Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Manhattan Declaration Part VII: Shutting Down Debate

There is something monstrously arrogant in claiming that one gets one's morality from God.

The speaker is saying that, "The mind that gave birth to these moral principles is the mind of an all-knowing, morally perfect being." Of course, the mind that gave birth to those ideas is the speaker's mind, thus yielding the implication that the speaker's mind is the mind of an all-knowing morally perfect being.

One of the costs of this way of thinking is that it leaves no room for debate - no room for the speaker to say, "Ooops, I guess I was wrong." Because, clearly, an all-knowing, morally perfect mind cannot be wrong!

So, the arrogant and presumptuous individual who claims that he gets his morality from God locks in the results of his own human failings. He denies that they exist and, in doing so, shuts down the possibility that knew knowledge and understanding might correct his original errors.

On the issue of abortion, those who falsely claim that they get their morality from an all-knowing morally perfect mind have made a mistake. They have locked this mistake in concrete and they now devote huge amounts of resources - resources that could have gone to doing good in the world - pursuing this mistake.

On the issue of abortion, a being that has no desires has no interests. A being that has no interests cannot be harmed in any morally significant way. Any sacrifice that is made for the sake of an entity that has no interests is a wasted sacrifice. The person who makes the sacrifice is forced to be made worse off, and nobody benefits.

Now, after a while a conceptus will develop into a being that has desires. At that time, the being has morally relevant interests and there are legitimate prescriptions against what may be done to that person. But not before.

To illustrate this, let is compare and contrast the effect of aborting a fetus that has no interests to the decision not to conceive that same person. We have a couple with a choice to make. They can abstain from having sex (and, in doing so, prevent a particular conception), or they can have sex and abort the fetus that results before it acquires any morally significant interests.

In the case of abortion, we are often told to imagine some young child that would have existed if the abortion had not taken place - a young child at play (meant to generate an emotional response void of all reason).

We are told that the absence of this child is reason to condemn abortion and to hold that those who have or perform abortions have committed murder.

However, we can apply this same argument toa refusal to conceive. Take the same young child and ask, "What would have happened if that child's parents had decided to abstain from sex - if they had acted in ways that thwarted the conception of that future child." I am not talking about the use of birth control (though the argument applies). I am talking about the decision not to have sex.

The child has just as much of a reason to be grateful that the parents had sex as to be grateful that the parents did not have an abortion. If the act of aborting the fetus is murder because of the future child that does not exist. Then, the act of failure to conceive is also murder, because it brought resulted in the same non-existence of a future child.

We should fill the world with as many people as possible. As long as the planet can hold one more young child, we have committed a sin comparable to murder if we fail to act to fill that spot with a young child.

Monstrously arrogant people who attribute their morality to God give themselves permission to ignore any argument that they could be mistaken. "You have your puny and finite mind up against the all-knowing, morally perfect mind that invented these moral principles. You are going to lose by default. In fact, we can begin with the assumption that you are mistaken - because you must be - and work from there to find the source of your obvious error."

The error, of course, is that of the monstrously arrogant person who thinks that his ideas are the ideas of an all-knowing, morally perfect being that are incapable of error. They are, in fact, the ideas of a person with very limited knowledge and who falls far short of moral perfection who likes to think that he cannot be mistaken - and who then invents a way of preventing the possibility of error.

Of course, people who make this argument also claim, "No, I admit that I am a fallible human being with limited wisdom and with moral failings." So, one might want to argue that I am mistaken in calling such a person monstrously arrogant.

However, he is still taking the ideas that came from his own mind as the ideas of an all-knowing, morally perfect entity. He is still looking at these principles and saying, "WOW! Those ideas are so brilliant! So perfect! They must have come from an all-knowing, morally perfect being!" At this point we merely need to add the fact that they came from the speaker himself, and we get the monstrously arrogant conclusion, "Then I must be an all-knowing, morally perfect being who simply made a mistake in thinking I was a fallible mortal."

This blog is written by a mortal human being. It is written by a person who is capable of making mistakes. In fact, I have repeatedly asserted, and I will assert again, that this blog contains at least one false statement. I do not know which statement that is, but I know that it is in here somewhere. You, the reader, is not to take anything that I have written as gospel truth. With every sentence that you read, you must be aware that it may well be one of those statements that are certain to exist in this blog that is false, and to read it and examine it with a healthy bit of skepticism.

This is the difference between a person who recognizes the fact that his ideas are the ideas of a mere mortal and subject to error, and the person who thinks that his ideas come from an all-knowing and morally perfect mind (his own, as a matter of fact) that is incapable of error. It is the difference between inviting readers to question what the author says, and demanding that the reader accept everything that the author says without question.

7 comments:

Aceral said...

I find your ideas here on abortion interesting.

I myself am against abortion, but I don't base my position on any religion.

You talk about the fetus not having any desire, though could you not say that it has the 'desire' to live and grow, as all living things appear to. The desire may not be a conscious desire as we know them, but does that deem it completely irrelevant?

Is it not also possible to take into account the future conscious desires of a being or do you think that we can only refer to the present?

If it is the case that only those beings with conscious desires have a right to live, does that mean that animals have that right. I mean they may desire instinctively to eat, reproduce etc. but it is not on a conscious level and could be akin to the instinctive drive of the fetus to grow and continue cell production.

Jayman said...

Of course, the mind that gave birth to those ideas is the speaker's mind, thus yielding the implication that the speaker's mind is the mind of an all-knowing morally perfect being.

The only scenario where the speaker's mind gives birth to the ideas is when the speaker falsely claims to be receiving messages directly from God. The vast majority of theists claim to receive God's message from a source external to their mind.

One of the costs of this way of thinking is that it leaves no room for debate - no room for the speaker to say, "Ooops, I guess I was wrong." Because, clearly, an all-knowing, morally perfect mind cannot be wrong!

I see at least three ways you could reason with such a person. First, argue that he is applying God's message incorrectly (e.g., yes, the Bible condemns murder, but is all abortion murder?). Second, argue that he has misunderstood God's message (e.g., that passage of the Bible is not about abortion). Third, argue that the message attributed to God is not actually from God.

They have locked this mistake in concrete and they now devote huge amounts of resources - resources that could have gone to doing good in the world - pursuing this mistake.

To be fair, many pro-life organizations are doing at least some good. They may convince a woman not to abort a fetus with desires and they provide social and material support to mothers.

On the issue of abortion, a being that has no desires has no interests. A being that has no interests cannot be harmed in any morally significant way.

Considering the fact that it may be difficult to determine when a fetus acquires desires do you think there should be some caution in allowing abortion? Suppose modern science suggests fetuses acquire desires 10 weeks after conception. Should we outlaw abortions after 10 weeks or should we outlaw abortions after 8 weeks to be cautious? What if later science suggests fetuses acquire desires 5 weeks after conception. Would society then be morally culpable for the million of deaths it allowed to happen when it only outlawed abortions after 10 weeks?

He is still looking at these principles and saying, "WOW! Those ideas are so brilliant! So perfect! They must have come from an all-knowing, morally perfect being!"

Many people convert to a religion because they believe the religion is true on grounds that have little or nothing to do with the ethics prescribed by the religion.

Eneasz said...

Aceral -

Given your criteria, even bacteria would count as moral agents who's desires we should take into account. I'm not sure that's what you intended.

Right now it seems fairly safe to say that before an entity has a neural structure it cannot have any desires. Aside from that, it's not entirely clear.

As Alonzo has said before, the (current) inability of humans to determine when an entity has meaningful desires is one of the major weaknesses of Desirism. Hopefully this can be remedied in the future. In the meantime, I still think it's the best theory of morality we've got so far.

Jayman -

The vast majority of theists claim to receive God's message from a source external to their mind.

Fair enough. But in most cases this external source is either a clergy-member, or an anonymous author of an ancient text. Either way, people are entrusting the transmission of "God's" message to humans, thus letting those humans decide what is good or bad and ascribing it to a god without much scrutiny.

they provide social and material support to mothers.

I admit, I haven't spent a lot of time researching pro-life organizations, but this is a surprise to me. Which organizations do this? (honest inquiry, I'm intrigued)

What if later science suggests fetuses acquire desires 5 weeks after conception. Would society then be morally culpable for the million of deaths it allowed to happen when it only outlawed abortions after 10 weeks?

I would think not. We can only act on the information we actually have. Failing to act on information that is unavailable can't be viewed as a moral failure. Assuming, of course, that we haven't avoided seeking these answers due to our own selfish fear of changing in the face of new facts.

Emu Sam said...

Checking a piece of logic.

You argue that (abortion:murder::not having sex:murder) because in the end, the child will not exist. Is this similar to an argument of (leaving a baby out in the snow:murder::not having sex:murder)?

The complex nervous system of an independent infant is much more likely to support desires, including a desire to be out of the cold, than a fetus is, but that was not part of your analogy. In both cases, the parents or caretakers may have many and strong reasons to not (continue to) have the child.

I suppose that the analogy holds in both cases, but the state of the nervous system is additional argument for keeping the baby alive. That argument does not apply to keeping the fetus alive. The analogy is only part of the total argument. Do I understand correctly?

Part of my reason for this comment is to preempt others claiming you have made a bad argument on the grounds I described.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I think it is better to try it this way.

"The future child will not exist:murder" implies "Leaving a baby out in the snow:murder; late term abortion:murder; early term abortion:murder; embryonic stem cell research:murder; not conceiving a child:murder"

"killing an innocent being with desires/interests:murder" implies "Leaving a baby out in the snow:murder; late term abortion:murder; early term abortion:not murder; embryonic stem cell research:not murder; not conceiving a child:not murder"

(Note that this is a simplification used to illustrate the basic differences and that ignores complications such as self-defense, accident, collateral damage, non-culpable mistakes of fact, and so forth.)

However, the point of my article was not to argue vigerously for one of these over the other. It was to present these as two possible options, then point out how some proponents of one side stifle all debate by adding, "I am an all-knowing entity with perfect moral wisdom so I cannot be wrong on this matter."

Actually, they say, "I get my principles from a god who is an all-knowing entity with perfect moral wisdom so I cannot be wrong on this matter."

However, since there is no god and the speaker has, as a matter of fact, assigned his own beliefs to a fictitious god, it boils down to the same thing in practice. These people are, as a matter of practical effect even if they do not admit to it in words, claiming that they are all-knowing agents with perfect moral wisdom incapable of error.

As such, they hold that there is nothing to debate. They begin with the assumption that anybody who dares to question their infinite wisdom and perfect moral knowledge (nominally, their god's infinite wisdom and perfect moral knowledge, but, in fact, their own) must necessarily be mistaken.

Jayman said...

Eneasz:

Either way, people are entrusting the transmission of "God's" message to humans, thus letting those humans decide what is good or bad and ascribing it to a god without much scrutiny.

I would wager that most people, whether theist or atheist, do not give a lot of thought to what makes something morally good or bad. However, even in the cases where people claim to receive a message directly from God, I don't buy the hypothesis that they merely ascribe they're personal morality to God because such an hypothesis fails to explain how religious conversions can transform a person's morality.

I admit, I haven't spent a lot of time researching pro-life organizations, but this is a surprise to me. Which organizations do this? (honest inquiry, I'm intrigued)

I thought of Care Net off the top of my head.

I would think not. We can only act on the information we actually have. Failing to act on information that is unavailable can't be viewed as a moral failure. Assuming, of course, that we haven't avoided seeking these answers due to our own selfish fear of changing in the face of new facts.

You admitted to Aceral that it can be difficult to determine when humans have meaningful desires and thus would have to acknowledge there is a gray area about when abortion is permissible. In such a scenario, wouldn't a moral person be cautious? If I know that X may kill a person with meaningful desires do I not have a moral obligation to abstain from X? If we grant that some caution should be taken, then there is the question of how much caution is too much?

Eneasz said...

such an hypothesis fails to explain how religious conversions can transform a person's morality.

What I'm about to say has no evidence behind it and is only my personal opinion. I don't take such transformations at face-value. I'm of the opinion that such people where already ready for a change in lifestyle. They were dissatisfied with where they were, and only needed an additional push to tip them over into a change they already wanted. Seriously, who in America is visited by missionaries and says "Oh..... so THAT'S what god wants! Why didn't anyone tell me this before?" Basic christian doctrine is common knowledge.

And the ritual of conversion makes a very good breaking-point. Rituals are pretty important to people. We still have marriages, even tho for most people the day before marriage is functionally identical to the day after marriage. Gangs have initiation rituals, many cultures have coming-of-age rituals, all cultures have ceremony rituals, etc. This is another handy ritual for those looking to make a change in lifestyle.

I'm not sure if there is research to support this or not, but I admit up front that I've never looked for it, because it doesn't change that no gods exist. It is a very fascinating aspect of human psychology, but there are many such fascinating aspects of human psychology and I haven't the time (or interest) to read about ALL of them.

In such a scenario, wouldn't a moral person be cautious? If I know that X may kill a person with meaningful desires do I not have a moral obligation to abstain from X?

Yes. But from what is currently known of human fetuses, there is no significant neural activity in the first trimester, and there is definitely significant neural activity in the third trimester. Somewhere in the 2nd trimester a fetus begins to develop a functioning brain. So a cautious person would put the cut-off point at the end of the first trimester (for normal cases). By fortunate coincidence (as, IIRC, these laws were made before this was known), abortion laws in the US follow this principle as well.