Good Reason

It's okay to be wrong. It's not okay to stay wrong.

Category: ethics (page 2 of 3)


I’m a bit of an ethical utilitarian; that is, I generally think an action is good if it has good effects. I can see some problems with it. Since we can’t always predict the effects of our actions, utilitarianism works best in retrospect. And defining ‘good’ has its own problems, but I know it when I see it.

But I like to hear the other side. So, for the second time in two days, I went to hear a Christian have a bash at a competing philosophy. I wasn’t expecting to hear how Christianity improves on utilitarianism. They never seem to do that. They just say God is wonderful. But I hoped to get a better idea of other views on ethics.

The speaker mentioned the above problems with utilitarianism, all of which I would have happily conceded. I could have done without the straw men, though. (Did you know that utilitarianism can lead to gulags and gambling, if you define ‘good’ stupidly enough?)

So what was his great idea for ethical behaviour? It’s quite an eye-opener: An action is good if god says it is. I asked him how he could know what god wants, when believers have come to many different conclusions about that. His answer: He reads the Bible and decides. That’s unlikely to lead to any ambiguity.

At the end of the presentation, I was unconvinced that his system of ethics held any advantages. Sure, he was against gambling and gulags, but a utilitarian could be against both of those things. The difference is that they’d be against it because it was bad for people, and he’d be against it because a god said so. I had a Socratic realisation that I knew one thing more than he did: I knew that my ethical system was made by humans. His system of ethics was made by humans, too, but he didn’t know that. He thought that his system of ethics was handed down by the supreme creator of the universe. I suspect that would make him less capable of compromise.

Despite the presentation, I was quite encouraged by the Christians I met. They asked some good (and in some cases, thorny) questions, including a brief touch on Euthyphro’s dilemma. Also, the ones I met were actually in the process of reading Dawkins and Dennett. Are atheists reading Eagleton and Plantinga? Ugh, no thank you. If we tried to reciprocate, the Christians would be getting the better end of that deal. Still, I respect their curiosity and willingness to check out the other side.

Annoyed, not offended.

The fourteenth Mormon Article of Faith is, as we all know: Ex-Mormons Are Offended. It’s never anything as complicated as a protracted moral struggle in which one tries to reconcile slippery doctrine with tangible reality and realises it can’t be done. Nope. Someone offends us, and we’re out the door.

But really, how can we help being offended when people define the term so broadly? Just recently, Boyd ‘Li’l Factory’ Packer gave this advice:

Around us we see members of the Church who have become offended. Some take offense at incidents in the history of the Church or its leaders and suffer their whole lives, unable to get past the mistakes of others. They do not leave it alone. They fall into inactivity.

See? It’s not that you can’t believe all the bizarro stuff in church history. It’s that you’re ‘offended’ by it. You’re supposed to let it go. Aaand pay tithing.

Wait — am I being offended by sloppy definitions? No. Just annoyed. But there are other things to get annoyed at.

An interesting story out of New Zealand. It seems the owner of a grocery store didn’t program the automatic door to stay closed for Good Friday. At 8:00, as usual, the doors opened with no staff inside. It took shoppers a while to realise the place was unmanned. What would they do?

About half paid for their groceries using the self-scan service, but that stopped working when someone scanned alcohol, which requires a staff member to check a customer’s age before the system is unlocked.

So a lot of people paid, even when no one was watching. We’re fair-minded beings. Some people didn’t. We’re self-seeking beings, too.

But one religious studies professor jumps to the conclusion that you need a god to be moral. How so? Because obviously all the true Christians were in church of Good Friday! Therefore all the cheaters were grubby secularists.

“The Christian Right have tended to think [that] without the Ten Commandments and God’s divining hand we would never have been able to develop a plausible and sustainable morality.

“This [Pak ‘n Save incident] is like some mad experiment, because you’ve sent off to church the religious and it’s the secular who have gone shopping on Good Friday … and you’ve put them to the test.

Given the proportion of Christians in prisons (though c.f.), I’ll wager there were a few in that store.

Also annoying is this column in which Ross Douthat mounts a defense of hell, which for some inexplicable reason appears in the opinion pages of the New York Fucking Times.

Doing away with hell, then, is a natural way for pastors and theologians to make their God seem more humane. The problem is that this move also threatens to make human life less fully human.

Atheists have license to scoff at damnation, but to believe in God and not in hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices. If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either. They’re like home runs or strikeouts in a children’s game where nobody’s keeping score.

I don’t know why he’d imagine that eternal torture for some is what it takes to make life meaningful. I have noticed, though, that people who defend the doctrine of hell never think that they’re going there. Or maybe they know that fear does wonders in keeping believers in line. To hell with that.

O-Day Hijinx: Part 3

Not what I expected

Complete this sentence:

If a business is manufacturing products that pose real risks of serious disease, we believe it is all the more important that it…

Stop manufacturing the product?

Get taxed into oblivion?

Be legally disbanded?

None of the above, according to British American Tobacco’s website. Their answer:

…we believe it is all the more important that it does so responsibly.

If you make products that kill people when used as intended, how do you do that ‘responsibly’? That’s quite a different definition of ‘responsibility’ than the one I’m accustomed to.

The role of disgust in opinion-forming

How do we go about forming opinions? As for me, when a moral or political decision comes up, I rationally sit down, weigh up the pros and cons of the options, and take the view that I think is best based on the evidence.

No, just kidding. I probably do it the other way around like everyone else. Form a snap opinion, and then hunt around for evidence to justify it. I don’t like the idea that this is how we operate, but it’s probably true all the same.

My first experience with political opinion-forming was the US election in 1972. My entire Republican family was voting for Nixon, but I thought I’d vote for McGovern. I didn’t even know what voting was. I’d seen the primaries, and I thought that when you voted, you had to go and stand next to your candidate so they could count you. There I imagined my family, standing with Nixon (with his fingers in ‘V for Victory’ pose), while on the other side of the room it was just George and five-year-old me. Why did I take the view I did? Why did they? I don’t know, but it is funny that no one in my family has changed voting patterns since then.

Sometimes my opinions lead on from prior opinions, or from values that I have, but where did they come from? I can’t say it’s anything more conscious than my ‘voting’ for McGovern all those years ago. I’ve often suspected that my opinions are based on some tendency, a leaning one way or the other that tips other decisions. But what tendency? Looking out for in-group v sympathy for out-group? Fearful or fearless? Authoritarian or democratic? Or something more primal?

New research highlights the role of simple ordinary disgust.

This is the argument that some behavioral scientists have begun to make: That a significant slice of morality can be explained by our innate feelings of disgust. A growing number of provocative and clever studies appear to show that disgust has the power to shape our moral judgments. Research has shown that people who are more easily disgusted by bugs are more likely to see gay marriage and abortion as wrong. Putting people in a foul-smelling room makes them stricter judges of a controversial film or of a person who doesn’t return a lost wallet. Washing their hands makes people feel less guilty about their own moral transgressions, and hypnotically priming them to feel disgust reliably induces them to see wrongdoing in utterly innocuous stories.

Psychologists like [Jonathan] Haidt are leading a wave of research into the so-called moral emotions — not just disgust, but others like anger and compassion — and the role those feelings play in how we form moral codes and apply them in our daily lives. A few, like Haidt, go so far as to claim that all the world’s moral systems can best be characterized not by what their adherents believe, but what emotions they rely on.

Primal emotions as atoms in the periodic table of our moral chemistry. Maybe these simple reactions are too simple to explain the complex range of opinions that grow out of them, but if opinion-forming goes back to something simpler, then disgust seems like a good candidate. I’ll be looking forward to more of this research.

Why are we moral? It’s a problem — for Christians.

One of the main themes of the ‘Collision’ discussion was morality. Ben the Christian had no argument with the idea that atheists could be moral, but he thought they were borrowing Christian morality (which actually predates Christianity). Like Wilson in the film, he argued that Christians could explain why a deed was moral or immoral (God seddit), but atheists couldn’t.

In fact, atheists can explain why we’re moral: we have brains (with, yes, mirror neurons) that can feel the feelings of others. When we see someone that’s hurt or sad, we feel like it’s happening to us, and we don’t like it. This gives rise to compassion, empathy, and all those nice things.

Here’s the interesting part (and this line of thinking arose out of a discussion with Mark Ellison):
• A theory is better if it explains more.
• Atheists can explain why atheists and Christians are moral.
• Christians can explain why Christians are moral, but they have no idea why atheists are moral.
• Their theory explains less. This is a problem for their theory, not for the theory of atheists.

No, really, they simply have no idea why atheists are moral. Take a look at the recent column from Billy Graham.

DEAR DR. GRAHAM: The kindest, most thoughtful person I know says she’s an atheist and doesn’t even believe in God. I always thought we needed to believe in God before we’d behave like she does, but I guess this isn’t necessarily true, is it?

[Graham responds:] Why is she such a kind and thoughtful person? I don’t know the reason; perhaps she simply has a sunny personality (as some people do), or perhaps her parents taught her to be kind and considerate when she was growing up. But I do know this: She’s not this way because she’s an atheist. In fact, she’s this way despite her atheism — because a true atheist has no real reason to believe in right and wrong or to behave sacrificially toward others.

But if they do behave this way, and you can’t explain it, doesn’t that mean there’s something lacking in your explanation, and not with atheism?

By making this argument, Christians are trying to give us their problem. But the difficulty inherent in their position belongs to them.

Amcal experts?

Here’s the new ad for Amcal, a pharmacy chain. I caught this ad last night in a rare spate of TV watching.

So I popped down to my local Amcal chemist. Along with perfumes, diapers, and magazines, here’s what I found.

Lots and lots of homeopathy. The message is starting to get out that homeopathy doesn’t work, but it seems the chemists are either clueless, or they can’t resist all the tasty tasty money that it brings.

Bach flower essences are also popular, but just as dodgy. “Traditionally used to relieve feelings of stress”, it says.

This is a bottle of some patent medicine. If you look closely, it says, “With creosote.” That’s not a warning; I think it’s meant to be a selling point.

This is supposed to be for migraines. It’s mostly just lavender oil.

And lots of ear candles. Everybody knows these are bogus, right? A brochure says that in addition to sucking the wax out of your ears, they can restore your harmonic energy balance. I asked, if they don’t restore my harmonic energy balance, do I get my money back? They said no.

And check it out — colloidal silver, ffs.

I don’t think my local chemist is atypical. Chemists around here have real medicine that works, but they don’t mind selling a bit of the fake stuff on the side. So if you walk into a chemist expecting expert advice, you might get it, or you might shell out good money for a lot of crap.

People look to pharmacies as places where they can get accurate information about health and drugs. Maybe pharmacists don’t ask for this reputation, and it’s an expectation that the public has created. Which would let the pharmacists off the hook.

But now that Amcal is embracing its image that their people are ‘experts’ (and trading off of this image), then they have a responsibility to provide expert advice and educate the public, and not supply fake cures just because the unwary will pay for it.

Sunday blasphemy: Life without gods is enjoyable and ethical

Ran across this quote as a Facebook status update.

Without God, life would end at the grave and our mortal experiences would have no purpose. Growth and progress would be temporary, accomplishment without value, challenges without meaning.

In other words: There must be a god. If there weren’t, it would be depressing, and depressing things just can’t be true!

Not much of an argument, is it? But you can see the self-congratulatory appeal. It tells the believer: ‘You’re not wasting your time believing. Your belief gives your life a purpose.’ Well, I suppose the author’s church gives him a purpose. Maybe he actually means that his life would be meaningless without the god that he’s based all his hopes and aspirations on.

It also lets him pity atheists — oh, how empty their lives must seem!

Well, he can save his pity. Life without gods is still full of value and meaning, even if it doesn’t last forever. In fact, I find life more precious because of its brief duration.

I’m thinking of Babette’s Feast, a wondrous film that I first saw at BYU. (I wonder if it’s still a favourite on the International Films list.) Babette, a French chef, is a long-time resident of a village full of dour Lutherans. When she announces that she’s making a feast for her friends, it sends them into turmoil — how can they enjoy the feast while renouncing the pleasures of the flesh? Maybe it’s the age I am now, but as a BYU student with false assurances of a future eternity, I thought, “What a neat film.” Now when I think of it, and of our brief time to feast, I am moved to tears. I feel that coming to accept mortality and non-existence has deepened my emotions in way that was impossible when I thought life would go forever.

Is growth and progress temporary — and therefore meaningless — if we die and cease to exist? For the individual, perhaps, but there’s more than just us, you know. There’s also humanity. The great things that people have made and left behind continue to benefit all of us. How short-sighted to claim it’s all pointless if he’s not around to have it forever. How self-centered. How this view devalues life. What paucity of imagination. What meanness of spirit.

There’s more. The author continues:

There would be no ultimate right and wrong and no moral responsibility to care for one another as fellow children of God.

Ultimate right and wrong? Says someone whose barbaric holy books need constant reinterpretation and explanation to bear any resemblance to the morality held by normal people today.

And as far as moral responsibility, if he needs to believe in an invisible man to care about other humans, then I hope he never stops believing. Luckily, we atheists can take care of people we love and contribute to the good of humanity without all the supernatural baggage.

I wonder if the author of this quote would be disappointed to find that atheists aren’t all miserable and depressed. We have the temerity to be happy in this life. And how confusing it must be to see us taking care of other people without an ‘absolute morality’. I think I’ll confuse him even more by dropping a few coins into ‘Non-Believers Giving Aid‘. Figure that one out, God-Boy.

Maybe religion can still do ‘comfort’ and ‘social cohesion’.

It’s just as the ministers feared: If you offer secular ethics, no one’s going to want religion anymore.

Scripture classes lose half of students to ethics, say Anglicans

THE controversial trial of secular ethics classes has ”decimated” Protestant scripture classes in the 10 NSW schools where it has been introduced as an alternative for non-religious children, with the classes losing about 47 per cent of enrolled students.

Seems that religion’s attempt to evolve has led to a conflict. See, back in the old days, religion offered a view of the earth’s history and future that claimed to be true. When that turned out to be a load of old bollocks, some religions decided that providing ‘moral instruction’ was more in their line. The problem with that was that secular people are already doing morals, thank you very much, and the morals they’ve come up with are a lot more relevant than those of the world’s religions.

I can’t say it better than Dawkins did (and ex tempore too).

Religions are not all that good at moral instruction. Their scriptures are punctuated with unprincipled savagery, and the behaviour of their leaders has been at times reprehensible. (And I forgot to mention in my original post: one recent study showed no difference in the ethical behaviour of atheists and church-goers.)

There are some good bits in with the nasty bits, but on the whole, what a mess. Leave it out of schools, and let the secular humanists present a view of morality that is well-thought out, and centered on what’s good for humans, not for imaginary people or their representatives.

Global Atheist Con, Day 3: Peter Singer

People get breathless about Peter Singer. I had the chance to catch up with our good friend snowqueen in Melbourne, and she was all, “OMG you’re going to see Peter Singer.” And I had to make a terrible confession: I haven’t really been aware of Peter Singer’s work since I read ‘Animal Liberation’ in the late 70’s. My mom showed it to me. She was convinced it was satire.

Since then, Singer become well-known with his work on ethics and the environment. His talk was called “Ethics Without Religion”.

He raised three points that believers often make when asking atheists how they can be moral without religion:

1. Who is to say what’s good or bad without a god?
This view provides a paradox: is something good simply because god likes it? Then goodness is arbitrary. But if you take the opposite view that god is good because he likes good things, then we could save time by ignoring god, and worshipping the set of values that he holds. Either god is an arbitrary tyrant, or there’s a notion of good that is independent of what god wills, and we don’t need a god to have it.

2. But if goodness is independent of god, maybe we still need god to reveal it to us.
Well, people with scriptures are very selective about the things they accept from scripture as ‘goodness’. They’re not using scripture — they’re using their own moral sense.

Singer mentioned that Jesus is not much help for Christians. According to him, divorce is adultery (though many Christians ignore this), he says nothing about abortion even though many Christians are certain it’s wrong, and he requires someone to sell everything he has, contrary to papal opulence and prosperity gospels.

3. Religion gives us the motivation to do what’s right by offering eternal rewards or punishments for our actions.

But does this help? We can compare the behaviour of religious v non-religious people. The notoriously religious USA doesn’t seem to offer a model of social utopia compared to secular Europe, which offers health care, lower crime, and higher rates of charity.

Singer makes the argument that human morality is an evolved phenomenon. We seem to come to similar moral judgments regardless of background. Singer points that in some cases there’s a ‘yuck’ factor to some of our moral judgments.

But this moral sense only works on situations that humans would have been familiar with, and in cases outside of human experience, our evolved response is not good enough. Xenophobia could be instinctive, but in our global post-tribal world, we need to get over it. Climate change is another issue that could be disastrous, but we don’t have an evolved response for it. It’s too gradual, too long-range.

Or consider this example posed by Singer: If a child was drowning, would you wade in, wrecking your pair of shoes? Of course. But for the cost of a pair of shoes, you could save the life of a child via Oxfam. It doesn’t hit us the same way, though, because the child is more remote. Again, our evolved response is not good enough.

Singer describes his sense of morality as concern for those people who could be affected by our actions. Are atheists borrowing morality from religion? Quite the reverse. Religion is borrowing from our innate moral sense.

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