Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Promoting Virtue

The work of morality is not done in the realm of reason.

The work of morality is not done through dispassionate lectures, or blog postings that emotionlessly follow a path from a set of true premises through the length of a valid argument to a moral conclusion. It is not done in friendly debate or discussion.

The work of morality requires picking up the tools of morality – praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment – and applying the tools to task at hand to modify desires insofar as they can be modified. It requires actually going to the effort of promoting those desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibiting those desires that tend to thwart other desires.

Reason has a role to play in telling us what those desires are, the degree to which they can be molded, and in how to most effectively use the tools of morality to mold those desires. However, reason alone does not do the work. In the same way, reason can tell you how to change a tire. However, you need to pick up the tools and actually apply them to the job if you want to get the tires changed.

A protest – people with signs marching and shouting – is one of the places where moral work actually gets done. Protests are acts of condemnation. It does not matter that the slogans that show up on the signs or the chants that the marchers use are not logically sound syllogisms leading to necessarily true conclusions. It matters that the signs and chants express praise on the one hand for what the marchers seek to promote, and condemnation on the other hand for what the marchers seek to inhibit.

Reason tells us if the protesters are working to promote that which there are many and strong reasons to promote – or if they are working to inhibit that which there are many and strong reasons to inhibit. However, reason does not do the work of promoting or inhibiting. That is the work that the protestors have taken up.

My ideal example of doing moral work can be found in the national motto and the national pledge. The national motto is an act of praise for those who trust in God (and an act of condemnation for those who do not), attached to something that is essential in every person’s life.

The Pledge of Allegiance is an act of praise for those who support a nation under God (and an act of condemnation for those who do not), aimed primarily at an audience whose minds are the most malleable, creating an emotional bond in the brain of the child for a state of affairs in which the nation is under God, and an aversion to anything that threatens the realization of such a state.

There are no arguments or syllogisms in these examples. No "reasons to believe" are provided. Rather, these acts of praise and condemnation work directly on the desires – particularly those of children.

The effect of this moral work is to create a state in which a person must trust in God and support a nation under God to enter public office. It is to promote a state where a supermajority of citizens would not want their child to marry an atheist, that views atheists as inherent anti-American, and who will withdraw support for any policy or program from the teaching of evolution to enforcing the First Amendment to the Constitution, that can be presented as a threat to trust in God or a nation under God.

It does so in a way that makes attempts to reason people out of these convictions a waste of effort, for the most part. Their attitudes are not grounded in reason, they are grounded in desires and aversions planted in their brains as children. Desires and aversions are a realm that reason typically cannot touch. They are a realm that we reach through praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

I want to point out that the qualifiers in the previous paragraph are meant to respect the fact that not all children learn the same moral lessons. An attempt to promote certain attitudes may make those attitudes more common, but it is difficult to make any set of attitudes truly universal.

There will be those who escape this attempt to plant desires for trust in God and a nation under God, and to plant aversion to anything that threaten such a state, and it will meet with certain degrees of success in others. None of that defeats the argument I am making here.

Again, the fact that people pick up a tool (such as praise and condemnation) and wield it does not prove that they are wielding it for a good end. That the praise that our government and its institutions heap upon those who trust in God and support a nation under God is effective and a perfect example of doing moral work is not proof that it is right.

In fact, in this case, the tools are not being used for a good end. This does not change the fact that the tools are being used efficiency - with great skill and precision. An expert soldier can be an expert soldier in the service of good or evil. How well he uses his tools, and the quality of the ends he serves with them, are two different questions.

Reason tells us the quality of the ends, and how best to use the tools in service to those ends.

However, the people who actually wield the tools of praise and condemnation are the ones doing the real work.

Here, I want to repeat my standard disclaimer. In an open society, the only legitimate response to words are words and private actions – not violence. The only legitimate response to a political campaign is a counter-campaign focused on persuading people that one’s position is correct, not on threats of violence commanding expressions of acceptance.


Justus Hommes said...

Disclaimer - I am a Christian, so I believe in one true God. That said, I respect your right to not believe and your sincerity in doing so.

I don't have a dog in the fight with respect to the pledge of allegiance, and the use of the word God. It would be fine with me if the pledge was done away with altogether, or reverted to the pre- 1954 version without "under God".

My comment deals with the forest, not the tree, so to speak.

I would not expect that a child reciting a pledge every day would suffice as the whole of their philosophical/theological education. The fact is that an overwhelming majority of children are raised in households who believe in some type of God. For those atheist parents that would like to pass along or at least lay out their "world with no Gods" view to their kids, I suspect they would have to engage their child continuously in this respect. The pledge is a small, perhaps trivial, factor in the amount of God "stuff" they will encounter in their academic, social, and cultural experiences. In fact, it may even allow for an introduction to talk about the history of our country being founded as among the first truly secular governments (see 1796 treaty with Tripoli), and that the use of the word God in civic regards historically refers most commonly to Nature's God, or the god instilled in each of us to know right from wrong.

As you write about in your blog, morality goes beyond reason. In your utilitarian philosophy, that which is of benefit to the whole is right, and the opposite is wrong. Still, the determination of what is best for the whole may remain subjective. For instance, would you consider the world better off if individuals were given maximum liberty to be rewarded on the merit of their self-determination, or a world where everyone was ensures the same stability and comforts, perhaps minimizing individual variances in efforts. Both models have believers (and extremists) to champion their cause, so who is to say which would result in a "better" world?

In researching virtue ethics (which is how I found this blogpost), it becomes clear that certain virtues transcend most religous and cultural traditions. To borrow the founding father's language, these virtues (justice, truth, mercy, etc) seem to be endowed to humans. Whether through a supernatural being or through the evolution of nature, the "wanting" of these traits are above and beyond us, an authority of sorts, a god.

Whether you want to call that authority and sense of "oughtness" God, Allah, Mother Nature, or the Human Spirit, that is your choice, but the ideals of ultimate virtue remain. To me, those virtues are the objective measure of ethics. Ends do not always justify the means, and the "right" action in a given situation may not always be apparent. What is left, then, is the character of the person making the decision. I believe the extent of a person's virtue depends on their willingness to listen to the still small voice, the law imprinted on their heart, the virtues planted inside each of us.

Luke said...


I would think that "setting an example" is also important moral work. Gandhi would have quite a lot of influence even had he not written a single word of praise or condemnation, or a single act of reward of punishment.

Being a good person in a way that appeals to our humanity can help people remember the good desires inside them, or make those good desires seem noble afresh. Being a good person can also shame people with harmful desires, and reveal the evil of their desires.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Setting an example acts as a type of praise. One "recommends" at least the permissibility of the actions that one engages in.

The main objection that I raised against the use of torture in the Bush Administration is that it acted as an endorsement of torture. As such, it will have the effect of broadening the use of torture - expanding it beyond its current (pre-Bush) limits. Which, I am willing to argue, was not nearly as limited as it should have been.

The idea that our actions count as praise is actually well captured in Kantian moral ideas such as, "act on that principle that you can will as a universal law" (or, in a possible Desire Utilitarian alternative, "act as if motivated by desires that you can will to be universal desires."

Anonymous said...

For those atheist parents that would like to pass along or at least lay out their "world with no Gods" view to their kids ... The pledge is a small, perhaps trivial, factor in the amount of God "stuff" they will encounter

Hello Justus. Actually, I'm fairly sure that the objections raised by the "under God" in the pledge/motto doesn't have much to do with atheist kids. Generally children raised in atheist households view the whole god thing as being just as silly as santa claus once they find out about it.

The object to "under God" is that it teaches children (and adults) who already believe in God that they are of a higher caste than unbelievers. That it is acceptable to discriminate against unbelievers, that they are a seperate and abnormal group. It also reinforces these feelings of inferiority in unbelievers themselves, so they submit to this mistreatment more readily.

It is the effect on behavior, not the effect on god-belief, that is the reason this phrase must go.

Justus Hommes said...


If that is the effect the pledge of allegiance had on you, so be it. I can only speak from personal experience, but never did the pledge give me a sense of superiority or empower me to discriminate.

I do not wish to over-rationalize your and Alonzo's causes in regard to the pledge and other "anti-atheist" matters, but if I try to realistically assess how people would behave if all of references to God were taken out of our pledges, money, and so forth, I don't see what changes.

To be brutally honest, you probably see me as unenlightened or lacking intelligence for believing in a God, and view yourself as superior. Regardless of the truth on either side, I am defensive about this, since it is the stereotype placed upon believers. On the flip side, I may have pity on your lost soul, and in a sense feel re-assured about my superior "security" in the faith. Again, regardless of where the truth lies, you may become defensive about this perceived inferiority. This is human nature, and we do it with regards to sports teams, fashion, politics, food, etc., and will always do it with religion.

Please note:

I used your terminology in respect to superior/inferior, but I want to clarify that those words do not reflect my personal Christian faith. A true Christian looks to Christ because they are painfully aware of their deficiencies. I do not see anyone as better or worse then me. I may see agnostics and atheists as wrongly convinced of their own self-sufficiency, but that is it.

Anonymous said...

Hi again Justus.

If that is the effect the pledge of allegiance had on you, so be it. I can only speak from personal experience, but never did the pledge give me a sense of superiority or empower me to discriminate.

Allow me to clarify. I never felt denigrated, discriminated against, submissive, or of a lesser caste. Most of the time I felt exceptional, since I was one of the few kids who wouldn't participate out of principle (I was raised Jehovah's Witness, and they don't say the pledge or salute the flag). I'm sure very few atheists (or their kids) feel at all slighted by "under god" in the pledge. I'm sure no theist (or almost none of them) gets a feeling of superiority or dominance from saying "under god".

However the effects these words have is not a conscious, immediate emotion. They are gradually absorbed into the psyche without concious effort. These effects have been proven over and over again, predominantly in the research of the effects of racial segregation on black children in the 60s & 70s. How easily and strongly these effects take hold is somewhat shocking, it suggests that there is a strong biological impulse to act in this manner.

And again, often the victims don't realize what they are doing. Many muslim women strongly support the restrictions on their own rights and freedoms.

I believe this is the case with atheists as well. The evidence for how quickly and meekly atheists submit to discrimination is overwhelming. Many even defend the bigots who work to deny them rights.

There are several ways to change this situation, and one of them is to get these persistant, socially-approved messages of outgroup membership removed. That is why I support the removal of "under god" from pledge and money, and why any christian (or theist in general) who cares about liberty and justice should do the same.

To be brutally honest, you probably see me as unenlightened or lacking intelligence for believing in a God, and view yourself as superior.

That used to be true, when I was young. I can't claim that I'm old or experienced, but I've matured enough by now to no longer feel that way, even slightly. I still view theists as factually wrong, but everyone is wrong about some fact or another. Nowadays I don't form opinions about someone's intelligence or charecter simply by whether they are theists or not.