Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Rationalizing Evil

This morning I objected that certain rules that some religious institutions have adopted trick people into sacrificing their own interests for the sake of its leaders. I applied this to an institution that commands the whipping of an old lady, and another who protests allowing a nine year old rape victim from getting an abortion.

I did not discuss the mechanism that gets these types of rules adopted. In the absence o such a discussion, one might think that I was talking about a conspiracy of sorts – a group of atheists who know that God is not real who, nonetheless, create a religious institution where they can benefit themselves at the expense of their 'flock'.

In fact, I am not a conspiracy theorist. The mechanism that brings these rules to the fore is not design, but survival of the fittest. The deception involved is not only the intentional deception of others, but a healthy dose of self-deception as well.

It springs from a religious conception of morality, where individuals decide right and wrong from looking inward and focusing on how they feel to these things. These feelings are taken to be moral rules written into the hearts of the religious leaders by God.

What they are in fact is the agent's own likes and dislikes. While his brain considers the possible consequence of a rule he takes the pleasure he feels at contemplating those consequences as signs that the rule is approved by God. If they do not like the consequences, they take this as a sign that God does not approve of the rule and has written that disapproval into their hearts.

Evolutionary ethics follows the same program. The evolutionary ethicist also judges morality by looking at how he feels about something. He takes the fact that he likes the rule and its consequences as evidence that his genes have written their approval into his heart.

If he finds that he dislikes the consequences, he judges instead that his genes have written their disapproval into his heart. Either way, it is his feelings that determine moral merit or demerit.

One set of religious leaders found that they liked the idea of making women totally submissive to their will. They contemplated rules that made women totally dependent on men, demanded their obedience, and beat those who disobeyed and found out that they liked those rules.

True to form, they attributed their approval to the idea that God wrote these rules into their heart. Yet, in fact, this cruelty does not come from any God, it came from the hearts of those who invented and those who perpetuate those rules.

Another group of religious leaders contemplated the option of getting its people to have as many children as possible, so that the church will have as many servants as possible. They likely thought about the advantages of having more members promoting the interests of the leaders, found the idea pleasant, then made the leap to the conclusion that this must be God's will.

This does not excuse the behavior. A person with good desires would not have found any interest in assigning these types of interests to God. A person with good desires would not have these types of interests to assign to God.

However, it does explain the behavior without resorting to some sort of conspiracy – without suggesting that these people know that no God exists and are consciously engaging in a campaign of deception.

Unfortunately, this suggestion implies that evolutionary ethicists and other types of moral internalists are at risk of the same type of mistakes – of making unwarranted leaps from what one is comfortable with to what is right, without a proper respect for the types of evils that people can find themselves being comfortable with.

3 comments:

HumanistDad said...

I like the idea of people looking into their own hearts for ethics and if their 'heart' approves, god must have written it there.

However, I think your explanation of the subjugation of women may be too simplistic. In Gwynne Dyer's documentary (I forget the title, but the parts are setup on my blog here: http://humanistdad.blogspot.com/2008/03/required-viewing-for-all-women.html) he suggests that making women second-class citizens was necessary to give a society a willing military. The idea is that men would be more willing to fight, and die, in battle if they were trained to believe that the worst man was better than the best woman. Women traditionally made poor fighters because of their role in child-rearing.

I'd be interested in your thoughts on this.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

My first thoughts would be to ask whether the proposition, "making women second-class citizens was necessary to give a society a willing military" is supposed to be true, or merely believed to be true.

If it is true, the theorist needs to provide evidence to the effect that a society's ability to raise a willing military is inversely proportional to degree that it grants equality to women - a hypothesis that would seem to fail in the face of current evidence.

If it was merely believed to be true the theorist needs to (1) provide evidence that this was offered as a reason to make women second class citizens, and (2) offer an explanation for why people adopted this belief other than its usefulness in convincing others to help make women second class citizens.

HumanistDad said...

The main evidence comes from the disappearance of women from stone carvings as societies militarize. The ancient Egyptians once portrayed women as nearly equal to men but as the threat from neighbouring peoples increased in intensity, Egypt adopted patriarchy to defend itself.

It is from here that men were given dominance over women that led to the future rules that would doom women for thousands of years. Rules, that men knew, in their hearts, had to be from god.