Look Back in Anger

April 27, 2006

I’ve been for the most part avoiding link/quote posts, as they’re not really why I started writing here—I prefer essaying to commentary, generally. In this case, however, I must point to Alonzo Fyfe‘s words on the ‘angry atheist’ phenomenon. I hope to get into atheism soon here, as it’s probably the concept about which I am most passionate and with which I am most engaged right now, but for now, I’ll merely nudge you (forcefully) in the direction of Alonzo’s post. You ought to read the whole thing—it’s not especially long, and Alonzo is always very readable—especially if you’ve ever been at all confused as to why many atheists seem to be angry (short answer: we have reason to be), but here’s a tidbit, emphasis mine:

The article [ed: here] also states:

To be called to a level of goodness and sacrifice so constantly and so patiently by a loving but demanding God may seem like a naive demand to achieve what is only a remove human possibility. However, such a vision need not be seen as a red flag to those who believe nothing.

First, the author says that atheists see a call to “goodness and sacrifice” is a red flag. So, atheists are not good, and we do not engage in sacrifice. In fact, our rejection of religion, I assume, is because we, like spoiled children, simply do not want to do anything for other people. No, the ‘red flag’ is being called evil and selfish. I find my calling to goodness and sacrifice in a different source — from the fact that my fellow humans are capable of feeling pain and suffering and I do not want bad things to happen to them. Instead, I want them to be safe and happy. Period. End of story. No God involved.

Anyone who has trouble recognizing this as a legitimate source of good and moral behavior needs to take a long, hard look at their own morality.



Moral Reasoning vs. Moral Behavior

April 12, 2006

For a variety of reasons, I’ve spent quite a bit of time on issues of morality thus far in my blogging. Part of it is the sheer necessity of moral decision-making in a world in which one’s actions can so easily have an impact on other people. Part of it is my general interest in the ethical component of philosophy. Most of it, I suspect, is the fact that morality has become so tarnished as a concept, so twisted and misinterpreted and wrongheaded, that most of us shudder when anyone mentions “moral values,” because we recognize that as (typically) shorthand for the stubborn, arrogant imposition of one set of prejudices on an entire society. In this post, I’d like to address an important division in thinking about morality: the division between moral reasoning (process) and moral behavior (end).

(Side note: I should probably also make it clear that I’m using ‘morality’ and ‘ethics’ pretty much interchangeably in these posts. This is perhaps not the best of ideas, and maybe in future posts I’ll be more precise in using ‘ethics’ to denote the philosophical inquiry into the nature of right and wrong, and ‘morality’ to denote the social/cultural systems generated thereof. For now, though, just pretend they’re identical.)

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Unholy Alliances and the Monolith

April 11, 2006

Edit: Hello hello, visitors from Pharyngula! Take your shoes off, make yourselves comfortable, take a look around. We just vacuumed, so try not to spill.

A significant chunk of the recent debate among Democrats (or, more accurately, among non-Republicans) has been about how exactly we should be dealing with religion—specifically evangelical Christianity—from a political standpoint, which is to say from a public relations standpoint. With midterm elections rapidly approaching and campaigning for 2008 off to an early start, questions of policy and principle are, as is usually the case, taking a back seat to political maneuvering to satisfy the religious majority. Amy Sullivan’s Washington Monthly article a while ago about the interaction between evangelicals and the Democratic party was the catalyst for the most recent round of debates on this subject. Professor Myers and others came down hard on Sullivan (justifiably so) for what they saw as her willingness to abandon the principles of secular government for strategic purposes that almost completely miss the point. In particular, Sullivan and others have left the impression that atheists and agnostics ought to sit down and shut up for the sake of the team, a suggestion to which a number of us don’t take kindly. With little to no concern for self-preservation, I’d like to dive into this little debate.

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Locke Part Zero

February 22, 2006

I promised myself I’d get the first of the Locke posts up tonight, so I suppose I should at least scratch the surface. I’m about a quarter of the way through the Second Treatise of Government, but my first comment has virtually nothing to do with Locke’s political philosophy. The preface to the Two Treatises, while it focuses mostly on outlining the purposes of the work (to justify the ascension of William of Orange after the Glorious Revolution, and to demolish Sir Robert Filmer’s arguments for the divine right of kings), has a nice little nugget on philosophical discourse that I think is worth reproducing here.

If any one, concerned really for truth, undertake the refutation of my Hypothesis, I promise him either to recant my mistake, upon fair conviction; or to answer his difficulties. But he must remember two things.

First, That cavilling here and there, at some expression, or little incident of my discourse, is not an answer to my book.

Secondly, That I shall not take railing for arguments, nor think either of these worth my notice, though I shall always look on myself as bound to give satisfaction to any one, who shall appear to be conscientiously scrupulous in the point, and shall shew any just grounds for his scruples.

It seems to me that we would do well to take this to heart as a disclaimer for modern political and philosophical discourse. It also occurs to me that this sense of philosophical essaying as being essentially a back-and-forth enterprise is largely absent in the present day, at least in a substantial sense. Where Locke specifically outlined his willingness to respond to criticism of his arguments, most discourse today (at least outside of academic philosophy circles, which I don’t know quite well enough to speak for) either ignores/marginalizes reasoned opposition or comes out swinging, combativeness for the sake of combativeness. Obviously modern Western society—and America above all—follows a highly adversarial paradigm, from capitalism to party politics to adversarial justice systems, but Locke’s suggested dialectic seems a hell of a lot more reasonable than what passes for debate these days.

Having studied 17th and 18th century satire fairly extensively, I do realize that there was as much flamethrowing and vitriol back then as there is now, if not more so, but the context is different; back then, it was primarily the literary/political elites doing the verbal sparring, but now it’s every Joe and Jane Schmoe with an opinion. “Partisan politics” is an easy target, but where this stuff really matters the most is in the public domain, in the culture and the media and the day-to-day conversations that make up people’s lives. Not to say that we wouldn’t benefit from more rational debate in the legislature, because of course we would, but now more than ever the idea of a civil but critical examination of people’s arguments is something we need. Much more than we need sophistry and vilification.

Locke would make a fairly decent poster boy for the Intelligent Party, I think.


Misguided Metaphors and the Perversion of Ideals

February 21, 2006

In recent years, some people have noted the increasing importance of metaphor in public discourse, and the way changes over time to these metaphors (whether deliberately imposed or not) affect discourse, politics, and human experience. This is, like many but not all politically-oriented problems, something that happens on both sides of the aisle, as a natural consequence of political rhetoric (since politics is about, among other things, expressing complicated issues in simplified terms so people can make decisions without being paralyzed by their own ignorance). I’d like to focus for the moment on two terms that have undergone such a shift in meaning as to become almost trivial: tolerance and equality.

Both of these concepts have been held up as cornerstones of liberal democracy for a couple centuries, and rightly so. Liberal democracy is founded upon the universality of human rights—the “for all” is just as significant as the “liberty and justice.” The existence of such rights is great in and of itself, but it’s meaningless if it’s reserved for some arbitrarily chosen group of people. Rights are only rights as long as we can effectively take them for granted (not that we should) regardless of our socioeconomic status, race, gender, country of residence, religion or lack thereof, etc.; if there is a possibility of arbitrary abridging of these rights, they are more accurately described as privileges. Moral values must be universally applicable, as I’ve said, but they also must be universally applied. From these ideas are born the concepts of equality and tolerance.

In the case of equality, there has been a transition over the last few decades from equal respect and opportunity to a sort of enforced, end-result sameness. The idea that “all men are created equal” has been taken out of the context of inviolable natural rights and placed in a bubble of thick-headed literalism, wherein the constructs of fairness and impartiality are applied in deeply flawed ways. This manifests itself in the obvious political and social ways, namely affirmative action, and this is certainly something I’ll get to in future posts (the steadfast pursuit of affirmative action policies has been one of my main quarrels with the Democratic party, as thoroughly as I tend to align myself with progressive/liberal points of view), but it is also present in a more abstract sense: the equality of ideas.

(More below the fold.)

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The Process of Artistic Evaluation

February 19, 2006

Apologies for the long gap between posts—it’s been a hectic couple of weeks. This post is something of a departure from the steady stream of political/philosophical type posts of late, but it’s probably the sort of departure you should get used to (in degree, if not necessarily in kind, though I am very much into aesthetics). I’ll undoubtedly be back to ‘normal’ in the next post, though.

It has been an enormous source of frustration for me over the years that a majority of people seem to conflate the quality of an artistic work (using ‘artistic’ in a classificatory sense—meaning film/fiction/poetry/whatever—not in an evaluative sense) with the direct enjoyment they get out of it, down to the very silly notion* that a film without a happy ending is inferior to a film with a happy ending. This is mostly harmless, in that the personal enjoyment of a work is probably the most meaningful and readily available gauge for most people, but it shouldn’t be confused with the quality of a work in any universal evaluative sense. I should probably also specify up front that I’m talking about works/genres/mediums with a significant literary or representational element—mostly film and literature, though some visual art and music too. I’m less confident about evaluating non-representational art, though I think a lot of the same principles likely apply.

(Continued below the fold.)

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The Domain of Moral Judgment (Morality Part Deux)

February 2, 2006

One of the crucial questions I didn’t address in my previous post about morality was that of which interactions are appropriate for us to evaluate on a moral scale. Not every action has a moral/immoral component to it. Morality is a framework to govern interactions between humans, or at least between creatures with a certain degree of sentience; while we may not be able to agree on definitions or degrees of sentience, we can agree that the complete lack thereof precludes an entity from taking part in a moral/immoral interaction. (It is nonsensical to talk about the morality or immorality of a man interacting with a wooden board.) In the most fundamental sense, morality exists, as I have said, to make our lives easier and happier than they would otherwise be, were we all left to our own animalistic devices. What this boils down to in principle, and what every moral value can be reduced to, is the protection of a certain set of rights. Differing moral systems hold differing views of what rights are natural/unimpeachable, what rights should always be protected, and what rights are more properly thought of as privileges, and these discrepancies are what result in different moral values. For a moral system to be rationally coherent, though, it must focus on interactions between rights-possessing entities.

It’s likely that by now you can see where I’m going with this. The previous paragraph can be summarized as follows:

  1. A coherent moral system can only deal with interactions between two or more sentient (to whatever degree) entities.
  2. A coherent moral system exists for the purpose of protecting the rights of participants in that system.

The concept of consensual/victimless crime, then, is meaningless from a morality standpoint. Society may have an interest in promoting ‘public morality,’ but that doesn’t mean it is morally justified in doing so. Leaving aside issues of morality vs. law, an interaction which doesn’t involve the abridging of rights of either party (obviously these interactions can involve more than two participants, but for simplicity’s sake, I’m going to assume only two) cannot properly be called ‘immoral.’

Take consensual crime—actions that are deemed criminal, despite being between two fully consenting adults. There is no moral justification for prohibiting any such interactions; as long as both directly-involved parties give informed consent (more on this later), there are no rights being abridged, and thus there is nothing to qualify such a situation as ‘moral’ or ‘immoral.’ It’s simply an interaction between two people, the same in principle as two people shaking hands. It doesn’t make sense to talk about the morality or immorality of such things unless you want to suggest a drastically different and much less defensible goal for a moral system (enforcing God’s will, say).

The principles involved in victimless, one-party crimes are more or less the same. Justifications for laws against suicide in particular tend to fall into two categories: the logistical argument, which suggests that although suicide only directly impacts the person committing suicide, it has considerable indirect effects on other people; and the appeal to moral authority argument, wherein suicide is claimed to be An Immoral Act, period, end of story. The latter doesn’t hold water at all, given that no one’s rights are being abridged. Those who argue from this perspective often speak as if rights implied requirements, i.e. the right to live must be exercised (because it’s natural, because human life is sacred, or for some other nebulously defined and poorly articulated reason). This is clearly not true; my right to live can’t be seen as a requirement to live, just as my right to free speech can’t be seen as a requirement to use that free speech. I am perfectly within my appropriate moral boundaries to go my entire life without saying a word, even if I’m capable of speech. (If you’ve read this far, you can probably guess that this isn’t particularly likely for me.) The logistical argument has slightly more of a logical basis, but it rests on the assumption that acts ought to be evaluated not just in terms of the actions themselves and their direct consequences, but also in terms of any indirect consequences that may crop up in the future. This makes some sense in the abstract (and I’m not entirely sure how to rebut it on principle), but it sets a troubling precedent, especially in a world where even the smallest action can have numerous unforeseen consequences. At any rate, I’m fairly certain that it would be impossible, no matter how many causal leaps were taken, to make a case that person A committing suicide can possibly violate any fundamental, unimpeachable rights of person B, assuming we’ve more or less arrived at a reasonable consensus as far as what those fundamental rights are (the right not to be sad is not defensible as such a right; the right not to be killed is).

This is all the long way around saying that morality becomes meaningless if we try to apply it to situations that don’t have a morality component. Such situations are more properly thought of as matters of cultural norms, and obviously legislating based on cultural norms is a bit more iffy than legislating based on a rationally-generated system of morality. Especially in an increasingly globalized society. Moral judgment can only be applied to situations where someone’s natural rights are being abridged; if all parties to an action/interaction have given autonomous and informed consent, then a consistently-defined morality has nothing whatsoever to say about the situation. These actions may offend some cultural norms, but calling them immoral is a gross misuse of the term, and that’s really the sort of term we ought to get right.