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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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 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.


Two Things

February 1, 2006

Over the next few posts I will be following Urizen’s lead and developing a few of my own thoughts about morality and where it can come from.  Today, I want to lay down a couple of fundamental ideas on which most of my morals rest.

Oftentimes, I trick myself into believing that free markets solve everything.  This usually happens while I’m reading either books about investing or novels by Ayn Rand.  Along with making me believe the impossible, the ideas in these sorts of books have one common umbrella element: they are very good when applied, in tandem with more comprehensive ideas, to very limited spheres of activity.  Sort of the way Corn Pops are part of This Complete Breakfast.

These books have one thing further in common: they assume the existence of the sorts of people who see that their future is in their hands alone.  It is easy to read a book about value investing, but it is a far different matter to do the legwork necessary to succeed at it.

I too believe that these people exist, though they are hard to find.  Becoming one involves two commitments.  The first is a commitment to quality, a “discriminating taste,” necessarily present both in ends and in means.  There is no sense in working 80 hour weeks for a worthless cause, nor in spending 80 hours doing a job that could be done in 20 with better tools.  The second is a commitment to responsibility in actions.  Among other things, this means avoiding the “it’s not my problem” syndrome and actively seeking out bigger and better problems to work on.  The aphorism which preaches that “showing up is half the battle” is truer than it is usually given credit for.  So is that old one, “ask and you shall receive,” only I generally feel it is more worthwhile to ask a human being who might at least give you a yes or no answer.

Enough foundation.  To sum up: responsibility and quality, a means and an end.  Tune in next time, when I will probably try to work in Buddhism and maybe oil companies.


A Rational Morality

January 29, 2006

I’ve found on a number of occasions that people who conceive of morality as something handed down from on high don’t understand how there could be any alternative to that view. “If you don’t get your morals from [deity of choice], where do you get them?” The frequency with which this line of questioning appears demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of what sort of a concept morality is and how we can coherently define it. The assumption at the heart of the misunderstanding is that morals must be things in the world—not necessarily that they must be tangible, but that they have an existence independent of the human mind. For a person holding this view, morals are fixed, constant, and external.

(Continued below the fold.)

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