Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Religion and the "Really Wrong"

One of the ways in which those who defend a religious ethic claim to have an advantage over those who defend a secular ethic is in having something to say to those who might otherwise contemplate evil.

How can you explain to somebody that it is really wrong for them to torture young children? If there is no God and, thus, no supernatural morality, then all you can tell the torturer is that you don't like it when he tortures young children. However, that falls significantly short of the goal of telling him that it's really wrong.

One of the things that follows from teaching somebody that torturing young children is really wrong is that they will then if you can convince them of this, then they will not torture young children.

So, now the religious ethic has two advantage over secular competitors. First, it provides a way of describing the torture of young children as really wrong, and, second, it provides a way to convince somebody not to do that which is really wrong.

Well, actually, it fails on both accounts.

Really Wrong?

First, it fails to provide an account of something being really wrong because it fails in so many ways to give us an account of what is really wrong. Working on the Sabbath is punishable by death. Not only that, but you also have to give your slave a day of rest as well? One shall not charge interest on a loan except to foreigners? The penalty for rape is to be forced to marry your victim?

Is it really right to punish the children and grand children and great grand children of somebody who has dome something wrong? Is it really right to execute, immediately, any person who tries to convert somebody to another God? Or anybody who gives up a religion for another? Is really right that engaging in a homosexual act should be punishable by death? Is it really right to release a plague that will kill the first born in every family in order to obtain a political objective?

It is permissible to obliterate a city - men, women, and children - if one cannot find 10 righteous men, where 'righteous' is defined, among other things, as a willingness to kill those who work on the Sabbath or who engage in homosexual acts?

How is this supposed to be a guide to what is really wrong?

The Extension of Moral Error

Furthermore, once somebody looks at the religious text and sees all of the things that it gets wrong, they then merely need to extend those attitudes towards the few things that religious texts get right - to theft, murder, and lying among others. It is easy to draw the inference that murder, theft, and deceit are really wrong in the way that working on the Sabbath and charging interest on one’s money are really wrong.

Interpretation and the Introduction of Human Preconceptions

A common retort that I encounter when I give these alleged prescriptions - those not endorsed in the 20th century even by religious conservatives - out of context. As such, I am not delivering the correct interpretation.

However, let us be clear about how context works. What these agents are doing is first taking some ideas of right and wrong and using them as a measure of what scripture says, "in context.". If a particular interpretation of a passage yields a result that the interpreter does not fail, then the interpreter does not admit to being wrong about the morality of act. Instead, the interpreter complains that the interpretation being used is flawed - that a correct interpretation is one that yields the moral answers that the speaker is comfortable with.

However, this does not do anything to explain why a particular act is wrong. In fact, the way this works is that the interpreter simply begins with the assumption that his own prejudices and preconceptions are correct, and scripture is to be interpreted so as to support those assumptions. It is little wonder that he who claims to find such virtue in religion is so strongly motivated to do what the religion tells him to do. Under this cover of "context" assigns his preferences and prejudices to God.

Threat as a Form of Moral Argument

Furthermore, an appeal to religious authority actually does not explain why these things are really wrong.

It provides motivation by offering rewards and threatening punishments. However, these do not explain the wrongness of things.

A kidnapper can tell his victim, "The first time I catch you trying to escape, I will cut off A finger. The second time, I will cut off your hand." This may be effective in getting the victim to decide not to try to escape. However, it is a poor argument when it comes to explaining why trying to escape is really wrong.

Similarly the claim that an all-powerful God is watching over us and will threaten us with permanent torture if we commit the crime of working on the Sabbath or charging interest on our money. For those who believe it, this may be in fact inspire them to refuse any job that requires working on the Sabbath and who never puts his money into a saving account or any interest-bearing securities. However, it fails to provide any explanation at all as to why it is really wrong to do these things.

The people who obey God in these cases are like the victim who obeys the kidnapper. He is not doing so out of an understanding of the really wrongness of the action. He is doing so out of a desire to avoid the consequences of getting caught.

”It works” versus “It’s True”

Still, it works, right? If you can convince somebody not to torture a child or work on the Sabbath because some supernatural all-knowing, all-powerful being will condemn them to eternal suffering, then even though this fails to explain why it is really wrong, you have still saved a child from torture or prevented an act of working on the Sabbath. That is its own justification for these stories.

Well, not really. Not if you want to teach people that it is wrong to "bear false witness" or engage in other acts of deception.

It is important to note that this defense of divine command does not say that "it is true." It says, "It is useful." The reason to convince people that an omnipotent all-knowing distributor of justice is always looking over their shoulder with an eye to permanent punishment is that "it works". It provides those who believe it a reason to obey the commands they are given.

Consequently, one of the moral assumptions that sit at the very heart of this kind of argument is that controlling the behavior of others is a good reason to make claims that are not true, regardless of whether or not the claims are true. It is a recipe for deception as a social tool. It says, "We are not going to pay attention to what is true. We are going to pay attention to what is useful in terms of manipulating others into doing what we want them to do."

Summary

So, we end up with all sorts of problems associated with the idea that the scripture and religion have an advantage over secular ethics in giving us an account of what is really wrong. First, it is full of errors. Second, the art of interpretation means that the interpreter uses his own right and wrong to determine which interpretation of scripture is correct and thus assigns his or her own moral sentiments to God. Third, the motive to obey is not grounded on an appreciation of the rightness or wrongness of actions but on fear of punishment. Fourth, the argument is grounded on the assumptions that the merit of a claim is not that it is true but that it is useful in manipulating others into doing that which the speaker wants them to do.

None of these qualities are particularly useful when it comes to creating a fair and just society.

None of them are consistent with the claim that those who profess that morality comes from God that religious ethics provides gives us a better understanding of why anything that is wrong is really wrong.

17 comments:

Chikosta said...

what is wrong is what contradicts G-d since he is perfectly good.
Good is his will and no more possible then that.

cl said...

Your argument against DCT is as founded on belief as those you criticize. For that reason, it will always lack appeal to the subset of people who do not prefer arguments based on beliefs.

Further, you imply that sans knowledge obedience is based on fear, when that's just an assumption that may or may not be correct in any actual instance. It is true that some people refrain from harmful acts only because they fear being punished. It is also true that every day, young children obey their parents without "really knowing" why something is wrong. Children might do this because they love their parents, or because they trust their parents, or because they want to do what's right whether they understand it or not. I'd argue that fear of punishment is only the motivator in a subset of cases.

Also, I don't see that desirism can explain why an act is really wrong. In fact, desirism can't even support a claim that an act is "really wrong" at all. Desirism denies intrinsic value. No act is "really right" or "really wrong." There are desire-thwarting and desire-fulfilling acts, period.

So, what good does it do to criticize one moral theory for a shortcoming that plagues your own even more?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Your argument against DCT is as founded on belief as those you criticize.

My argument is grounded on a set of propositions that more accurately explain and predict the movement of objects through the
space and time. specifically, on a theory of human action that is useful both to explain and to predict what people will do.

I understand why you would want to believe that it is "founded on belief". However, that does not make the assertion true.

For that reason, it will always lack appeal to the subset of people who do not prefer arguments based on beliefs.

I have no interest in "appealing to people". My interest is in being right. That there are people in the world who insist on blinding themselves to reason and truth does not imply that I must then substitute some unreasonable falsehood in the hope that they will find it appealing.

Further, you imply that sans knowledge obedience is based on fear, when that's just an assumption that may or may not be correct in any actual instance.

Nope. I said that "obey me or suffer the consequences" is not an explanation of why something is really wrong.

Also, I don't see that desirism can explain why an act is really wrong. In fact, desirism can't even support a claim that an act is "really wrong" at all. Desirism denies intrinsic value.

Your argument assumes that "really wrong" requires intrinsic value. I hold that "really wrong" requires that it can explain how the proposition "X is wrong" can be a true proposition in the real world.

In fact, this is the only definition of "really wrong" that makes any sense.

This is something that Desirism can provide.

Chikosta said...

If a doctor tells you are you sick - you accept it.
If a -all good being- tells you do to act some how it is not arbitrary, but rationally good, even if we don't understand (like the doctor).

cl said...

My argument is grounded on a set of propositions that more accurately explain and predict the movement of objects through the space and time. specifically, on a theory of human action that is useful both to explain and to predict what people will do.

Have I ever denied desirism's descriptive usefulness? No. In fact, I've praised it.

I understand why you would want to believe that it is "founded on belief". However, that does not make the assertion true.

Correct; the assertion does not make my claim true. What makes my claim true are statements from your own mouth. Unfortunately, CSA is down at the moment so I can't get a verbatim quote for you, but you use your belief that God doesn't exist as a basis for your argument against DCT.

I have no interest in "appealing to people". My interest is in being right.

That's fine, commendable even, but in rationalist terms, part of "being right" consists in the rejection of beliefs as the basis for our arguments. While I think desirism has an awful lot of merit, at the same time, you base an awful lot of of your arguments on vague assertions [for example those unspecified "other sexually transmitted diseases"]. You say that we should not refer to make-believe in our arguments. It seems to me that you should either comply, or extend the same liberty to theists.

I said that "obey me or suffer the consequences" is not an explanation of why something is really wrong.

I agree that such is an acceptable paraphrase. However, you also said,

The people who obey God in these cases are... doing so out of a desire to avoid the consequences of getting caught.

That's what I was referring to when I said, "just an assumption that may or may not be correct in any actual instance." You presume to know why hypothetical agents do what they do, then argue accordingly. I just don't see the value in the strategy.

Your argument assumes that "really wrong" requires intrinsic value.

Correct; that particular argument did. If all you mean by "really wrong" is "that it can explain how the proposition 'X is wrong' can be a true proposition in the real world," that's fine with me. By that definition, there is nothing in DCT that would inherently preclude knowledge of "real wrongness."

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Chikosta

If a doctor tells you are you sick - you accept it.
If a -all good being- tells you do to act some how it is not arbitrary, but rationally good, even if we don't understand (like the doctor).

Well, no, if a doctor tells me I am sick I ask what I can expect from this sickness, and then I compare my observations with the doctor's claim in order to test his hypothesis.

If it is a particularly vile illness, I ask for a second opinion. I do not trust any doctor to be all-knowing. A consensus of doctors who are aware of all the data is much more convincing.

Most importantly, what evidence is there that these commands are coming from an all-good being? There's a lot of evidence that this being is not all-good. In fact, what I suggest is that these ideas come from human beings who merely CLAIM that they came from an all-good being (who will harm those who do not do what he says) in order to get people to obey him.

Indeed, if I wanted to get a group of substantially ignorant tribal people to obey me, claiming that I am speaking for an all-good being who will inflict perpetual harm on those who do not do as I say seems like a pretty good gig to have.

And the violence, injustice, and the command for faith without proof all represent what we would expect to find when commands come, not from an all-good being, but from a human being trying to manipulate others into doing what he says.

Chikosta said...

"Well, no, if a doctor tells me I am sick I ask what I can expect from this..."

Sorry, that's an Ad hoc explanation.
Usually you would accept the doctor's authority or a car mechanic's and this is not a formal fallacy (or any fallacy at all) but a valid argument.

God is not a doctor, he is all knowing and all loving - so you it would be rational to trust him.
Starting with the assumption G-d all good & knowing - could be an authority for morality (just like a doctor).
Therefor religious are the most moral people, unlike heresies.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

cl


If all you mean by "really wrong" is "that it can explain how the proposition 'X is wrong' can be a true proposition in the real world," that's fine with me. By that definition, there is nothing in DCT that would inherently preclude knowledge of "real wrongness."

That is true - which is something I have argued in the past.

There is a tree in my front yard. You may think that the history of how that tree got in my yard involves a god, while I think that there is no evidence for such a hypothesis and that it is extremely unlikely to be true.

However, we can still both jointly participate in studying the tree. It's mass, its chemical composition, its height, the chemical processes by which it turns sunlight into chemical fuel are all the same regardless of our different views on the ultimate origin of the tree.

The same is true of moral facts. We can both study and know moral facts like we can both know and understand trees, independent of the fact that one of us thinks that they came originally from a God and the other thinks that they are an emergent property of evolved consciousness.

Which is one of the reasons why I do not debate the existence of God in this blog. It is as irrelevant to studying moral properties as it is to the study of tree properties.

This is POSSIBLE - until the religious person finds an interpretation of his text that contradicts the best scientific theories and asserts that, as a matter of faith, his religious text must be correct and must be taught in public schools as an "alternative theory". When that line is crossed, there's reason to call the religious text into question.

The same is true when a religious text gets the moral facts wrong.

TGP said...

Chikosta,

I am also not a doctor, however, I am both all-knowing and all-loving. It is rational to trust me. So I'm going to break this to you gently: you're wrong.

If my doctor, who exists, who has graduated from an accredited medical school, who is a member of the AMA, who carries malpractice insurance, and who has a valid license to practice medicine, tells me I'm sick, I'll probably accept it. I'll also expect an awful lot of evidence for anything bigger than a sinus infection. If my doctor balks when I suggest we get a second opinion, he's likely to no longer be my doctor.

If you're going to start with the assumption that an all-knowing, all-good, god exists and communicates with you through special human agents who don't have to show any evidence, then you might as well start with the assumption that all car mechanics are honest, too.

cl said...

..we can still both jointly participate in studying the tree. It's mass, its chemical composition, its height, the chemical processes by which it turns sunlight into chemical fuel are all the same regardless of our different views on the ultimate origin of the tree.

That's EXACTLY why I'm asking you to refrain from arguments based on your belief, Alonzo! As I said before, I'm not going to use my belief that God exists as a basis for ANY of my arguments for or against desirism or any other theory. As such, you should not use your belief that God doesn't exist as a basis for your arguments for or against desirism or any other theory.

Which is one of the reasons why I do not debate the existence of God in this blog.

I have stated SEVERAL TIMES that I have no interest in discussing God's existence with you. This is why I'm asking for an argument against DCT that is not founded on your belief that God doesn't exist. When you use your belief that God doesn't exist as a basis for your criticism of DCT, you invite the very discussions of God you ostensibly seek to avoid.

Though I'm ultimately here for desirism, do you have any arguments against DCT that aren't based on your beliefs?

TGP said...

OK, I've gone over the last week of posts and I can't seem to find an expansion of the acronym "DCT." Could I get a friendly hand up, please?

God is a bit of an elephant in the room when discussing morality. Any reality-based system has to be able to confront and address popular alternate theories.

Also, you might want to consider that a lack of belief in a supernatural world is not quite the same as a belief in the non-existence of God. It might seem like semantics, but it's really quite important if you'd like to understand non-magical thinking.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

DCT = "Divine Command Theory"

God is a bit of an elephant in the room when discussing morality. Any reality-based system has to be able to confront and address popular alternate theories.

No reality-based system of anything can ever discuss all possible theories.

If you required a chemistry book to address every idea that anybody ever had in the field of chemistry that was ultimately dismissed, you would never get to the theories that survive.

God is no more "the elephant in the room" when it comes to discussing morality than it is when it comes to discussing biology or geology. The fact is the best modern theories do not have a "God" element in the equations. The hypothetical "God" element does not help make any theory do a better job of explaining and predicting observable events. As such, "God" - like an infinite number of other possible inventions that play no role in working theories - can be safely ignored.

At least until somebody can put a "god" element into an equation and make more accurate predictions of observable events than those who leave it out.

cl said...

No reality-based system of anything can ever discuss all possible theories.

TGP actually said, "popular alternate theories," not "all possible theories."

The fact is the best modern theories do not have a "God" element in the equations.

This is subjective opinion. The fact is that you believe the best theories are those that have no God element in the equations.

I don't mean to be a pest, but I just can't for the life of me understand how you can criticize theists for basing their arguments on beliefs [among other things], when you base a rather significant subset of your own arguments on your beliefs. That seems like the sort of strategy that atheists and freethinkers would normally object to.

TGP said...

Thanks for the help.

I'm not suggesting that D.U. has to incorporate supernatural explanations. I'm suggesting that it's got to be ready to answer the more common criticisms that come from that worldview.

You've got to address alchemy (even if it's only to dismiss it) to understand the history of modern chemistry.

If we didn't live in a world where a huge number of people think morality came from a divine source, D.U. wouldn't need to establish an atheistic baseline.

Regarding "the best modern theories" not having a God element: cl is right in that it's subjective that these theories are "best" only in as far as it's subjective to consider a theory best if it most closely models experimental data.

I keep thinking back to Alonzo's recent Hume is/ought post. "Ought" is a rather pointless concept until you've first accurately determined "is" and "is-not." DCT is an "ought" based on, at best, an unverifiable "is"; at worst, it's based on an "is-not."

cl said...

TGP

..cl is right in that it's subjective that these theories are "best" only in as far as it's subjective to consider a theory best if it most closely models experimental data.

What I am objecting to is the presentation of opinion as fact. At least you took the time to consider your language.

Either way, in the interest of discussing something that's not a belief or an opinion, yours appears to be a claim that there exists a godless theory or theories that "most closely models experimental data." Could you possibly elaborate on that claim by identifying:

1) the godless theory or theories you allude to; and,

2) the experimental data you allude to?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

cl

You are going to have to explain what you mean by basing my arguments on beliefs.

"I believe that P" is not used as a premise in any of my arguments.

As for dealing with the "God" issue, I do that in the most efficient way possible. I point to others who are dealing with the "God" issue and say, "Go there. There is no reason for me to simply duplicate somebody else's work."

If you want me to, I can copy and paste all of Luke's postings at Common Sense Atheism onto this site to say that I have dealt with the God issue. Or, I can simply say, "Go to Luke's blog" or any of countless other sources that already discuss it.

There is no reason to repeat what other people have already done. It is a waste of time and space.

It is an "objection" only in the minds of those who are seeking to grasp at straws looking for something to criticize no matter now irrelevant.

cl said...

It is an "objection" only in the minds of those who are seeking to grasp at straws looking for something to criticize no matter now irrelevant.

If you're alluding to myself, there's no need to go in that direction.

You are going to have to explain what you mean by basing my arguments on beliefs.

In defending your position on homosexuality at CSA, you argued that the proposition "I am serving God" cannot be made true, when in fact neither one of us knows. That is a belief.

Recently at CSA, you wrote something to the effect that DCT is bunk because [among other reasons] the basis for its claims is false, when in fact neither one of us knows. The insinuation is that God does not exist, or that God's existence is so unlikely as to be permissibly denounced as negligible, or something else of that nature. Those are beliefs.

Concerning pederasty, you argued that the Greeks were "probably wrong" based on reference to unspecified STD's. Sans a decent syllogism or some other suitable logic, that's effectively a belief.

When YEcreationists do the things you condemn them as "evil" for, among your reasons is that their case is supported by beliefs which you refer to as make-believe.

If you've considered my position and still don't see any problem, I'm willing to drop the matter in favor of other questions about desirism, but I really do believe that you could persuade more theists if kept your beliefs about God out of your arguments for desirism.

There is no reason to repeat what other people have already done. It is a waste of time and space.

Again, I agree.

If you want me to, I can copy and paste all of Luke's postings at Common Sense Atheism onto this site to say that I have dealt with the God issue. Or, I can simply say, "Go to Luke's blog" or any of countless other sources that already discuss it.

I don't want you to. I appreciate your area of expertise. I am not accusing you of "not dealing with the God issue." I'm not accusing Luke or anybody else of "not dealing with the God issue." The honest response is to admit that "the God issue" is unsettled. The facts are that you're unwilling to grant my belief that P, where P = "God exists," and I'm unwilling to grant your belief that ~P. I'm saying since we can't agree there, why not focus where we can agree, e.g. on the proverbial tree from your last comment?

If you agree that this is a good idea, then that agreement obligates you to refrain from using your belief that ~P as a basis for your arguments for or against desirism or any other theory. I've been more than willing to do the same since day one.