Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Bibby Survey: Kindness

When I was asked to address Bibby’s survey that allegedly shows that people who believe in God had stronger devotion to certain key values such as generosity and kindness than theists, I saw it as an opportunity to examine a list of key values and assess just how valuable they are.

I did this with patience, which I said is an Aristotelian virtue. It is possible to have both too little (making unreasonable demands on self and others) and too much (allowing oneself to be used by others) patience.

I did this with honesty. I did not dispute the value of honesty. Instead, I asserted that we have a better way to examine how much a group of people value honesty other than by looking at how they respond to a survey. An individual acts so as to fulfill the most and strongest of his desires, given his beliefs. A person who is not acting to promote honesty cannot be said to value honesty. On this matter, the actions of theists suggest that they actually care very little about honesty. Useful dishonesty tends to draw more praise in virtue of being useful, than it draws condemnation in virtue of being dishonest.

The survey also lists a number of other virtues that I see as being so closely related, that the reasons for supporting any one of them are reasons for supporting all of them. These are the virtues of kindness (Theists 88%, Atheists: 75%), Courtesy (Theists 81%, Atheists 71%), Concern for others (Theists 82%, Atheists 63%), Politeness (Theists 77%, Atheists 65%), Friendliness (Theists 79%, Atheists 74%), and Generosity (Theists 67%, Atheists 37%).

One of the things that might be influencing this set of statistics is the fact that the category of ‘Atheists’ who are followers of the late Ayn Rand who argued that selfishness is a virtue. Though this group makes up a small percentage of the overall population, it makes up a large percentage of atheists. This would sufficiently skew the numbers. Bibby, and other agents of injustice who want to use these numbers to condemn all of atheism, are being unfair, unjust bigots to take the qualities of this one subgroup of atheists and branding the whole group in this way.

Desire utilitarian theory puts an extremely high value on all of these traits. Desire utilitarianism holds that a good desire is a desire that tends to fulfill the desires of others. All of these traits – kindness, courtesy, generosity, etc., - are things that, those who desire them, tend to fulfill the desires of others.

A truly generous person – a person who likes being generous – sacrifices nothing in being generous.

We would not say that a person who likes eating chocolate ice cream is making some sort of sacrifice when he eats chocolate ice cream. He is doing what he desires to do. The money that he spends in buying chocolate ice cream is money well spent.

Similarly, the person who values being generous is not making any sort of sacrifice when he is being generous. He is doing what he desires to do. The money that he spends is money well spent, because it buys him what he thinks is worth buying – the better well-being of others.

The time and effort that I spend on this blog is time and effort well spent. I could be doing other things in the time that I spent writing this – watching television, playing computer games, etc. – but I see those things as being such a waste. This is truly what I desire to do and, in writing this blog, I am like the chocolate-loving kid eating chocolate ice cream.

We have reason to promote this type of desire in others in our community. After all, like I said, those who are generous, kind, and courteous are not sacrificing anything, they are adding to the quality of the lives of others. When generosity and kindness are done correctly, the agent not only fulfills his desire to be generous and kind, he has also helped to fulfill the desires of those he is generous or kind to.

Cruelty as Kindness

Kindness is a virtue. However, one of the ways that cruel people get their way is by disguising their acts of cruelty as kindness.

For example, when I was young, I was told that marrying somebody of a different race would be an act of cruelty – of child abuse, in fact. A kind person would not enter into a relationship and have a child that would then have to endure the suffering that would be imposed on having a half-breed. Some of these hate-mongering bigots were probably able to convince themselves that they were the model of human kindness because of their concern for these children. However, if they truly cared about the welfare of others, they would be devoting their time to fighting this bigotry, rather than promoting it.

Hitler packaged much of his euthanasia program as a kindness to the people he killed. This means that one of the ways that a person can get what they want is by packing

Another example concerns the burning of witches and other infidels alive at the stake during the Middle Ages. In order to give this most barbaric act a veneer of kindness, they claimed that the flames ‘purified’ the individual and gave him or her a chance to enter heaven.

The remarks that some Christians make concerning homosexual relationships are very much like the remarks I heard regarding interracial relationships. They express their hatred and bigotry in the form of a false ‘concern for others’. They like to portray themselves as trying to save homosexuals from wallowing in a degrading and self-denigrating lifestyle while, at the same time, they are the ones doing the degrading and denigrating.

Mistaken Kindness

Kindness requires true beliefs. Assume that you come across a person in the desert that is dying of thirst. You have two containers – one contains water, and the other contains a slow-acting but lethal poison. A kind person would want to give this poor lost individual a drink of water. However, in order to be kind – in order to feed him water instead of poison – the kind person has to know which is which. If he has false beliefs, then his attempts to be kind are at risk of being thwarted, and he will do harm instead.

The possibility of doing unintended harm tells kind and generous people that they need to constantly be checking their beliefs in order to make sure that the act that they are to perform is one of kindness or generosity. A truly kind person is always asking himself, “Am I really helping?” In fact, true beliefs are so important to acts of kindness and generosity that, if somebody does not seem to care whether his beliefs are true or false, we can conclude that he does not really care whether his act is an act of kindness or not.

We see this disregard for truth whenever one person tries to convince others to adopt his or her religion. This is portrayed as an act of kindness, since ‘my religion’ is thought to be the only way into heaven after death, and the only way to have a meaningful life. However, when the kind person asks, “Am I really doing the right thing?” the missionary runs into problem. There are (depending on the amount of detail one wants to go into) thousands to billions of different religious beliefs out there and no evidence at all to recommend one over the other. Even if we say that there are only thousands of different religions, the odds are still ‘thousands to one against’ the missionary converting people to the correct religious view.

Those types of odds would make a truly kind and generous person hesitate. “Maybe I am giving this person the poison, rather than the clean water? How can I tell? Why am I asserting that this container contains the clean water, if I cannot tell the difference?”

Whatever religion a person tries to convince another to adopt, we can guarantee that there are more people claiming that the adoptee is choosing hell over salvation than there are believing that he is choosing salvation over hell. If the population were divided equally among three religions, than adopting any given religion means that only one third believes the agent will be saved. The other two bring about a state in which the convert will be cursed to perpetual salvation. Yet, few missionaries ever seem to worry that they could be subjecting their subjects to perpetual suffering. This actually gives us reason to question how much kindness and concern for others these people actually possess.

Imaginary Kindness

Let’s return to our individual who finds somebody who has been lost in the desert and is severely dehydrated. Nearby, there is a well, full of water. However, our individual this time hands the desert survivor an empty glass and says, “Drink this instead.” If the survivor complains that it is empty, our ‘Good Samaritan’ protests that he simply lacks faith and that God insists that he drink from the cup, and not from the well.

This is not kindness either.

When somebody offers ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’ to life in the form of religion, it is like offering our desert survivor an empty glass and saying, ‘drink this instead.’ The glass is empty. Even if our ‘good Samaritan’ is able to convince the desert survivor to have faith that the cup will quench his thirst, it will not. Even if he is so persuasive that he convinces the desert survivor that the survivor is no longer thirsty, the body is still dehydrated, and will deteriorate according to biological laws.

Our ‘good Samaritan’ in this case may also think that he is a kind and generous person. However, once again, false beliefs have actually thwarted his desire to help others.

Conclusion

Kindness is, concern for others, generosity, are all virtues in fact. They are qualities that we have reason to promote in others. However, we have reason to promote these virtues only to the degree that those we promote them in can tell the difference between real kindness and real generosity, and imaginary kindness and generosity. The latter can never produce any real good.

It also requires that we put some effort into making sure that people do not pass off their cruelty as kindness. In many cases, the ‘benefits’ that people attribute to their actions are not benefits at all, and a truly kind person would know better. They are merely rhetorical tricks that cruel people employ so that they can better fulfill their cruel desires.

A great many of these defects that afflict and distort the virtues of kindness and generosity come from false beliefs. The agent might have a desire to do good, but kindness and generosity also requires that the agent spend some effort trying to make sure that their actions are real goods, and not imaginary goods.

15 comments:

Makarios said...

Alonzo your deception and misinformation while operating under the guise of honesty is unbefitting someone of your stature. First of all you say, “A person who is not acting to promote honesty cannot be said to value honesty.”

I’ve said on your earlier post on this subject how wrong this is and I’ve given you good examples. Either you can’t get it or you simply refuse to consider another position. I’m going to say it again because some of your readers might not be such black and white thinkers. To judge someone based on today’s actions, without knowing a thing about that person’s past is to judge prejudicially and without mercy. As I’ve stated before, I’ve worked with hundreds of really dysfunctional parents who were trying very, very hard to be good parents (because they valued good parenting). Trouble is, they’ve never seen good parenting, they’ve never experienced good parenting and virtually no one in their peer group knows anything about good parenting either. But there you are, standing in judgment of them, saying that your way of determining their true values, based on today’s actions, is the only and the best way to judge the true values of another individual. It’s wrong Alonzo.
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Second, all the while claiming pure honesty and a smooth flow of logic on your part, you say, “On this matter, the actions of theists suggest that they actually care very little about honesty.”

Really? And you know the hearts and actions of all theists everywhere do you? You know their backgrounds? You know their struggles? Or is it that like most non believers, you will only allow someone to call himself a Christian if his behaviours are perfect? Otherwise he is deemed by you to be a hypocrite?
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So when you advise that too much patience could be bad because it might “allow oneself to be used by others” does that mean that you are a follower of Ayn Rand?
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“Desire utilitarian theory puts an extremely high value on all of these traits.”
And that means of course that you and all your followers live out these traits to perfection? That is what you’re saying isn’t it? No missteps, no failures, only perfection is the measure of one’s beliefs. This is what you’re say, right? And if I find an instance when Alonzo Fyfe is not being honest, I could say that you in fact don’t value honesty? That’s silly Alonzo. It’s black and white thinking and it’s damaging to those who are genuinely trying to improve their lives regardless, of their religious or secular stance.
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“A truly generous person – a person who likes being generous – sacrifices nothing in being generous.”
Thank you so much for this example of how radically different atheist philosophy is from the teachings of Jesus.
. The atheist says, We can tell that we value something if we like doing it. I’ll be generous if I enjoy being generous.
. The Christian values something even when it goes, no ESPECIALLY when it goes again our very nature because it’s our nature that is so terribly flawed. In Matthew chapter 5 verse 46, Jesus said, “Why love only those who love you, even Alonzo Fyfe can do that.” “Instead,” he said “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you.” There isn’t a person on earth Alonzo who enjoys that or who finds that it comes easily and that is why this survey shows that atheists value this type of behaviour significantly less than Christians.

Perhaps this is why it’s so easy for you to find Christians failing in their attempts to live the lives they espouse? Anyone can do what you suggest. Very few can do what God calls us to do. Many fail to summit Mt. Everest while virtually everyone succeeds at walking on level ground.
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“Similarly, the person who values being generous is not making any sort of sacrifice when he is being generous. He is doing what he desires to do. The money that he spends is money well spent, because it buys him what he thinks is worth buying – the better well-being of others.”
And that is precisely why so few atheists are generous and so many more Christians in fact and in reality are generous. Alonzo you are just plain wrong on this. That’s not a criticism. It’s just that way it is. I believe that you have hit on the fundamental reason why Christians talk about the need for an outside influence, one more powerful than ourselves, to change or to override our innate self-serving bias.
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“The time and effort that I spend on this blog is time and effort well spent. I could be doing other things in the time that I spent writing this – watching television, playing computer games, [or volunteering at the homeless shelter, or visiting the sick, or taking in Foster Children, or volunteering at the Food Bank etc.] – but I see those things as being such a waste.” (Insertion Rod’s)
Anybody can do what we want to do Alonzo. Anybody can do something that doesn’t come at a personal cost.

Re: homosexuals - “They like to portray themselves as trying to save homosexuals from wallowing in a degrading and self-denigrating lifestyle while, at the same time, they are the ones doing the degrading and denigrating.”
Very true. Sad but true.
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“Those types of odds would make a truly kind and generous person hesitate. “Maybe I am giving this person the poison, rather than the clean water? How can I tell? Why am I asserting that this container contains the clean water, if I cannot tell the difference?”
And do you do this Alonzo? Is your incessant blogging about the virtues of atheism done only after long nights of self-examination? Is it that finally, only after you are absolutely certain that your beliefs are what the world truly needs, that you then and only then post those thoughts so as to proselytize anyone who clicks in?
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“When somebody offers ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’ to life in the form of religion, it is like offering our desert survivor an empty glass and saying, ‘drink this instead.’ The glass is empty.
That may be what you believe. But I believe that in this case what is happening is that Alonzo Fyfe is lying, dying of thirst in the desert. A Christian comes along with a canteen full of water. He shows you that it’s safe to drink by taking a drink from it himself. Upon offering it to you, you refuse saying, “I don’t believe for one second that you have water in your canteen. It’s empty and that, you beast, is it a cruel and merciless lie. I don’t care that you have water dribbling down your chin. It’s a trick. You’re not being kind at all. Take your empty canteen and be gone.”
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“The agent might have a desire to do good, but kindness and generosity also requires that the agent spend some effort trying to make sure that their actions are real goods, and not imaginary goods.”

Yes, absolutely. But isn’t there the danger of being so cautious that virtually no good is done at all? Isn’t there the greater danger of believing that I am being cautious (a good thing) when in reality, all that’s happening is that I don’t want to get my butt off the couch? That in fact I just want to sit at the computer and post something? :)

Anonymous said...

Both former president (and secular Jew, I believe) of the American Psychological Association, Martin Seligman, and and the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, have referenced studies showing not only better attitudes -- the kind of thing a survey shows -- but more pro-social behavior and less social dysfunction among the religious.

In Wilson's case, he carried the study out himself and spoke about it in some detail in his latest book "Evolution for Everyone".

Seligman talks about this in his book "Authentic Happiness". See Arthur Brook's book "Who Really Cares" to find out that religious people give considerably more to both secular and religious charities.

The data -- actual data -- is literally piling up on this subject, and it's not showing us atheists to be in a very good position to rip on theists.


Even if Alonzo can find something flawed about religious folks, and doubtless there's a lot to find, it's strange coming from a camp that's crippled far worse in the same areas.

It's like H.S. drop-outs repeatedly complaining about the stupidity, even if correct, of college professors. After a while, you want to say, "look, you may be right, but you keep bringing this up, and you're lumping these people together, but if we lump your group that you identify with together, you guys are a lot dumber. So why not relax on this particular issue?"

I think Mr. Fyfe has a brilliant ethical framework and enjoyed his book very much. I'm looking forward to a second one. But I think the framework can and is being applied in curious ways.

Makarios said...

And the thing is, I don’t even care who is “winning,” the argument about who is the better person. The fact is, both sides, all of us fail miserably to live up to even our own moral standards, let alone those set out for us by our Creator. All of us have sinned. All of us far short of who we should be. All of us need to be freed from the very real guilt of failing to fulfill our purpose in life. It’s nothing short of tragic that we settle for so little. It’s profoundly sad that we let people call the sideway home, that we manipulate children into becoming sexual objects all for the sake of money. It’s deplorable thousands of children starve to death each day while we spend billions on make-up or lottery tickets. Ahgh enough.

Makarios said...

A truly generous person – a person who likes being generous – sacrifices nothing in being generous.”

Shoot, I forgot. Isnt' saying the above like saying that a courageous person is one who has no fear of, for example, going into battle? What I'm saying is just the opposite. A courageous person is someone who goes into battle inspite of being afraid.

Paul said...

"When somebody offers ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’ to life in the form of religion, it is like offering our desert survivor an empty glass and saying, ‘drink this instead.’"

It looks to me as if it may be that to you, religion = adherence to false supernatural beliefs. Proffering such would, of course, be an offer of meaninglessness - or false meaning. The beliefs that some see as false are seen as true by those who believe them and from within their perpective are meaningful...

But my main point is that I think the religious/atheist divide would be far less sharp if atheists didn't for the most part identify religion with conservative or fundamentalist forms of religion and spirituality.

Makarios said...

Ya. Good point. Just like if I wouldn't identify atheists with Hitchens et al.

Doug S. said...

We would not say that a person who likes eating chocolate ice cream is making some sort of sacrifice when he eats chocolate ice cream. He is doing what he desires to do.

I disagree. The person who eats chocolate ice cream is sacrificing the ability to do something else with the resources (time, money, stomach capacity, etc.) used to eat that ice cream. He sacrifices some desires in order to fulfill others. (An economist would call this the "opportunity cost" of eating chocolate ice cream.) By the way you seem to be defining "desire" and "sacrifice", no act that a person willingly chooses to perform could ever be considered a sacrifice. Would you say that, say, a firefighter who dies in the line of duty didn't make a sacrifice because he desired the chance to save other lives more than he desired avoiding risk to his own life?

anticant said...

I suppose all this is fun for folks who enjoy playing "Mine's bigger than yours".

As Margaret Thatcher famously said, "The Good Samaritan wasn't just a kind person. HE HAD MONEY!"

Eneasz said...

@ Makarios:

We've all covered this so many times that at this point we're just running in circles. So I'm going to skip most of what was said and just focus on one thing you said I found really interesting -
>Anyone can do what you suggest. Very few can do what God calls us to do.<

What if God calls you to kill the infidel? Or hell, even to sacrafice your own child to him on an alter?


@ Alonzo:
I read this blog every day, and find it astoundingly informative and wonderfully enriching. However, I think there is something to be said about the agruments for sacrafice being put forth by the other comments to this post. I understand how being generous when it is a strong desire of yours that you are fulfilling is self-rewarding, and thus definitionally not a sacrafice. However, money is what our society values above almost anything else. No matter how fulfilling such acts might be, they still feel like a sacrafice to the actor regardless, due to the lost income and corresponding social status.

Obviously this is a problem with society, but in the meantime shouldn't we accept that such acts are sacrafices? And, while pointing out that the best way to get people to be more generous is to foster a love of generosity, also acknowledging that such generosity does take sacrafice, and praising self-sacrafice as a virtue as well?

Makarios said...

"What if God calls you to kill the infidel? Or hell, even to sacrafice your own child to him on an alter?"

He hasn't. He doesn't. He won't. First of all, the term infedel has no place in the teaching of Jesus. Nevertheless, Jesus would say, as he demonstrated by His own life, "let the infidel kill you."

As far as sacrafice your own child goes, God did not require this of Abraham. Just as Christians today are constantly being pulled toward the behaviours of the society in which we live, sometimes struggling with "is this really the wrong thing to do?" so too with Abraham. He lived within a pagan society where child sacrifice was the norm. 'Everyone was doing it,' so to speak. On the one hand, he knew that he had been taught one thing, "do not kill." On the other hand he was sure that he was being told another, sacrifice your son. Again, this was something that all his neighbours saw as not only ok, but desireous to do. He went to do what he thought was right but God stopped him. End of story.

Eneasz said...

>He hasn't. He doesn't. He won't.<

Funny, that's the answer I get every time, and it's plainly contradicted by the evidence. It's basically a lie. Not even a subtle one. It's blatant, in your face, "Hey, I'm lying to you. Yeah, that's right. Wanna make something of it?"

How is this lie a case of the flesh being weak? You don't even have to *DO* anything. You're not being tempted by anything, or threatened by anyone, all you have to do is type a few sentences in relative annonymity on a blog, and yet your honesty disintegrates completely so readily.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised anymore. :(

Anonymous said...

Oops, I forgot another one that might be relevant. In Brooks' book, he cites studies showing that those who donate to charity are much more likely to return extra money given to them by a cashier. Would that count as honesty?

I don't seek out this data. I read a lot, am an atheist, and have seen this stuff popping up more an more in popular non-fiction books.

Perhaps tellingly, I've also read Sam Harris, Dawkins' latest, George Smith, Michael Martin et al, and I don't find them talking about this kind of data.

Makarios said...

eneasz:
How is that a lie? Are you saying that God HAS told me to sacrifice my son? 'Cause I gotta tell you, I think I'd remember something like that.

Because we don't live in a culture where human sacrifice is common practise, at least not in the Pagan sense, what God does instead when testing a person’s faith, is ask us to do things like:
. Treat with love someone who is very difficult to love.
eg. Perhaps a co worker.

. Give up the opportunity to make a lot of money when doing so would be wrong or illegal.
eg. Opening a porn shop.

. Stay in a relationship with a difficult spouse.

These are the same type of sacrifices that Abraham was asked to make in the sense that we are asked to die to self, to give up someone, or something or to deny ourselves something that we believe will bring us life and fulfilment and honour etc. In reality it is only a relationship with God that can do that to the degree that we desire.

Regardless, of that, I really want to know, How is what I said in the previous reply a lie?

Makarios said...

anticant:
I don't get it, about the Samaritan having money. So did the others who passed by the wounded man. Three saw the need, only one made the sacrifice.

Eneasz said...

Makarios, I'll keep it short. If you honestly don't see that (and I don't know what to make of you anymore.... maybe you really DON'T see it) then explaining it to you won't change anything. You've already read your bible, so you already know the facts of the matter (not just Abraham either). If you don't understand it's because you don't want to understand, and me simply re-stating things that you are already aware of won't change that.