Showing posts with label moral ojectivism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label moral ojectivism. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Moral Hypocracy of Religion

Debating with fundamentalist theists is always entertaining, especially on the issue of morality. It is my contention that on morality, no where is there a worse basis for moral absolutes then there is with religion. When cornered, many believing theists admit they disagree with the "absolute" morals of their own religions and struggle with the reconciliation between them and what they believe is moral in their hearts. Yet they still proclaim, often proudly, that through their religion's absolute moral stance is the best and only way to think critically of moral issues. Let's examine this issue in detail on several points.

First, what is moral absolutism?

Moral absolutism is defined as "the ethical belief that there are absolute standards against which moral questions can be judged, and that certain actions are right or wrong, regardless of the context of the act."

Moral absolutism and relativism can get us into some murky waters here so we have to be careful what we are talking about. Theists of many faiths will reluctantly admit that some moral relativism exists. I recently had a very conservative theist argue that Old Testament morality "was relative to a particular time and place." Thereby he admits that some moral actions are right and wrong, depending on where, why and how they were committed. That is moral relativism.

I would agree with this considering the virtually infinite number of possible situations where a moral choice must be made. The questions of where, why and how they were committed is often a determining factor to calculate its morality. However, this does not have to force you to dive head on into total moral relativism. The standards by which you calculate an action being wrong or right can be the same and apply across all cultures and time periods equally, even if different situations result in different determinations as to whether something is right or wrong.

No religion gives us a complete moral code. We are always going to be debating what is or is not moral, whenever new issues arise. Just think of the invention of the internet and how many new laws and regulations needed to be debated and passed as to what would be moral or not with this new advance in technology. No holy book will decide that, for this we must use our brains.

I further argue, that no religion really gives us the standards by which to calculate moral actions. In ethical philosophy, there are three main branches of thought to calculate morality: utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics. Religion uses a divine command theory of ethics. That means god commands it to be right or wrong, period. So if you're a Muslim, eating pork is wrong, because god said so. If you are a Christian, you cannot suffer a witch to live, because god said so. You are required to accept these moral commandments and thinking for yourself and reconsidering what is right or wrong is strictly off limits: The boss has already done the thinking for us.

The atheist's problem with this is the source of these ethics. We are told that we just have to accept that these commandments were revealed to people years ago, from an all knowing god, and perfectly translated through many languages and many generations to the present. What the atheist insists upon, is questioning everything, and every moral, so that nothing is accepted by blind faith. And if we can consider a better moral based on the moral calculations of utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics, guided by the latest science, then we should be perfectly right to discard the moral we derived from religion.

The Cherry Pickers of Morality

I often enjoy accusing theists that they are merely cherry picking their morality from their holy books to suit their personal beliefs, while they discard many of the other "absolute" morals. In Christianity, the Bible condones a host of "absolute" morals that include various forms of slavery, fathers selling their daughters into slavery, indentured servitude, forcing underage girls into marriages with older men, stoning to death all homosexuals, adulterers, witches, unruly children, those who worship false gods, those who work on the sabbath, allowing the rape of female captives in war, and throwing war captives off cliffs. There are certainly more that I do not have the time to mention.

Now if a theist adhering to a moral absolute standard believes that these above mentioned morals were relative to a certain time and place, that is hypocricy. You can't have all morality to be absolute and relative at the same time. This puts the theist into a bit of a conundrum.

So a theist could ask, "Does admitting perplexity about the Bible’s teachings in one area, while strongly affirming its teachings in another area, make me a hypocrite?"

Well it would certainly make the theist a selective literalist. I personally do reject the Bible on account of several things. First are its contradicting, and fallacious moral teachings, that are the product of an angry, jealous and superstitious tribe, bent on justifying the harm they committed by believing it was divinely sanctioned. Second is the historical and scientific inaccuracy when compared to modern science.

As an atheist I do not accept the authority and validity of the Bible. So how then should Biblical morality be interpreted? If one must continue believing in the god of the Bible, they should take from the Bible whatever morals are beneficial, and disregard whatever is no longer relevant. This is pretty much exactly what almost all theists do anyway. Most logical Christians today know the Bible in its entirety is not meant to be taken literally, and a strict literalist interpretation of the Bible will only continue to shave away adherents as a result of the torrent of secular criticism. The best hope for religion is to reform itself to include what modern science and philosophy provide us. If not, religion, much like the republican party, will continue to see its numbers of adherents decline with time.

The theist could counter with a comparison, "Should we reject science and its findings because it is not entirely amenable to our understanding?"

There is simply no comparison of the practice of science and the practice of religion. First, as I've written before, science is just the method by which we build and organize natural explanations for everything based on testable evidence and predictions. Science is an activity, it is not a set of faith-based beliefs. No one who uses science is forced to commit themselves to one particular scientific theory or not. There is no hell for not believing in string theory. Although when the evidence for a scientific theory is overwhelming, scientists will sometimes look down upon those who deny it (just think of how ridiculous flat Earth proponents look today).

Religion is a set of dogmatic beliefs surrounding a deity that requires faith to believe in, and skepticism and doubt about these beliefs are frowned upon. Comparing science to religion is to compare apples to oranges. They are two different camps. The scientific understanding of matter at the subatomic levels, however perplexing, is not tantamount to our understanding of morality from a Biblical perspective. Scientists are not "revealed" scientific truths from an absolute authority that they then have to reconcile with contradicting testable results. In religion however, we are "revealed" not only moral truths, but scientific "facts", that we then see are contradicted by our moral intuitions and the natural world.

The Role of Science in Morality

When Europeans first encountered black Africans, they didn't even consider the Africans to be human beings. They thought of them as some kind of sub-species, without the same intellectual and emotional capabilities as Europeans. This falsely held belief lead to centuries of slavery and colonization that they helped justify with the Bible. Today with modern genetic science, and the unraveling of the human genome, science has proved that all human beings share a common ancestor and that all human beings came from Africa. In effect, science has shown us that we are all Africans. With this new found scientific knowledge, one cannot justify the inferiority of African people with their previously held beliefs.

Having scientific knowledge about ourselves and our world is necessary for making the best possible moral choices. The reason why I don't regard Biblical or religious morality with any serious regard, is because they were decided at a time when humans lacked the most basic scientific understanding of the nature of reality. We used to be a people who believed in the powers of alchemy, sorcery, witches who could control the weather and disease; we believed that the world was flat, and that it was the center of the universe, that being left handed was a sign of wickedness, and that children should be buried beneath the foundations of buildings to ward off bad luck. Why would anyone seriously consider believing forever, moral cues derived from a time when this ignorant nonsense existed?

The problem with religion is that it is philosophy frozen in dogma. Just as we shouldn't have considered permanently freezing all of our beliefs when we were ten years old, the ignorant "wisdom" of the Iron-age should not be our permanent guidelines on how to live and think morally.

We may never have all the scientific knowledge of ourselves and the universe to guide our moral thinking. What we should do then, is make the best moral decisions given the (always) limited knowledge that we have and continue to improve them as new information is derived. This is called moral growth and we all do it, whether theists like to admit it or not.

By What Basis Is Biblical Morality Unethical?

Theists claim that an atheist is in no position to critique Biblical morality since he doesn't have his own absolute standard to judge it by. To this I respond in two parts. First the theist has no absolute standard, since all theists reluctantly admit that morality is at least in part, relative. Imagine a world with no human beings. Who would the ten commandments apply to? Lions? Dogs? The ten commandments are only relative to human beings existing. We cannot expect animals to behave to our moral laws. So all morality is at least relative to the human species. Furthermore, think of lying. It is considered generally wrong, but who would argue against lying to save a life, such as if Nazis came knocking at your door to ask if you were hiding Jews and you were. This is situational relativism which the Christian theist also reluctantly agrees is true.

Second, in what sense is morality objective? Any argument made for whether something is moral or not, has to be justified for a reason. So for example, kindness, love, compassion and fairness are good in and of themselves for justifiable reasons. It doesn't help us any better at all to believe there is a god who says these things are also good. Would kindness, love, compassion and fairness be any less beneficial to the beings affected by it if there was no god, or if god didn't agree that these actions were good? Of course not! No one's opinion, not even god's, makes any difference as to whether kindness, love, compassion and fairness are good things. They are naturally good in and of themselves and do not require to be backed up by authoritative power.

We get our moral intuitions from the sociobiological evolutionary process. As a species of social primates, human beings had to learn to get along and live civilly with one another. Living in small tribes for hundreds of thousands of years, everyone was dependent on each other for survival. Collectivism reigned supreme. In the modern world, we've had to adapt this tribal way of thinking to a world where we largely don't personally know our neighbors. The great struggle of humanity has been to look past race, ethnicity and differences to recognize all fellow humans beings as extended members of the same tribe. The tribal and ethnic warfare of the Old Testament is indicative of our early failures to understand this. That is another reason why the validity of absolute morals from this era should be disregarded.

In Conclusion

I'd like to summarize my points:

  • Religion and theism cannot provide an absolute basis for morality. Every religion created has relativistic morals for different situations and morality is only relative to human beings.
  • Divine command theory of ethics is a "might makes right" reasoning to understand moral truth.
  • The religious all cherry pick their morality. Furthermore, since some morals contradict themselves, the theist is often forced to cherry pick morals. 
  • There is no way to compare the endeavour of science with the dogmatic practice of religion. One uses the scientific method to find natural explanations of our world; the other asks believers to frown upon doubt and skepticism and to accept "revelations" as fact. 
  • Scientific knowledge has greatly helped our moral understanding and the morality of religion came largely before the scientific era, that is why many of its teaches seem ludicrous.
  • Some actions are naturally good or bad in and of themselves regardless of anyone's opinion of them.  The effects of actions are objective regardless of what someone's opinion of it is. Introducing a deity to the situation merely adds one more unnecessary opinion.

Finally, on morality the theist should consider these questions:

  • Couldn't it be possible that the counter-intuitive morality of the Bible is largely a product of our Iron-age superstitious thinking, which lacked the most basic understanding of science and human nature?
  • Isn't trying to reconcile Biblical morality so that it all fits into modern morality simply a futile waste of time? 
  • If Biblical morality is indeed right, why is it right? By what basis is this justified? 
  • If Biblical morality is indeed right, shouldn't we still be practicing it now? What are the justifications for doing so or not doing so?
  • Is something good because god commands it, or does he command it because it is good?
  • If something is good because god commands it, then couldn't he command murder to be good?
  • If god would never command murder because murder is inherently bad, then murder must naturally be bad in and of itself, and couldn't this be recognized by human beings without the requirement of god? 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Refuting William Lane Craig: "Is Good From God?"

In 2011, author and neuroscientist Sam Harris debated evangelical Christian apologist William Lane Craig on the topic of morality and god entitled, “Is Good From God?” The debate, largely was an attempt by Dr. Craig to critique Dr. Harris’ book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. As you may know, I have a bone to pick with Dr. Craig regarding his attempts to rationalize the more troubling aspects of his Christian faith, and in the debate he offers several examples which I will criticize.

Dr. Craig opens the debate with his two primary contentions. First, that if god exists, he offers a sound foundation for the existence of objective morals and duties, and second, that if god does not exist, then we do not have a sound foundation for objective moral duties and values. Dr. Craig defines “objective” morality as being valid and binding, independently of human opinion. Both Dr. Craig and Dr. Harris assert the existence of objective morals and duties, and only disagree with what is its foundation. On my blog, I have written repeatedly about how I believe there is exists a certain core of values that are objectively true, and are not relative to anyone’s opinion. And I have argued against the idea that the existence of god is what these objective values are founded in. What I want to do is critique line by line, the objections that Dr. Craig makes against Dr. Harris’ argument that science can offer us a foundation for objective values.

Right off the bat in Dr. Craig’s opening remarks he asserts the ontological foundation for goodness:

11:20 On the theistic view objective moral values are grounded in God. As St. Anselm saw, God is by definition the greatest conceivable being and therefore the highest Good. Indeed, He is not merely perfectly good, He is the locus and paradigm of moral value. God’s own holy and loving nature provides the absolute standard against which all actions are measured. He is by nature loving, generous, faithful, kind, and so forth. Thus if God exists, objective moral values exist, wholly independent of human beings.

One of the problems I have with this statement is the fact that the greatest conceivable being is a highly subjective expression. For example, Muslims and Christians have distinct beliefs on the nature of god. Muslims disagree with Christians that god had to rest on the seventh day after he created the universe because resting is not a property of an omnipotent god. If a god who needs to rest is less great than a god who doesn’t, than it follows that the Muslim concept of god may be better than the Christian concept. So a greatest conceivable being to a Muslims, is different than that of a Christian. And what if a psychopath’s idea of the greatest conceivable being would be that of a sadistic dictator? Could the greatest conceivable being then an aggregation of all these diverse concepts by taking the best from each? God’s nature consists of many things and jealousy is one of them. He is also wrathful, and capricious. Are these the characteristics of greatness?

Saturday, March 10, 2012

A Short Disgression on Moral Epistemology

I have written a lot on many past blogs about the topic of morality. I have affirmed that morality certainly does not come from god, and that I consider divine command theories concerning ethics to be morality repulsive. My favorite argument against this is the Euthyphro Dilemma, and I rest my moral semantics of the second horn of the Euthyphro, that there is an external set of moral standards objective to all of us, including god, if he exists. But I want to explain further, where I get my moral epistemology, or how I acquire my moral understanding. Here I am concerned with ethics and how I decide what is moral and what is not.

There are 3 major branches of ethical philosophy: consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics. Consequentialism evaluates morality based on its consequences. Deontology emphasizes the act itself regardless of the consequences, based on duties, rules and obligations. Emmanuel Kant is considered one of the most widely known deontologists. Virtue ethics on the other hand, puts emphasis on one's inner character on having desirable characteristics. Their actions would therefore not be moral or immoral based on their consequences or intentions. Aristotle was one of the more famous virtue ethicists. Finally, there is a forth branch, utilitarianism, which borrows somewhat from consequentialism. Utilitarianism determines what is moral by whether it produces the greatest possible good for the greatest possible number.

A divine command theorist would probably lay in the school of deontology because it says that there are moral absolutes and duties that one must adhere to regardless of the outcome. So if god says lying is wrong, then it is always wrong even it it will save human lives. After schooling myself in ethical philosophy, not to the level or professionality, but to a level of post-novice understanding, I have arrived closer at my ethical philosophy. Considering how all these branches of ethics contradict each other, no one school of thought is perfect. One must in some way, pick and choose from more than one in order to have a well rounded ethical philosophy. And so it is here that I have arrived closer to where I take my moral epistemology.

I am largely a consequentialist when it comes to ethics. Now I am well aware of the criticisms of consequentialism and I agreed that it has its flaws, but that is the great thing about philosophy-it's not dogma. One is free to pick and choose bits and pieces from each branch as long as they do not heavily contradict each other. With my philosophy I combine a little consequentialism with a little deontology and a little ethical egoism, and perhaps some utilitarianism. Virtue ethics I am not too concerned with, because one's desirable characteristics, in certain societies, can have negative consequences for those in it.

I believe we all consider the consequences of our actions when determining what is ethical to a degree. Torturing and killing people for fun for example, is considered wrong on a near-universal spectrum because of the needless human suffering involved. In other words, it is wrong because it has negative consequences to sentient beings. Kindness and compassion are good actions because they help others in need, and we are all in need of help at times in our lives. Consequentialism's main flaw is that is does not consider the intentions behind the action. One can intend to do good and have negative outcome, or intend to do harm and it could result in positive consequences. A careful balance between the intentions behind and consequences of one's actions, is needed in my view, for a sound moral framework.

But back to consequentialist ethics, we cannot always know the consequences of our actions immediately, and somethings that have negative consequences at first have good consequences in the long run. And somethings that have negative consequences for some, have good consequences for others. The questions then arises: consequences for who? This is where consequentialists must tread carefully. When faced with an innumerable palate of ethical dilemmas, we must often make difficult decisions. One must sometimes be faced with choosing the lesser of two evils. When we do know the true outcome of the consequences of our actions we must make it based on the best possible knowledge one has at the time. They may be wrong, but at least an informed decision should be made. When it comes to long term versus short term gain, the balance must be considered by how harmful the short term suffering would be for the long term gain. So, if we are faced with the prospects of bliss for a majority of us 5 years from now, but the price will be that until then a minority of us must suffer dire consequences, and even give their lives we must use logic and reason to deduce whether it is worth it. A well rounded ethical position should always image one as the sufferer, the one "sacrificed" for the greater good of humanity. Utilitarianism comes to play in such a dilemma. For the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people should weigh in if one must choose between several bad prospects.

This brings up the famous trolley experiment: You are at a rail crossing and you see a trolley speeding out of control. On one track there are 5 people, on the other track there is only one. The trolley is speeding on the track with 5 people on it. You stand near a rail switch that can divert the out-of-control trolley to the track with only one person, killing him, but sparing the other 5. Do you pull the switch? Utilitarians and consequentialists say yes, because 5 being killed is worse than 1 being killed. I've thought about this experiment and I am not sure what I would really do in that situation, but I think I would not pull the switch, despite being a consequentialist. I'd probably feel a lot better with myself if my hands were not responsible for anyone's death. This might be from my slight deontological streak. I also would consider the people on the tracks if possible. What if the 5 were escaped convicted murderers from prison, and the one was Barack Obama? Wouldn't then we consider the life of one more important than the many? What if the one on the track was someone you love deeply, wouldn't their life be worth more than the other 5 or 10 people on the track or however that many? An infinite number of monkey wrenches can be thrown into ethical dilemmas to challenge our perceived ethical notions. In the trolley scenario however, you know nothing of the people's lives and characteristics and have mere seconds to decide whether to pull the switch or not. Given such an opaque perspective, I stand by my decision to no pull the lever.

So with moral growth and understanding I feel I have a very good head on my shoulders on the virtue and semantics of ethics. I love probably more than anything else, to debate morality with people because it is such a fascinating and personal topic, as we are all affected by it. It makes for one heck of a good intellectual conversation. "An intellectual conversation, is the only conversation worth having", as I like to joke around. And, as the great Greek Philosopher extraordinaire Socrates said "the unconsidered life, is not worth living". Continue the conversation when I'm long gone.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Logically Implausible God (Part 2)

If you are reading this for the first time, please first read part 1 of the The Logically Implausible God where I introduce the contradictions in the traditional concept of the monotheistic god being timeless.

For part 2 of The Logically Implausible God, I will focus on the belief by many that god is morally perfect. As I mentioned in part 1, there are so many differences in the characteristics of god between faiths and even among individuals of the same religious sect, that it will be impossible for me to address all these concepts. I cannot stress this enough. Rather, what I will do instead, is conflate the many concepts of god into one single entity that is an all powerful, omniscient, omnipotent, morally perfect, timeless being, who is essentially kind and compassionate, and who is the "first cause" in the creation of, at the very least, our universe.
That being said, I want to focus on the idea of the "morally perfect" god and how I think that this is not a characteristic of the god of Judaism, Christianity or Islam. I'm not even sure that a morally perfect being could exist in the first place.

The Euthyphro Dilemma

First of all, where does morality come from? Theists disagree tremendously on this concept. We are told by some theists that god is morally perfect, and that morality comes from him. If god is morally perfect, then his very nature must therefore also be morally perfect. Now this brings us to The Euthyphro Dilemma, from Plato's dialogue Euthyphro. It asks the question, "Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?" I love this brilliant wisdom of the the ancient Greeks. Let's analyze this a little deeper. If god says stealing is wrong, is stealing wrong because god commanded it, or is it wrong independently of god's will and god agrees with it because so? If stealing is wrong only because god commands it, then morality is simply just determined by the opinion of god and can be arbitrarily decided, in other words, might makes right. But, if god said stealing is right, then it would therefore be right. I think the Islamic viewpoint has the biggest problem with this part of the Euthyphro dilemma, since it is a religion that is so dependent on gods commandments to believe what is right or wrong.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Are There Universal Morals?

It's true. I haven't wrote a decent blog in months. Too much has been on my plate to even sit down for an hour or so and write on a topic I am passionate for. I work way too many hours, and I am forced to spend a lot of time concentrating on work related issues that I have no real passion for. That being said, it doesn't mean that I haven't been engaging in intellectual discussions of which my true passion lies.

I have a saying that an intellectual conversation is the only conversation worth having. I often steer the going topic at hand towards one of my many passions in social situations. That is of course, religion, politics, philosophy, science, history, and a few other noteworthy side passions I have like architecture, music and art.

Lately, I have found that the morality debate is one of the most interesting debates to be engaged in. I recently watched a panel of philosophers speak about morality without god, at an event hosted by the Center for Free Inquiry, of which I am a part of. All four of the panelists agreed for the most part that there is no such thing as a universal morality, or moral truth. I have been struggling internally with the notion that there is no universal moral. I believe that there has to be some, at least one, although I am not completely committed to the idea.

A universal moral is one in which there are no exceptions, that is true regardless of the culture, location or time in which it takes place. Take for example of the idea of human rights, quite radical for its time. Is it a universal moral that all human beings are entitled to a basic set of rights that cannot be abridged by any other human beings or acting authority, and if so violated, would be wrong regardless of the time, culture or circumstances? Or is the concept of human rights, along with every other moral position, simply just relative to whomever says it?

We all know that total moral relativity results in some problems. A society can for example, develop a moral code in which to live by, dependent on their collective circumstance, and turn it into their culture. It will then be wrong to do "A" in this society, but right to do "B". And children growing up in this society will be inculcated accordingly on what is right and what is wrong. Now, when someone from another society, where they learned that doing A is right enters this culture, the newcomer will have to learn to adjust their behavior or face consequences. They may still believe that doing A is morally right, but their new society had deemed this wrong and set up rules to prevent it.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

More on Morality from an Atheistic Perspective

I still haven't forgotten religion, oh no no no. It is still a near constant on my mind. And while I may dabble in other topics, religion to me and Atheism is and always will be, the cornerstone of this blog.

I feel like I am almost writing the same things over and over again. I don't want to be repetitive, or redundant, but I do however, want to make sure that with this blog, I tackle every angle from the Atheist perspective. While continuing to watch debates on religion, and argue religion to all those that wish to challenge me on it, or any other aspect of my philosophy, Atheism and morality is one sphere I wish to dwell on a bit more.

The origin of morality is one area that many Theists believe to hold the moral high ground. They claim, that without an objective moral provider, all morality is a matter of opinion. For example, if person A thinks that killing and eating person B is morally right, than person B is in no position to assert that person A is wrong. It is only person B's opinion that person A is wrong. Without an objective, external source of moral authority, let's say person C, who says that person A in this case is morally wrong for wanting to kill and eat person B, than we are only left with subjective, and often self-serving morality. Meaning, person B thinks it's wrong for person A to kill and eat him only because he doesn't want to die, and person A thinks it's right to kill and eat person B because it would satisfy his desire.

This is a basic scenario used by many Theists to explain the importance of having a God, represented by person C, to provide clear and defined objective morality. I've never been too persuaded by this argument, for the following reasons. First, the idea of an objective moral provider makes me cringe, because it is really, when you think about it, just another opinion. It's god's opinion, and doesn't necessarily lay claim to the best possible moral decision regarding the situation. For example, in the hypothetical scenario above, if god (person C) sided with person A, in that killing and eating person B was indeed morally right, would that suddenly be true? Would it abruptly be moral for person A to kill and eat person B, because god said it was so? Would we as a society embrace such an act, because a very powerful and opinionated god sanctioned it? Or would we, in spite of the opinion of an angry and jealous god, condemn such an act? In the most simple terms possible, what do we do with do with an immoral moral objective authority?

It seems to be that the Christian, Islamic and Judaic perspective, has basically taken the position that yes, god is not always fair, and not always moral, but he's the boss and he makes the rules. Therefore, we must obey god's command, even if it doesn't always make sense, or if we have difficulty discerning the moral outcome. Atheists reject this idea and make it one of our key arguments against religion. Why embrace a moral that seems immoral, simply because it is believed to come from a powerful god? Why cancel out commonsense or scientific truth because a book says otherwise? Religions are filled with examples of morality coming from god, that if practiced today, would be so far removed from contemporary moral norms. Was it moral for god to command the Jews to exterminate all their rival tribes, keeping only the marriageable girls? Christians and Jews think it was because the objective moral authority said so.


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