matter of opinion and relative to cultural norms.

We live in a world of cultural and religious pluralism, and a climate of political correction persuades us to tread cautiously on the topic of other people’s beliefs. Nowhere is this more evident than in the public schools and universities. As a result of this, many argue that a culture of moral relativism has grown where everyone is forced to respect one another’s values and beliefs because to judge or criticize them would be deemed offensive. Political correction therefore coerces us into thinking that every system of ethics is all equally valid and no better or worse than any other, just different. What this constraint does, is it prevents people from engaging in the kind of moral discourse that is necessary to have a complete understanding of ethics.

After having studied philosophy, I began digging into the arguments made for and against objective morality. And over the years I have come to the conclusion that an objective standard for morality exists just as an objective standard for truth exists. My primary goals in this paper will be to (1) define morality and its natural foundations; and (2) provide an objective standard for moral values. I will not be trying to provide a comprehensive philosophy of ethics or to make a case for any specific moral or ethical philosophies. Instead, I will focus on making the case for how without god we are not doomed to total socio-cultural moral relativism.


A Case for Secular Morality

Part I


1. What is morality?

Imagine a universe devoid of all life. In this universe there are stars shining, quasars pulsating, and septillions of rocks smashing into each other, but not a single specimen of life anywhere to experience it. Such a universe would also be a universe devoid of all morality. For if planets collide, stars explode, and back holes devour entire worlds and there is no life to be affected by these events, there isn't a moral component to this universe. So therefore we can say that at some very basic and fundamental level, morality has to concern living things. Living things must exist, because life can respond physically and emotionally where it can either benefit or suffer at the result of actions that happen to it. And the higher the level of sentiment of the creature, that is to say, the more conscious it is to respond and be aware of its environment, the more sensitive it will be to external actions that affect it. Therefore, it would logically follow that if morality depends on life, the more sensitive and consciously aware a living being is, the greater the moral concern should be with regards to actions that affect them.

So a very broad definition of morality can be the distinction between right and wrong as it relates to conscious beings, with right actions being those that intend to positively affect conscious beings, and wrong actions being those that intend to negatively affect conscious beings when it cannot be avoided. When we call something morally wrong, what are we actually saying? We are saying that someone is intentionally negatively affecting another conscious being or that someone is unnecessarily causing harm, suffering, pain, or death to another conscious being. I say unnecessarily because it is very important. Living things must compete with one another over finite resources. If you and I are both trying to get the same parking spot, and I get it and you don’t, I will have technically caused harm in your life. But, since there is a finite amount of everything, we must all compete at some level and this means in order to conduct our lives regularly, we must do necessary harm to one another. Killing someone in self defense when there is no other alternative is another example of a necessary harm. Necessary harm is not born out of evil intention, it’s more like an inconvenience and is not intended to harm beyond what is reasonable. In order for an action to be morally wrong, it must be deliberate and intended to cause harm when there is no threat to yourself. An action that is the result of good intentions that accidentally causes harm is not morally wrong, since we cannot always know the consequences of all our actions. For example, if I offer you some food that I cooked and you eat it and have an allergic reaction and become seriously ill, my intentions were good despite the harmful consequences. So the consequences of our actions cannot be the only thing we consider for evaluating morality, our intentions are just as important.

There was a lot of controversy among theists surrounding the release of Sam Harris’ book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values that among other things he just defines morally “good” to mean "that which supports well-being" and is in effect guilty of some kind of wordplay[i]. Well first, many theists define the word “good” in moral terms simply to mean that which is obedient to god’s commandments. In other words, the actual morals themselves may mean nothing; the only thing that matters is whether god commanded it, even if it deliberately increases suffering. This is itself a kind of wordplay to make morality compliant with divine command theory. Second, I would actually disagree here slightly with Sam Harris' definition of “good” as that which supports well-being. Rather, I say a better definition of good and evil in moral terms would be the one I provided above, that good morals are actions that intend to positively affect conscious beings, and evil morals are actions that intend to negatively affect conscious beings when it cannot be avoided. This way, good morals result in the well-being and flourishing of conscious life, but good and evil are not to be confused with the flourishing itself, as some critics have tried to conflate.


1.1. What is morality founded on?

Given a definition of morality that concerns what positively and negatively affects conscious beings, what is secular morality founded on? Under a secular and naturalist view, there is nothing transcendent that exists outside this universe that is intelligent and that has control over things that happen in our universe. Ontologically, morality is not grounded in the existence of any spiritual beings, and to the naturalist this very idea seems ridiculous. If the theist thinks objective moral values are founded on the existence of god, he has to explain how moral values and actions like love, kindness, fairness, and generosity would not positively affect beings in a universe with no god, or how these actions would somehow be different. Imagine if there were two identical universes with the same exact laws of physics existing side by side. One universe is created by an omniscient god, and the other came into being naturally. In these two universes, moral values and actions like love, kindness, fairness, and generosity would have the same exact affect towards living things and that of course includes human beings. Therefore, morality is founded in nature itself, in real experiences that affect conscious beings, and where our intentions and the effects of moral actions hold the objective foundation.

So what is it about the idea that god must exist in order for there to be objective “good” and “bad” morals? I see no such need. The theist who says that without god all morality is subjective or just a behavioral pattern conducive to a species’ well-being, is in a way saying that it’s only a matter of opinion or only relative to a particular species. My goal here is to give a fair establishment for an objective foundation and standard of ethics that are not subject to anyone’s opinion. However, our morality is relative to our species. No one is going to argue that our ethical codes of conduct apply to how animals treat each other; they’re only relevant to how human beings treat other human beings and animals. So yes our morals are relative to our species and there’s no reason to think that they must apply to every living being in order to be objective. Even Christians will agree that the 10 Commandments do not apply to animals.

One might say that morality is relative to culture and the time in history. I've spoken with many atheists who believe that right and wrong morals do not even exist, and that all morality is just something that cultures make up. I couldn’t disagree any more. Imagine a culture that decides murder, rape and stealing are good and allows anyone to commit these acts anytime they want. Picture a war-torn third world country employing this, where gangs of young men go around stealing, raping and killing anything they want. There is no way that you can tell me that these moral values wouldn't increase the level of suffering and misery amongst its people. And you cannot say that this society’s moral values would be just as good as ours or anyone else’s. That would be an epic failure of truth over political correction.

If you take the position that your morals are just a product of your environment and are therefore not any better or worse than anyone else’s, and if you’re challenged to justify your moral values, are you actually going to say that they’re justified because “everyone else around me thinks so” or “because my religion says so”? I highly doubt it. In order to justify any set of morals rationally, you have to make a case demonstrating why they’re good, productive or beneficial to conscious beings and whether or not they seek to avoid unnecessary misery. When doing so, we will be able to establish to what degree they increase human welfare and well-being, or decrease suffering and misery. Therefore, there exists an objective standard that can determine any moral code against any other.

Another criticism I have of Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape is that it is not possible with science alone to determine moral values - that requires some degree of philosophy. Philosophy is needed to complete any system of ethics, but those ethics need to be informed by the latest and most accurate data science can give us. Science gives us the “is” because it’s descriptive, and philosophy gives us the “ought” because it’s prescriptive. David Hume’s is/ought dilemma is much understood. It’s not that we can’t derive an ought from an is, we just have to rationally justify it when we do. I think I've made that case by noting that since morality can only exist when living conscious beings exist, morality is axiomatically tied into the well-being of conscious life, and so logically, the greater the consciousness of the beings, the greater the severity of moral concern. From this we can derive that we ought to concern ourselves with the welfare of conscious beings (especially us) since we are capable of moral responsibility.

When I began studying philosophy and ethics I remember one of the first criticisms we were taught regarding the foundation of morality, was how precarious a divine command system operates using a punishment/reward basis to do what’s right. The theist thinks to himself that he ought to do what god says because god will punish him if he doesn’t. In other words, god’s ability to reward and punish gives the theist the basis for what we ought to do. This is more or less how most theists see the “is/ought” problem resolved especially in Islam and Catholicism, while other theists say that god is very paradigm of goodness, and so this “is” statement necessitates that we obey his commands.

The divine command system of ethics is problematic for many reasons I don’t have the space to fully critique here, but it is worth mentioning that moral commandments that are issued by god may not appeal to what is in our best well-being at all, and indeed many actually increase unnecessary harm. The belief that it’s a good idea that one should do what god says or else they’ll face the consequences also diminishes the principle of the morals themselves. Furthermore, if reason takes us towards moral truths that conflict with what is believed to be commanded by god, how is the theist to decide what’s best? If the theist is expected to choose revelation over reason, and purposely do what will knowingly result in more harm, less well-being, and a reversal of moral progress because he thinks it will make god happy and offer him reward in the afterlife, then we really should question why we ought to do such a thing. If in the end all the theist is worrying about is avoiding punishment and seeking reward in the afterlife, morality then becomes a mere game where people are only looking out for the pursuance of pleasure, and goodness itself cannot be founded in god.


1.2. Where is the objectivity in the secular case for morality?

Imagine that I’m trying to boil water to make a cup of tea, but I don’t know how. So I ask a few friends for ideas. One friend of mine thinks he knows how. He says, “Take the water, and dump a bunch of ice in it, and if it doesn’t start boiling immediately, continue adding more ice.” Another friend says, “Stare at the water intensely and using your mind, try to make it boil.” Now it doesn’t take a genius to realize that neither of these attempts will succeed in making the water boil, because the laws of physics just don’t work that way. So we can objectively say that adding ice and staring at water intensely are not good ways to make water boil. If I want to make water boil, I have to add heat. I can put the water over fire, I can put it in a microwave, or I can put something very hot in it or near it. There are many ways to make water boil, but adding ice is definitely not one of them. So we can say that objectively, there are better and worse ways to achieve the goal of getting water to boil.

Perhaps we could debate over just exactly what are the best ways to get water to boil the quickest, the easiest and the way that requires the least amount of energy. That also may differ depending on the situation. When it comes to ethical issues, I see morality in much the same way. There are objectively better and worse ways that we can practice ethics that will promote the common well-being and decrease unnecessary harm and suffering. We can debate over exactly what actions, rules and laws will best materialize this, but the fact remains that there are better and worst ways to achieve this goal that are truthful from an objective standpoint and are not merely relegated to the domain of human opinion. And even if we don't know what ethics best suite this goal, they'll always exist independently in theory waiting to be discovered and put to practice.

Imagine again that society I mentioned earlier that decides murder, rape and theft are good. The relativist would say “Who are we to judge their morals? Whatever morals they decide on are just as good as ours. It’s all relative.” Now I would say, that it is simply not a matter of opinion whether a society that embraces murder, rape and theft, is going to increase the amount of misery and suffering. If murder is “good” and allowed, people will murder out of spite or even out of fun. Families will then grieve, people might retaliate, and a never ending cycle of blood and vengeance will ensue guaranteeing misery and suffering for all involved. So I think we can make an objective case that this society’s morals are not “just as good as ours” because moral actions have effects, and we can determine whether these effects increase or decrease suffering and misery.

Now imagine someone who is not concerned with alleviating suffering and misery - imagine they actually want to create suffering and misery because it gives them pleasure. Well secular morality is not going to offer you a cosmic police officer or judge that is going to stop or punish a person like this in some life after death. All we have to do is recognize that a person who wants to harm others is going to violate the other person’s right not to be harmed, and this will increase suffering. The pleasure a sadist gets from harming someone else does not cancel out the suffering that the victim must endure. If anyone says so, they should volunteer to be the next victim of a serial killer. In all practicality, when dealing with people who want to harm others, they will have to be stopped and punished by the actions of other human beings. Even with the idea of god, a person committed to harming others is going to do so regardless in this world, and will ultimately have to be stopped by the actions of other human beings (not considering natural forces and animals).

If you were to define objective moral values as “being valid and binding, independently of human opinion” then we will only partly disagree. I would agree that something objective must be so independently of human opinion, but under the secular terms that I have presented, they are not binding to anyone by any kind of force that exists outside of man or nature. As I said earlier, there is no cosmic police officer that binds you to any particular morals. And if you think about it, neither does theism. A police officer can stop you in the midst of a crime before you actually committed it. But if god were to stop anyone from committing a sin, he’d have to violate our free will which is necessary for us to be judged. So theism cannot offer you a cosmic police officer without contradicting its own necessary standards. What about a cosmic judge? If we are bound and judged according to god’s standards, this would not necessarily say anything about whether those standards increase or decrease suffering and misery. For example, god could command that you can never eat pork for no other reason than because he says so. He can command that you can’t eat meat on Friday, and that you can’t eat fish on Tuesday. He can then change all these rules arbitrarily whenever he wants, rendering the actual rules themselves meaningless as to whether their effects produce harm or not. God could even command you to kill another group of people and take their land and possessions and punish you if you don’t do it. Thus, under this definition of objective morality, the morals themselves mean nothing except whether they are or aren't commanded by god at any given time. All this does is leave you with divine command theory.

Now what if a god uses the same standards by which I am measuring morality, and commands morals that are maximally designed to decrease suffering and misery and increase well-being and happiness in every situation? First, this would be a much better god than the one described in any religion made up so far. Second, if you are familiar with the Euthyphro Dilemma by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato in his dialogue The Euthyphro, it poses the moral question, “Is something morally good because god commands it, or does god command it because it is morally good?” In this case, god commands these morals because they are good - they positively benefit the beings affected by them. As such, god is completely irrelevant as to whether these morals are right and wrong - they are either right or wrong independently of whether god exists or not.

To make the case that objective morals must be grounded in the existence of god, you have to show how the same morals would not produce the same effects without god, given the same set of axioms. The only logical reason why we would say any moral is right or wrong, would be in assessing the motives, principles and consequences behind them. To say god’s commandments determine objective moral values reduces you into believing that “might” makes “right”, and that the actual morals themselves can be meaningless. Thus god’s existence is not necessary to ground morality or to have objective morality.

But since this is the most important distinction between theistic and atheistic disagreements on objective morality, let me expound a bit further. A common response to the Euthyphro Dilemma above by theists is to try to sneak in a third option and say that god is good. In other words, what they’re trying to say is that the “Good” Plato speaks of in The Republic, is not independent of god, “Good” is god, and since goodness flows from god, his commandments constitute what is right and wrong. This is problematic on so many levels. Let me explain.

  1. First, defining god as the source of “good” is mere theological wordplay. It doesn't demonstrate that “good” cannot exist independently of god. Even if goodness is an essential property of god, it is a property that can apply to other things independently of god’s existence. Just think of how being hot is an essential property of fire – fire must be hot, it cannot be cold. But “hot” can apply to many other things independently of fire. For example, microwaves cause things to be hot and so does friction.
  2. Second, why call something good? Epistemologically, we know in the moral sense that certain things are good because they positively benefit beings affected by them. Moral actions like love, kindness, fairness, and generosity positively benefit all beings affected by them, not just physically but emotionally as well. That’s why they're morally good. If the theist thinks objective moral values are founded on the existence of god, he has to explain how these moral actions would not positively affect beings in a universe with no god, or how these actions would somehow be different enough that their goodness could be considered subjective. All things being equal, in a godless universe the affects of morally good actions would be exactly the same. Therefore, these morals are good in and of themselves and do not require the existence or the commands of a deity to make them objectively good.
  3. The theist cannot escape the Euthyphro Dilemma no matter how hard he tries. Take for example the biblical story of Abraham who god commands to sacrifice his son (Gen 22:5-12). Most Jews, Christians and Muslims agree that it would have been immoral for Abraham to have decided on his own to sacrifice his son for god and what made it moral was solely determined by god’s command. Also in the Old Testament, god commands the Jews to exterminate the Midianite peoples (except for the young virgin girls) and he awards the Jews their property (Num 31:2-18)Most Christians at least think it would have been immoral if the Jews had decided to take upon this genocidal conquest on their own, but here again god’s commanding of it makes it moral for the Jews to physically commit these acts. What these two examples illustrate, is that if something is immoral on its own and only becomes moral if god commands it, or vice versa, then the sole factor separating the morality or immorality of the action, is god’s command. This also means that god cannot be following an absolute and non-arbitrary morality: If something is morally good because god commands it, it must also be morally good if you do it on your own, because otherwise if performing these morals on your own wouldn’t be good unless god commands it, it means you take the first horn of the Euthyphro Dilemma - that something is morally good because god commands it. One objection I've heard to this is that god himself is actually physically doing the killing vicariously through people when he commands it. But believing that god is doing the killing when he commands it to people, as deplorable as that is, still doesn't get you out of the problem of why killing (or anything else) becomes justified or morally right for people to do when god commands it. For the people who act because they believe god is commanding them, their justification for committing what would otherwise be considered immoral acts, is justified to them because they believe god gave them that authority. Hence, they are appealing to the authority - given by god's commands.

So as I've repeatedly argued, goodness and its counterpart, evil, would exist in the absence of god because they are naturally founded in the real experiences that affect conscious beings. All that is needed is the same given set of axioms that our universe contains such as the same laws of physics, and conscious life like human beings. And if you try to arbitrarily conjure up hypothetical possible words with different laws of physics where they somehow make what positively affects conscious beings in this world turn out to harm them instead, you'll have to rationally justify why god would apply the same morals that benefit us, in this other world too. The divine command theory of ethics that many theists subscribe to neglects the unnecessary harm it can cause in some situations, and it can turn morality into a mere game of seeking reward and avoiding punishment in some promised afterlife. It can also cause its adherents to fail to recognize the best reason to do what is morally right - which is for it's own sake. And finally, even if all of god’s commandments were perfectly conducive to promoting everything good for our individual and collective well-being, this morality would still exist independently to god. Objective moral values therefore, exist independently of god.

Part II


2. Objective Morals vs. Absolute Morals

Having established a definition of and objective foundation for morality, it’s important to address some common concerns regarding it. A lot is discussed contrasting objective and absolute morality. Although I make a case here for objective morals, I don’t do so for absolute morals. First let’s take a look at some definitions of moral absolutism:

Moral absolutism is an ethical view that certain actions are absolutely right or wrong, regardless of other circumstances such as their consequences or the intentions behind them.

In moral philosophy, such a position maintains that actions of a specific sort are always right (or wrong) independently of any further considerations, thus rejecting the consequentialist effort to evaluate them by their outcomes.

Given these definitions, I don’t argue for moral absolutism for the following reason. To better explain, I will make use of my earlier analogy of trying to make water boil for a cup of tea. Imagine if I had a stove nearby, then the easiest and most convenient way to get the water to boil would be to put it in a pot on the stove, but if I was outside in the woods and had no stove, I might have to make a fire and boil the water that way. If all I had was a microwave and no stove, putting the water in the microwave would be the best way to boil it. So as we can see, the best way to get the water to boil depends on the given circumstances of the situation. There is no absolute rule that says I must always use one method over another no matter the situation. The same is true when it comes to morality: Different circumstances will lead to different ways to prevent unnecessary harm and increase well-being and happiness.

What this means is that morality is situationally relative and the theist who disagrees and believes in moral absolutes, I would say, hasn't really paid attention to his religion enough. For example, Christianity and Islam both have internal contradictory morals. Christians and Muslims try to explain away these contradictions, by saying god abrogates morality as he sees fit whenever it is necessary to do so. That means that a particular moral isn’t really absolute, since god can modify or command the opposite moral at anytime. When I point out the cruel and gut-wrenching morals in the Old Testament, many Christians will say that those morals were relative to those people at that time and those places mentioned, and that these morals no longer apply to anyone alive today. In other words, what they’re saying is that morality is relative to people, time and place. Most theists would also say that killing has some exceptions, at least in the case of self-defense. This means most theists are actually saying that morality is relative to people, time and place and situation. Most theists don’t really like to admit this because I think they know it makes their morality look like relativism on paper. But in truth, I rarely ever meet someone who actually believes that there is a strict absolute morality that must be followed regardless of the situation and even if it will knowingly increase suffering and harm to others.


2.1. What is moral progress?

If we can recognize that the basis for morality is concerned with what benefits and unnecessarily harms conscious beings, we are set to develop a moral code. Moral codes have changed with time, and differ from culture to culture. In almost every society it was once considered moral to practice slavery, now every society officially condemns the practice. This is an example of moral progress. Progress is the continued improvement towards a goal or destination. To have moral progress then, it is necessary to have a stated moral goal that you wish to move toward. The problem here, is that many moral philosophies have different moral goals. In Islam for example, the moral goal might be to eventually have everyone living according to Islamic law or Sharia. In Islamic morality, there is no stated goal to have everyone acting in accordance with producing the least amount of harm and producing the most amount of good. Islam, like many religions, contain within it morals that do unnecessarily produce harm and that are also considered morally good by its followers.

So given these opposed moral goals, is it possible to even have moral progress? I can only argue that from an objective standpoint, a moral goal that seeks to maximize good, and minimize harm, will be more apt at maximizing good and minimizing harm, and all opposing moral goals will not. So for example, the United State’s founding documents the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, outline individual liberty championed by such enlightenment philosophers as John Locke, because it was recognized that a society where the king, the government or the ruling class constricts the individual freedoms and liberties of its citizens, is a society that is not maximizing the well-being of its people.

So given a moral goal to maximize well-being and minimize harm and suffering, what tools can we use to aide moral progress? For one thing, we can employ the unrestricted use of reason, logic and science. We won’t always know exactly what does maximize our well-being, and we might have to try many different methods and see what works best. But given this truth, using science, along with our critical thinking faculties will help us discover the best moral codes to live by that produce our stated goal.


2.2. Will we ever have a perfect morality?

In order to have a perfect moral code given our stated moral goal, we would have to have all the knowledge of the laws of physics, biology, and know the full outcomes of every action we make. Such knowledge may always be out of our reach, and therefore any moral code will in some very basic way, be always in need of continued improvement or progress. This is why moral progress is necessary and beneficial towards a proper moral code. Moral codes that forbid any progress, or any reconsideration or reinterpretation of their morals, such as the moral philosophies of religions, are defective right from the start. This is why it would greatly increase the harm of a society if any one religion’s morals were followed in a literal fashion according to the scripture.


2.3. How do you define well-being?

“Well-being” is not as simple a concept as you might think, but we all intuitively feel that we know what is. We might say that having good health, a home, economic mobility, basic fundamental freedoms, a family, a network of loved ones, and a feeling of accomplishment constitutes general well-being and leads to happiness. But consider also that what makes us happy is not necessarily what’s good for us. For example, we might feel happy binging on fast food and shooting heroine, but we all know this is not good for us in the long term. Even the ancient Greek hedonistic philosophy of Epicurus maintained that only seeking short term pleasure should not be life’s goal because of its obvious self-destruction and neglect of the more pleasurable long term goals[ii]. In other words, it is best that pleasure is sought in moderation with long term goals in mind, that way it can last as long as possible. Also, pleasure can be obtained in seeking wisdom and in acts of compassion towards others.

Imagine living in a strict authoritarian State where you’re only allowed to do what contributes to good health and longevity. You can only eat healthy foods; smoking, alcohol and all vices are banned and everyone is required to exercise an hour a day. Failure to comply with these laws will result in severe punishment. Now in such an Orwellian state we will have no freedom to live our lives the way we want to, we won’t be able to make any lifestyle choices – the State will have made all of them for us. We can see that what may indeed be good for us, should largely be a choice we make on our own. The best governments promote well-being by allowing free access to information that the people use to make their own free choices in life.

Systems where government acts like “big brother” and forces the people to do what it thinks is best almost always fail. When one’s freedom of choice is so severely restricted, freedom ceases to exist at all. We need only to look at the contemporary example of North and South Korea to see two widely different governmental systems and their effects on the well-being of their people.

I’m not particularly worried about establishing exactly what well-being is, because in some ways it’s subjective to the individual. One man’s sense of pleasure is another man’s pain. I am more concerned with how we allow people’s ideas of their own well-being to flourish. Therefore, promoting well-being can take the form of allowing free access of information and lifestyle choice regarding the consequences it will have on one own's health and condition. If people make bad choices, they suffer the consequences themselves but they were given the freedom to do so. As long as their freedom of choice doesn't infringe on the equal freedom of others, the principle of freedom and equality are justified. To live in a society where the State or religious authorities decide what’s best for you, such as in the theocracies of the Muslim majority world, is to surrender your freedom to choose what’s best for yourself and have someone else decide for you. Considering the limitations in such a strict society, the problems with well-being are evident in the people’s desires to be free.

There is a huge difference of course with how one treats themself with how one treats others. With morality we're mostly concerned with how we treat each other, not ourselves. As such, how do we know what positively benefits others? Everyone's needs and responses are slightly different, so we can never know what benefits everyone in every situation. However, our biological similarities are enough for us to know what is most likely a benefit or a harm to other people's well-being.

So regardless of what theory of well-being you subscribe to, what allows any of them to be followed through is having the freedom to make that choice for yourself. What helps people make the right choices in life is met with having free access to the most accurate information regarding health and lifestyle options. Freedom of information and choice therefore are both necessary for overall well-being.


2.4. Who or what should have its well-being maximized?

When we consider a moral goal towards maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures, how do we decide who or what creatures should be worthy of this consideration? Well earlier, I mentioned that consciousness through the senses is an important factor when considering the ethical treatment of a living creature. Given this standard, it logically concludes that since human beings have the greatest cognitive faculties concerning consciousness, emotion, reason, empathy and compassion that we are aware of, the greatest ethical considerations should be with the treatment of human beings. And from this, through scientific inquiry we can learn to the best of our ability the same levels of consciousness in all other living things and categorize the ethical treatment of animals, fish and insects accordingly.

But even this does not get us around the concept of speciesism. Speciesism is having a bias in favor of your own species. Humans naturally care about fellow humans more than other species, horses naturally care about other horses more, and dolphins naturally care about other dolphins more etc. When we are threatened by another species, or must compete with another species, and when our survival is at stake, we will all naturally adhere to speciesism and will consider killing the another species that threatens us. For example, most people will give no second thoughts to killing a dog that seriously threatens their lives or the killing of millions of rodents that are known to be spreading harmful diseases. When a species’ very survival is threatened by another, it is justified to kill members of that other species in self defense, just as it would be justified to kill another human being in self defense.

So when we consider the well-being of conscious creatures, we must take into consideration several things. The first is the level of sentience or consciousness the species has, and second is whether or not this species is a threat to our survival and well-being. Recognizing the species’ relationship within the intricate web of the ecosystem is also necessary so that if we have to eradicate significant populations in order to ensure our survival, we do so only to a degree that is necessary without a disruption of the natural order. This means that the ethical consideration and treatment of animals will be paramount even when we eat them.


2.5. What is evil?

Evil can be scientifically defined to be a quality that lacks empathy or compassion. In every evil situation you can think of, there will be a living being demonstrating a lack of empathy or compassion towards another. The living being lacking empathy and compassion must have the ability to empathize and be compassionate and the rationale to apply it. So when a lion tears apart a zebra, it’s not being evil because the lion doesn’t have the cognitive capacity to empathize with the zebra’s plight; the lion merely acts from instinct (and hunger). Since it’s recognized that human beings have the greatest capacity for empathy and compassion that we know of, it means that when we’re wantonly cruel and lack empathy and compassion towards the beings at our mercy, we are committing an act of evil. This also concludes that human beings have the greatest capacity for evil of all known species and thus the greatest moral responsibility.


2.6. Moral Values

Defining morality and its natural foundation does not get us out of the values dilemma. That is to ask, “Why should we value human well-being, or any well-being? Why shouldn't we just look out for our own selfish interests?” A value denotes something’s worth. Moral values are the moral codes and principles that we consider worthy. Moral values are pluralistic, meaning different people hold to different sets of values that may conflict with other people’s values. For example, one society may value things like liberty, freedom, and individual rights, and another may value adherence to a certain set of strict prohibitions with no freedom to do or say otherwise.

If it’s evident that one value system leads to greater overall well-being, why should we value this system more than another? Since our biological nature is that of a social species, it’s in our best interests that the society around us is healthy. It was said that no man is an island unto himself. Individually we are usually better off if we also are better off collectively, but that's not always the case. Why should any one individual of any values system conform to values that go against their personal interests? When dealing with people like this we must appeal to reason and explain that the competing personal interests of others might harm them and prevent even their basic interests from being met. Therefore we can maximize the common interests when we all behave in such a way conducive to bringing this about, even though that may mean we have to sacrifice some of our personal interests. If an appeal to reason doesn't work, if the person is unreasonable, we will not be able to convince them that they should do what is in the common good. But simply because everyone isn’t convinced to behave in a way that supports the greater well-being doesn't mean we have failed. To say as a last resort that the selfish must behave in accordance to the common good because god commands they do, is just an appeal to authority. This may also not convince everyone to behave accordingly. So it seems that between atheism and theism, arguing why we should embrace moral values will either need to be administered with an appeal to reason or with an appeal to authority. Considering this, the non-theistic approach I dare day is more attuned with maturity.


2.7. Isn’t this just consequentialism?

For those of you who are philosophically trained, you might be thinking that all the points on morality I’ve thus far made are basically just consequentialism or utilitarianism, whereby the rightness or wrongness of an action is solely determined by its consequences. While there are strong elements of consequentialism in the case for objective moral standards I’ve made, I’m not asking you to commit yourself to any one particular theory of ethics. I like to think of ethics using the tool box analogy: no one tool is going to fix every problem, so it’s best to have an array of tools at your disposal.

Consequentialism certainly has its problems. For example, if torturing suspected terrorists could get us information that might save the lives of hundreds, thousands or millions of people, a strict consequentialist would say it is moral then to do so. And if torture is not enough, then why not torture the suspect’s family? If that’s not enough why not start killing his family members one by one until he gives up what information we need? As you can see, if you think about morality only in terms of consequences, you will be willing to do anything to anyone as long as there is a potential to benefit more. Most of us know this can lead down a slippery slope towards a possible system in which your organs are taken from you without your consent to save the lives of several people who are each in desperate need of one of them. And no one wants to live in that world.

If we were to have to violate individual liberty and well-being to save the larger number, we would feel that our individual lives mean nothing but as a means to justify someone’s end. Individual freedom and the right to life (as outlined in the Declaration of Independence) makes us feel that we are not just another brick in the wall; it means we are each unique individuals and are recognized as such. The reason America’s founding fathers are recognized to be so great, is that they knew when they inscribed America’s founding documents that the rights and dignity of the individual, which had been so thoroughly oppressed under the monarchies of Europe, was absolutely necessary to individual and collective well-being.


2.8. The Practical Application of Morality

Another popular criticism of secular morality is that different cultures practice different moral values, and when they conflict with other cultures, there is no clear way to resolve the problem. Although it’s certainly true that in practice, moral relativism exists, it’s also true that people who ground their morality in the existence of a god also disagree with others who do the same, and because of this, it’s often more difficult to reconcile disagreements when you feel that god is on your side. Religious morality sometimes doesn't appeal at all to pragmatism, reason or to rationality. Instead, its morals quite often are believed to be true simply because they are believed to have come from god[iii]. Therefore, systems of moral values that appeal to reason have the best chances of compromise when in conflict with others that disagree. The knowledge of an objective moral standard aligned with what best reduces unnecessary harm and what positively benefits the conscious beings affected by it will be available to all who are willing to use reason. Those who are beholden to ideology and divine command and are not willing to do what is most rational and what makes best moral sense, are often those who are the most religious.



Part III

3. Conclusion

It’s often hard to sum up arguments made about morality that fit sound byte formats when put on the spot. Even though I am not trying to make a complete case for a theory of ethics here, there is simply so much that could be written on the topic that I couldn't possibly detail every aspect and nuance without having to write an entire book. I hope that I have provided enough arguments that justify why moral value systems are not all equal, and that we can compare them using an objective standard bereft of any reference to god. And I hope that I’ve convinced you, if you weren't already, that grounding morality in god via a divine command theory of ethics is fraught with problems that often lead to irrational and unjustifiable morals. So let me summarize for the sound byte era, my main arguments.

  • Morality is the distinction between right and wrong as it relates to conscious beings, with right actions being those that intend to positively affect conscious beings, and wrong actions being those that intend to negatively affect conscious beings when it cannot be avoided.   
  • Morality is founded in nature itself, in the real experiences that affect conscious beings, and where our intentions and the effects of moral actions hold the objective foundation. Good morals like love, kindness, fairness and generosity would have the same exact affect towards living things without god and are therefore good in and of themselves.  
  • In order to justify any set of morals rationally, you have to make a case demonstrating why they’re good, productive or beneficial to conscious beings and whether or not they seek to avoid unnecessary misery. When doing so, we will be able to establish to what degree they increase human welfare and well-being, or decrease suffering and misery. This becomes part of the objective standard.  
  • Evil can be scientifically defined to be a quality that lacks empathy or compassion.  
  • Different circumstances will lead to different ways to prevent unnecessary harm and increase well-being and happiness, therefore moral absolutism is not the same as objective morality and is not necessary to have an objective moral standard and can even be counter.  
  • Since morality can only exist when living conscious beings exist, morality is axiomatically tied into the well-being of conscious beings, and so logically, the greater the consciousness of the beings, the greater the severity of moral concern. From this we can derive that we ought to concern ourselves with the welfare of conscious beings since we are capable of moral responsibility.  
  • The divine command theory of ethics that many theists subscribe to neglects the unnecessary harm they can cause in some situations.  
  • Moral commandments that are issued by god may not appeal to what is in our best well-being at all, indeed many actually increase unnecessary harm.  
  • If the theist is expected to choose revelation over reason, and purposely do what will knowingly result in more harm, less well-being, and a reversal of moral progress because he thinks it will make god happy and offer him reward in the afterlife, morality becomes a mere game where people are only looking out for the pursuance of pleasure, and therefore goodness itself cannot be founded in god.

References


[i] Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010), 12.

[ii] Epicurus, "Letter to Menoecues," 

"When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of revelry, not sexual lust, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul. Of all this the beginning and the greatest good is wisdom."

[iii]  J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (Oxford University Press, 1982), 240-262

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Slow Death Of The Republican Party

Society's moral progress is going to diminish the republican party to obsolescence. I am a political junkie and have been for years and it is often humorous when the republicans are parodied in their ridiculous attempts to modernize their brand. They are losing the debate over abortion, gay marriage, healthcare, taxes, guns, how to fix the deficit, and immigration to name a few. The conservative ethics they fancy just don't appeal to enough young people anymore and their base is made up of aging old white people living in rural and suburban communities.

They know they have to compromise on these issues if they want to remain relevant in the next few decades. It will be interesting to see how exactly they do that, especially with their core conservative principles on social issues like abortion and gay marriage. I really wish that moderate republicans would break free from the party and become independents or libertarians or some other party and leave the extreme right conservative republicans alone to wither away. It'd be interesting to have a 3 party system in the US if this happened.

I think eventually most conservatives will evolve towards the left on social issues but remain conservative on government spending and taxes like libertarians are. The irony is that republicans have a dismal record on fiscal conservatism during their last few administrations in the White House.

I'm happy the country is moving to the left and I look forward to the day when the South and Midwest are as liberal as New England is. I'd still like people to keep their traditional ways however in that I don't want everyone talking and acting like a North East intellectual, just more to the left on social issues.


Tuesday, February 12, 2013

All Set To Release "A Case For Secular Morality" Tomorrow

After working for weeks on and off on a culmination of the moral and ethical viewpoints I've expressed on this blog, I'm all set to release A Case For Secular Morality: Objective Morality Without God tomorrow. I make the arguments to (1) define morality and its natural foundations; and (2) provide an objective standard for moral values without appeal to god. It will be broken into 3 parts. The first part lays out the natural objectivity, the second part addresses some common concerns regarding my argument, and the third mostly concludes and summarizes it.

Later I will include a fourth part that addresses questions I get from readers as well as some other questions I've thought of that were left out of the main arguments. It is designed primarily for secular moral relativists but should be an interesting read to anyone passionate about ethics. It's pretty long compared to an average post but I will greatly appreciate it if you take the time to read it and give me your honest feedback. If you have any questions, you can write in a comment and I will add that to a part 4 or second edition.

Share

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...