In some of my philosophical wanderings around the internet, I write an occasional “diary” for Talk2Action a site devoted to preventing the Religious Right from establishing a theocracy in America.
One of the issues that has come up is the way that the religious right uses allegedly neutral “character building” programs. The charge is that the character traits that these people seek to promote are those that would make people willing and obedient sheep who will work to make “God” the official ruler of this country.
“God could not make it here today to accept this award. Therefore, God’s self-proclaimed spokesperson,
This article concerns one of these conferences where participants are apparently seeking to turn people into theocratic sheep through promoting a list of character traits. What concerned me about this article, however, was the quote,
…attendees will come to learn that absolutely everything bad happening in our society--from crime to divorce, from drug use to school shootings--can be explained by lack of character.
It is written in a context that seems to ridicule this position. Indeed, the very title of the article, "Cult of Character", suggests (intentionally or not) that there is something sinister in thinking about moral character.
However, I happen to think this statement is true. Well . . . the word “everything” is an exaggeration. Still, almost every blog entry that I have written is yet another example of how bad (moral) character has contributed to bad things happening. Each of them is a lesson in how promoting good character traits in ourselves and others will make life better for all people generally.
If it is wise to build a tsunami warning system to prevent the death and destruction associated with a tsunami, then it is wise to protect ourselves from the harms that bad people may do by promoting character traits that make others less of a threat, and more likely to help in times of trouble.
It simply makes sense that, if you want those you love to be able to walk down the street without being raped or mugged, than you create a society that promotes in your neighbors an aversion to raping and mugging people.
If it is wise to child-proof your house to keep your children safe, then is it not wise to child-proof your neighborhood by causing those who live in it to have an aversion to doing harm to children, and to aiding them when they are in need?
I use, as a foundation for my writing, a moral view called “Desire Utilitarianism.” It states that the institution of morality is substantially devoted to using praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promote good (beneficial, helpful) desires (character traits) and to inhibit bad (harmful) desires (character traits). It is a theory that puts a great deal of emphasis on character.
My objection to the theocrats is not that they talk about character. It is that some of the character traits they seek to develop will do a great deal of harm. Some will no doubt do some good. Even a slave master has a reason to promote honesty, diligence, pride in craftsmanship, and a sense of personal responsibility in his slaves. But others such as subservience, intellectual laziness, intellectual recklessness, and hate (against those who the leaders, claiming to speak for God, tell them to hate), will bring suffering.
I have written against some of their professed character traits in the past. In “On Liberty and Theocracy in Ohio.” I commented on how their list of values describes liberty pretty much as, “doing what you are told so that we the leaders do not have to hurt you.”
In the blog entry “On Wisdom” I mentioned how they define “wisdom” as belief in “something greater than intelligence or knowledge”, which I suggest is meant to make the claim that atheists are fools by definition. I offer an alternative account of wisdom in its place.
My point here is to suggest that the devil is in the details.
These people are right in claiming that character is important. If you want to be safe, if you want your children and others that you love to be safe, and if you want the people and things they love to be safe, you have a reason to look at ways in which we can help to create a society of individuals who help others and not endanger them.
The problem is that these theocrats are promoting character traits that make those who they teach a threat to others. They define “good character” in terms of being a a blind, obedient, intellectually lazy servant that will do whatever the masters command.
Those masters, in turn, are looking for servants that they can turn against anybody who threatens their authority. This will inevitably include anybody who questions their assertions about what this God wants, such as homosexuals, atheists, and women (or at least those not properly subservient to men).
These people are not to be faulted because they speak about character. These people are to be faulted for their efforts in promoting character traits that make their followers a threat to others.