Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Gun Control

I have not commented on the issue of gun contol in this blog mostly because I do not know what conclusion to draw.

However, even a person who does not know the answer to a question might be able to contribute something to understanding how to approach the problem, or some of the answers that have been given. One thing I do know is that many people on both sides who think that there is a clear and obvious answer and and who disagree with them are plain evil are mistaken.

It would appear that many people begin with an oversimplified understanding of the problem.

On the left, there is the simple equation of "Nothing to shoot implies no shootists." If people who want to slaughter others cannot find something to use to slaughter them with, we are all safer. One question I have is: How hard is it, really, to build a bomb or to use a vehicle as a weapon?

On the right, there's the aversion to cowering behind a file cabinet or under a bed while somebody with a gun walks down the hallway racking up a body count, all the time waiting for a hero with a gun to show up to end this menace when the hero with the gun could have been there at the start. One question: When you have your gun and step into the hallway, and you see another person with a gun, is that the shootist or another hero? Or maybe there's no gun - just a shadow mixed with a little imagination and a lot of adrenaline.

At this point, confirmation bias sets in. With every piece of supporting evidence, one points and says, "See! See! I told you do." With every piece of conflicting evidence one can tell a story that will discredit it. Do not think that this is a problem only for the weak minded. The best scientists are aware of the fact that everybody does this, so the best scientists - rather than insisting that they do not suffer from the problem - design systems to combat this tendency.

What systems have you adopted to ensure that you are not guilty of "confirmation bias" on the issue of gun control?

Then, tribalism makes its contribution. Tribes accentuate the virtues of their own tribe while vilifying competing tribes.

To those on the right, the opposing tribe is made up of people seeking to preserve childhood from cradle to grave, perpetually cared for by others and unwilling to take responsibility either for their own lives or the people around them. Instead, they prefer an infantile dependent relationship to the parent-state who will take care of them, and seek to reduce everybody else to the same condition.

To those on the left, gun advocates are testosterone-infected monsters (both male and female) with near-sexual fantasies of killing things who, if they do not become shootists themselves, provide the cultural breeding ground for shootists.

One fact we can probably add to this description is that the tribe on the right is also probably better armed. This, by itself, gives them power over the tribe on the left. "You can take my gun when you pry it from my cold dead fingers." The only way the tribe on the left can win this battle is - of course - by sending in people with guns (police or the army - depending on the type of opposition) to take the guns.

Taken from a different perspective, one of the objective of gun control is to turn otherwise law-abiding human beings into violent criminals.

We also know that guns are simply one tool of destruction among many. We will not, in fact, be safer simply by reducing access to one culturally preferred tool for doing harm. As long as there are people who want to do harm, we are at risk. If they do not have guns, they can find something else.

There are countries that have outlawed guns that have lower rates of violence then the United States. But which came first? Did outlawing guns make the people more peaceful? Perhaps it was a general culture of non-violence that both, at the same time, brought peace and made it possible to ban guns that few people wanted anyway. On this model, we should not be focused so much on access to the instruments of violence (which we cannot actually control anyway), we must ficus instead on the moral character of the people.

Guns do not kill people. People kill people.

This cliche of the right is often dismissively swatted aside. Yet, it rests at the very heart of moral institutions. The way to prevent people from killing, stealing, engaging in fraud and rape, or committing any of a long list of moral crimes is by molding their character - giving them an aversion to these types of activities. If we make the mistake of focusing on a symptom - access to guns - we leave behind people with an interest in killing looking for another tool. If we focus, instead, on the moral character of individuals, then it will not matter what tools the person averse to causing harm has access to.

However, before the tribe on the right gets too giddy over this argument, there is another point to consider. Perhaps creating "people who do not kill people" we must create a culture filled with just those types that have no interest in guns - that have an aversion to guns - that tend to support restrictions on guns. It may be the case that the people least likely to kill other people are those most likely to be positively averse to having a gun, to using a gun on another person, or to see any sense in other people having guns either.

This is speculation. It addresses the types if questions one must learn the answers to before one can claim to have a reasoned and rational opinion on gun legislation. I am not claiming, "I know the answers, so here is the correct opinion on gun laws." i am saying that I do not know the answers; therefore, I cam give no informed opinion on gun laws."

This is not a post on what attitude the virtuous and informed person would have on gun control. I do not know that answer.

Instead, it is a post on what attitude the virtuous and informed person would have on some of the ways this issue is being debated. One thing that I can say with near certainty - the person who says that they know the right answer and cannot possibly be mistaken, and who is willing to kill others on the basis of that certain knowledge (either to keep a gun or to take a gun away), is probably neither virtuous nor well informed.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Myth of "Makers" and "Takers"

A persistent theme we have been hearing for quite some time argues that society is made up of wealthy “Makers” – those who create wealth and are to be thanked for all of the good things we have in the world, and parasitic “Takers” who are unwilling or actually do any work and, instead, live off of the wealth that the “Makers” produced.

This is the theme established in Ayn Rand’s famous book Atlas Shrugged - which then suggests how the “Takers” can be made to suffer when the “Makers” decide to quit producing food for the parasites.

This theme includes the threat that if the demands of the “Makers” are not met, they will pack up and leave and everybody else – who apparently lacks the capacity to create economic wealth – will either wallow in squalor or finally get busy and do some real work, thus becoming “Makers” themselves. We are not to raise their taxes, regulate their activities, or in any way limit their ability to “Make” wealth because they provide the jobs that regular people need for income as well as the wealth of goods and services regular people buy with that income.

This description of the world is not entirely accurate.

It would be more accurate to report that many of these “Makers” do not acquire their wealth and power by producing wealth that the parasites then feed off of and providing the rest of us with jobs and economic goods. These “Makers” get their wealth by being “Takers” on an industrial scale. These “Takers” do not take a few thousand dollars that then go to pay for a college education or to survive a period of unemployment. Instead, these “Takers” rake in hundreds of millions to billions of dollars at a time, adding these takings to already acquisitions of economic, political, and social power.

This is most clearly the case with respect to the financial crisis. Hundreds of billions to trillions of dollars were transferred, not to the poor and middle-class, but to the wealthy and very-wealthy. Wouldn’t it be nice, if your personal debt started to exceed your ability to pay and the value of your assets was declining, to be able to call up the Secretary of Treasury and have them negotiate a bail-out package that would put you back on sound financial footing? Unfortunately, I expect that most of us would have trouble getting a government official to take one’s call. However, the super-rich do not have this problem.

It is important to note that I am not criticizing the bailout itself or saying that it ought not to have happened. That is a separate question. In this posting I am simply pointing out the fact that the bailout – regardless of whether it was good or bad – was also a case of very-wealth people “Taking” on a grand scale. It calls into the question the paradigm we are taught that the world is made up of wealthy “Makers” and poor and middle-class parasites that live off of them.

These types of direct payment represents only the most conspicuous way in which ultra-wealthy takers profit by using the government to obtain benefits that they can only acquire by doing harm to the well-being of others.

For example, let’s say I destroy your home in order to improve the view from my living room window. This is one form of “Taking.” I obtain a benefit – a better view, which is something that I value, by engaging in an activity that makes you worse off.

Economics tells us that where the benefit exceeds the costs, I should be able to convince you to sell me your home – in which case I can then choose to have the house destroyed and improve my view. If I cannot get you to voluntarily move, this means that you value living in the house more than I value an improved view. However, if I am willing to improve my view by an act of “Taking”, you are forced to give up your house no matter how much value you put into living there.

Advocates of free-market economics – the type of economics where wealth is kept in the hands of those who produce it unless they can be voluntarily convinced to give it up – would not allow this type of activity.

Yet, many of the very wealthy live off of this type of activity – this type of “Taking”. In fact, they routinely protest against the adoption of free-market principles precisely because it would take from them the wealth they acquire thorough this type of “Taking.” Far from being “Makers” on whom the rest of us defend, they are “Takers” who, in part, purchase a certain amount of political and social support for their “Taking” by sharing some of their ill-gotten gains with others.

Climate change denial provides an example of “Taking” on this model. In this, ultra-wealthy individuals add to their wealth by selling products that, in turn, destroy the life, health, and property of others. This is, literally, “Taking” on the scale of hundreds of billions to trillions of dollars.

These people are profiting from the “Taking” of the life, health, and property of others the same way that I would have been profiting from a better view by “Taking” from you your home in the example above.

Many of the protests we hear against environmental regulation, worker safety, product safety, and consumer protection are not arguments in defense of a free market. They are arguments in defense of a form of “Taking” whereby people are allowed to profit by activities that do harm to others.

I have often wondered how much of a safety net we would need if not for the fact that there is so much “Taking” being done whereby the poor and middle class are required to give up their life, health, and property, and their liberty in order to benefit ultra-wealthy “Takers”. Instead of taxing the ultra-wealthy to the tune of an few extra hundred billion dollars, if we could only reduce their “Takings” by a few hundred billion dollars we could reduce the deficit, reduce the size of the safety net, and cut taxes at the same time.

However, one thing we can say about ultra-wealthy “Takers” is that their taking is not a casual past-time. It is a business in itself packed full of well-funded lawyers, public relations specialists, lobbyists – each enacting well-planned programs.

A pitch, if honestly and accurately presented, would look something like this:

"We believe we can generate $500 million in profits by 'Taking' if we can get this law passed or get that regulation re-interpreted. Here is our plan for bringing about this change. As you can see, we estimate that this 'Taking' will require a budget of $50 million and it has a 50% chance of success. Applying standard probability analysis this yields the conclusion that the “Taking” that we propose is actually worth $250 million – 50% of $500 million – or $200 million in profits as an expected rate of return."

Of course, one of the messages we can expect to hear from this company is how they plan to "create jobs" with this $200 million, how this act of 'Taking' is actually making wealth, and how the rest of us will suffer if they are not allowed to succeed.

This is 'Taking' on an industrial scale. This is not at all what we hear about when we hear that the world is divided up between ultra-wealthy “Makers” who are responsible for all the good in the world, and poor and middle-class “Takers” who do nothing but live as parasites off of the wealth they produce. It is a form of taking that a poor person seeking to go to college or a retired couple seeking medical care cannot hope to match.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Moral Philosophy: Helping Bad People Feel Better About Themselves

A lot of moral philosophy appears to be geared toward helping bad people feel better about themselves.

I have written recently about motivational internalism - the doctrine that "to know the good is to do the good." Motivational internalism provides a very efficient way to discard any moral argument supporting a conclusion that a person does not like. He listens to the argument then says, "Well, I don't feel at all motivated to do what you say I ought to do. Therefore, your argument must be flawed."

In fact, people use their motivation or lack of motivation as a test of moral arguments. More to themselves than to others they think, "I don't want to do what this person says I ought to do. Therefore, his argument that I ought to do it must be flawed. Now, where is that flaw?" Finding the flaw often means accepting or rejecting "facts" or fallacies depending on whether they give an illusion of supporting the desired conclusion.

Religious ethics follow the same pattern. There is no god. The morality people find in religion is the morality that the inventors of religion and the interpreters of scripture put into it. That morality, in turn, was or is the morality favored by their sentiments. "I am disgusted by the thought of sex with another man. Therefore, God hates fags and demands that they all be put to death." In this way, a person gives an illusion of legitimacy to their own hatred and bigotry. "Hey, it's not me saying these things. It's God!"

Taking one's own likes and dislikes and assigning them to an alleged perfectly knowledgable and perfectly moral super-being . . . it is hard to imagine a greater conceit.

We are told that scripture provides an objective morality independent of the sentiments of the agent. In fact, scripture provides a vague, ambiguous, incoherent set of directives which are alternatively ignored, emphasized, and reinterpreted to suit the interests of the reader. People appeal to their own sentiments to determine what scripture says. Their interpretation is not at all independent of those sentiments.

Evolutionary ethics is no better. In this case, the agent's sentiments are not justified in virtue of being assigned to a perfectly knowledgable and perfectly moral super-being, but to evolution. "Hundreds of millions of years of evolution has disposed me to disapprove of X. Therefore, anybody who does X deserves to die - or be imprisoned - or forced to submit to my will at the barrel of a gun." Many will disavow this way of expressing their claims. They recognize that the inference is entirely invalid. However, what they reject in theory they accept in practice. " Do you want to understand morality? Then look at your evolved sentiments." Evolution is their substitute for god, their tool for assigning moral legitimacy to their own likes and dislikes.

Nothing fits this model better than common subjectivism. Common subjectivism takes off all of the pretty wrappings and pretend justifications and says, quite simply, that your moral claims are nothing more than your own likes and dislikes. You are taking your sentiments and assigning moral value to them, then seeking to push those sentiments on the rest of the world. There is no real difference between the Nazi, the bigoted racist, or the doctor without borders trying to save sick children in an impoverished country. They just happen to have different sentiments - and no sentiment is actually better than any other. This provides an efficient excuse for the Nazi and the racist bigot to carry on with business as usual. More importantly, it provides a convenient excuse for the lazy liberal to shrug his shoulders and say, "I'm too busy watching Survivor and going to fancy dinner parties with my liberal friends to worry about what is happening elsewhere. The culture that kills women for the crime of talking to a man - well, that's just their culture. Who am I to judge, if I don't want to?"

However, common subjectivism does have an important insight into what it takes to be its chief rival - intrinsic value theory. Claims of intrinsic value actually often do involve an agent taking their likes and dislikes as signs of an important property "out there" - intrinsic to what they like and dislike. I was arguing with a racist once outside of a grocery store when an interracial couple came out - holding hands and laughing. The racist pointed to them and said, "See, that's what I am talking about." I could tell by his tone and body language that he could " feel" the wrongness of this interracial mixing - a wrongness that radiated out of the relationship he condemned and which his moral senses were properly sensitive to. The common subjectivist recognizes that this individual was mistaking his own subjective likes and dislikes as perceptions of intrinsic moral properties.

In fact, divine command theory and evolutionary moral theory are merely playing variations of this same tune. The divine command theorist says, "And this sense was created in me by an all-knowing and perfectly moral super-being, so they are legitimate." the evolutionary theorist says, "And this sentiment comes to me through a long history of evolution, and that gives it legitimacy."

The common subjectivist foregoes these failed accounts of legitimacy and says, "These are your sentiments. Go with them. If they include a sentiment that fags ought to be killed, don't look for justification. Just act on it."

What all of them have in common is a way of saying, "Look to your sentiments. Do what you like and avoid what you dislike and you can think of yourself as a moral saint while doing so."

They are all convenient tools for helping bad people feel better about themselves.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Motivational Internalism: Making Moral Rationalizations Appear Legitimate

Yesterday I provided objections to the thesis of motivational internalism - the notion that to know the good is to do the good. A person can be totally convinced that something is morally obligatory and still care nothing about it.

It should be noted that, in this sense, for something to be good means that people generally have many and strong reasons to use rewards such as praise and punishments such as condemnation to promote a desire for that thing (or an aversion to that which is bad). By definition, a reward is something that agents have a motivating reason to realize and people have a motivating reason to prevent the realization of punishments.

In a sense, then, a person has a motivating reason to do good and avoid evil.

However, it would be more accurate to say that people have a motivating reason to do what people generally take to be good and avoid what people generally take to be evil. Individuals - even whole cultures - can be mistaken; praising what they have reason to condemn and condemning what they have reason to praise. The motivating reason to realize rewards and avoid punishments is tied to what people think is good or bad, not what is good or bad in fact. It is not a case that "to know the good is to the good", but "to know what people generally take to be good is to do what people generally take to be good" - to obtain the rewards or to avoid the punishments.

Convincing a person that she has a motivating reason in this sense is merely describing the sociological fact about what people generally will reward or punish.

The motivational internalist would hardly find this satisfying.

It is also probably quite rare that a person can avoid the social conditioning where they learn to desire to be a good person or an aversion to being a bad person.

Anybody with a desire to be a good person will perceive a motivating reason to do X upon being convinced that a good person would do X. This works a lot like the way that the motivational internalist says that morality works - convincing a person that something is good will see that person motivated to realize what was said to be good. This motivation, in this case, is not the motivation of seeking a reward (such as praise) or to avoid punishment (such as condemnation). The motivation, in this case, comes from a desire to do what a good person would do, and to avoid doing what a good person would not do as an end in itself.

However, this consequence is contingent on having the desire to do what a good person would do and avoid doing what a good person would not do. It does mot support the thesis that to know the good is to do the good. It takes more than knowing the good to motivate an agent to do the good.

Because of these facts, people seldom have a reason to admit - at least to others - that what they do is evil or they refrain from doing good. To say, "Yes, I know it is wrong" is to say, "Yes, I know that people generally have reason to condemn or even punish people like me." This is a difficult fact to admit - so people seldom (if ever) do so. Instead, they protest and fight and argue and assert, "You have no reason to harm people like me. You may think you do, but you do not."

This supports the observation that motivational internalists use to defend their thesis. They note that very few people do what they assert to be wrong, or admit to an obligation they do mot perform. They make up excuses. "He doesn't deserve to be repaid the money he let me borrow because he did not give me a far rate," or "A woman who dresses like that is a tease who deserves to be raped - let this be a lesson to her." They rationalize their actions to make it appear to be the case that the person who would do such a thing does not deserve to be harmed.

Motivational internalism is not, in fact, an interesting thesis about the nature of morality. It is the practice of rationalization run amuk. It wraps this rationalization in an illusion of legitimacy and, in doing so, provides aid and comfort to evil people trying to convince themselves and others that they are good.

It is also responsible for misdirecting a lot of effort and interfering with our ability to make a morally better culture. We are lead to believe that all we need to do is to present a person with the moral facts and they will do the good. Yet, this is like presenting a flat tire, jack, and crowbar with the moral facts and getting a flat tire changed. It causes us to neglect the real work that needs to be done in actually using social tools to promote desires people generally have many and strong reasons to promote and inhibiting desires people generally have many and strong reasons to inhibit.

Through these effects, the doctrine makes the world a worse place than it would otherwise have been.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Moral Superiority: To Know the Good Is to Do the Good

Last week, I talked about moral superiority and the fact that some people, as a matter of fact, are morally better than others.

Some people already have the desires people generally have reason to promote using rewards (such as praise), and do not have the desires that people generally have reason to condemn and to punish.

This invites the question, "Am I morally superior to others?"

This question relates to the philosophical position, "To know the good is to do the good," - formally known as motivational internalism. "The good", on this view, is that which, if you can convince somebody that something has it, then that person is motivated to realize that good. A person never says, "Yes, I fully agree that it is good, but I care nothing about it and do not really care whether there is more of it or less."

Since I claim to know the good - the mere fact that I am writing this blog says that I have something to say on the issue that others would benefit from learning, if it is the case that to know the good is to do the good, it follows that I claim to be a morally remarkable person - morally superior to a great many others and able to provide them with moral instruction so they can be more like me.

Well, it would follow if motivational internalism was true. But it is not.

Desirism holds that a right act is the act that a person with good desires would choose to perform. To know that people have an obligation to do X is to know that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote those desires that would motivate a person to do X, and to inhibit those desire that would motivate an agent to do something else.

However, it does not follow from the proposition, "I believe that the desire that D is a desire that people generally have reason to promote" that "I have a desire that D:" A person can conceivably find a huge gap between the desires he has and the desires that people have many and strong reasons to promote or inhibit.

For example, I waste a huge amount of time on computer games. When I am engaged in these activities, I accomplish very little of value. I do little that fulfills the desires of others, and becaue of this others have little or no reason to praise the desires that contribute to such a waste of time.

At least I am not motivated to perform actions that cause others harm. In this, what can be said about my time spent on these activities is that, in doing them, I am dead to the world. I provide the world with as little good as I would provide if I did not exist.

I often imagine what the situation would have become if the hours that I have spent manipulating states on a computer - the real-world effect of playing a computer game - had been spent instead in efforts to manipulate states in the world. There are fields of knowledge where advancement would do a lot of people a lot of good. People generally have many and strong reasons to praise those who have those interests. A person with those interests, rather than those that I have, are morally superior (at least in that aspect of their lives).

Yet, knowing the good itself provides little motivation to doing the good. At least, it has not prevented me from sitting down for a session of manipulating the states in a computer in ways that I find satisfying - creating a state that, in the fiction created in the context of the game, counts as an "advancement" or "winning".

Desires are not subject to reason. Provide a person with all of the evidence that exists that a desire is one that people generally have reason to promote. Hypothetically, you can get that person to agree that it is, in fact, a desire people generally have many and strong reasons to promote, it does not follow as any type of causal necessity that he will acquire that desire. Desires are not created or destroyed through reason.

Actually, to be more precise, "desires-as-ends" are not vulnerable to reason. "Desires-as-means" can be modified by a reasoned discovery of the correct relationship between means and ends.

Changing desires does not require reason, it requires the application of rewards on the reward system of the brain - the use of social tools (such as praise and condemnation) to provide those rewards and punishments. Even then, there is little immediate effect.

This is true in the same sense that reason will tell you how to change a flat tire on your car. However, the application of pure reason alone will not change the tire. You will need to get out the jack and the tire iron and the spare tire and get your hands dirty.

Similarly, reason will tell us which desires people generally have reason to promote or inhibit. However, reason alone will not automatically change desires for the better. That requires getting out the moral tools - rewards such as praise and punishments such as condemnation - and getting one's hands dirty.

So, it is not the case that to know the good is to do the good. Nor is it the case that a person who claims to know the good also claims, in doing so, to have some sort of moral superiority. This simply does not follow from the premises.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Moral Superiority: Atheists versus Theists

In yesterday's post I wrote about judging oneself or members of one's group as being morally superior to another as if it was intrinsically wrong. I wrote as if it was simply evil (or not-good) for members of one group (theists, atheists) to see themselves as morally superior to those in another group.

Yet, I wrote of this as if to say that those who do not consider themselves morally superior to others are morally superior to those who consider themselves morally superior to others - a view that would be entirely incoherent.

How can one make sense of this?

As one who holds that there are moral facts, it follows that some people are, as a matter of fact, morally superior to others. The kind and helpful are morally superior to the cruel. Just people are morally superior to the unjust. Honest and fair people are morally superior to the dishonest and unfair.

In the absence of special arguments to the contrary, it is acceptable to believe and to report that some people are morally superior to others.

From this, it follows that it could be true and proper to say, "Theists are morally superior to atheists" or "atheists are morally superior to theists" - not as a matter of accident but as something that is inherent in being a theist or atheist. It is not automatically wrong or intrinsically wrong. However, it is wrong as a matter of fact.

It could be true, but it is not true. It could be true in the same sense that "The earth is no more than 10,000 years old" could be true. It could be true, but it is not true.

When a person holds a false and poorly grounded belief, we have reason to ask, "Why does she hold that particular false and poorly grounded belief, as opposed to one of the infinite equally false and poorly gounded beliefs that she could have adopted?

In answering this question, we may find the answer in some character trait that is not particularly admirable - that, in fact, is quite contemptible.

When we trace the belief that theists are inherently morally superior to atheists, or atheists are inherently morall superior to theists, we find our answer to the question, "Why have these people adopted this false and poorly grounded belef and not some other?" in tribal tendencies. Humans have a psychological disposition to form tribes and, as a member of a tribe, are prone to false and poorly founded beliefs about the moral superiority of tribe members over non-tribe members. They irrationally charge members of other tribes with wrongs that they ignore or explain away when committed by members of their own tribe.

Though this is a natural disposition, it is also one that we have reason to fight against. It leads to unjust accusations and actions. They often escalate into violence, sometimes on a global sacale. Some atheists want to blame "religion" for these wrongs. However, this is just an example of tribal bigotry at work. People who do not believe in a god still form tribes, and those tribes battle against each other. There is no reason to believe that tribal conflict would be resolved by the elimination of religion. It would almost certainly continue - perhaps among political, economic, geographical, or philosophical tribes.

We would be (tribal) fools to ignore the fact that athests are human beings prone to tribal thinking.

Certainly, the kind and helpful theist can honestly claim to be morally superior to the selfish and cruel atheist. However, it is in virtue of being kind and helpful rather than being a theist. The responsible atheist can consider herself superior to the irresponsible theist - but on the grounds of being responsible, not on the grounds of being an atheist.

Prejudice, discrimination, and other forms of injustice often leading to violence arises when one considers non-moral tribal factors - race, gender, national origin, social class, belief that there is a god - as grounds for discrimination.

At this point, one usually encounters claims such as, "Belief in a god makes one kinder, more helpful, and more honest - morally superior to those who do not believe in a god."

This is an assumption, often eagerly grasped because of tribal bigotry. Without the slightest bit of evidence - and even in the face of strong evidence to the contrary - tribalists clutch this belief with both hands precisely because tribal prejudice motivates them to do so.

Even if there was a relationship, each of us belongs to countless different groups. There are countless ways of identifying each of us an, in doing so, putting us into groups with others who share that quality. In each case, there is a percentage of that group that, for example, has been convicted of a violent crime. There is a group that I belong to where the percentage of others who share that quality have been convicted of a violent crime is the highest of any of the other groups. There is a group that I belong to where the percentage is lowest. This is a matter of mathematical necessity. Taking any group measurement and the percentage of its population convicted of a violent crime says almost nothing about the person, and a great deal about the bigotries of the people attaching significance to that relationship.

Perhaps it is the case that teaching people to believe in a particular type of god is the best way to promote the strongest dispositions towards kindness and helpfulness. However, it would take a great deal of specialized knowledge to make this claim - knowledge that none of us currently has. Furthermore, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, and given the strong association with violence and other forms of injustice linked to tribal dispositions we know humans to have, we have an obligation to give others the benefit of the doubt. There is a reason to presume that the conclusions one graspes have more to do with tribal bigotries than with solid evidence and sound reasoning.

The moral and just person would make this assumption.

This is why it makes sense to condemn the atheist who assumes moral superiority over the theist, and to condemn the theist who assumes moral superiority over the atheist. In themselves, these are not moral qualities. Like gender, race, and national origin they are, instead, tribal distinctions. Where tribal distinctions are used, people have a strong disposition to grasp claims of moral superiority that evidence and reason cannot support - a disposition that deserves our condemnation.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

The Relationship Between Scripture and Morality

At the end of last year I wrote about the relationship between morality and god - the claim that without a god there would be no objective morality.

I compared this to the statement that some believe that without God there would be no trees - no life. The former is as irrelevant to the objective wrongness of something like rape as the latter is to the objective height, mass, and age of a tree. That is to say, it is not important at all to the answers to those questions.

Yet, many theists, wanting to see themselves as morally superior to atheists, cast this disagreement in a way that allows them to see atheists as morally blind if they do not have a religious morality to appeal to. Again, this is as absurd as thinking that an atheist cannot see a tree without referencing a passage in scripture telling them about trees. Not only does it feel good, but by casting atheists as morally inferior and unfit to lead, this sentiment comes with social, political, and economic benefits as well. With an interest in harvesting these benefits, these people adopt and promote these prejudices and injustices - an ironic counter to their thought that they presumed moral superiority.

This leads to another relationship worth discussing - the relationship between scripture and morality. It is one thing to say that there is an objective right and wrong and that it could not exist without a god. It is another to say that these objective truths are recorded in scripture. This is true in the same sense that there is an objective age of the earth and the earth could not have come into existence without a god, and that scripture accurately records the origin of earth. In both cases the first part can be true while the latter part is totally false.

In fact, the relationship between scripture and objective morality is exactly the same as the relationship that exists in general between the writings of primitive cultures and what is objectively true. Scripture records the beliefs of prehistoric tribes, substantially ignorant of the world around them, handed down through an oral tradition and recorded (with a strong regard to what the writers find useful) after the invention of writing. Many of those ancient beliefs are false. Many of the things that they report as being being true are false, and some of what they say is false is actually true. Similarly, many of the things that scripture identifies as evil are, in fact, good or permissible. Some of what it identifies as permissible or obligatory are, in fact, evil.

Taking scripture as recording the absolute truth with respect to morality is as much a mistake as taking the writings of Hippocrates as recording the absolute truth with respect to medicine. It is not only an absurd belief - it is a belief that comes with tragic consequences.

Imagine if the medical profession took Hippocrates' writings as divinely inspired - as literally true in every word - and set up the institution of medicine such that anybody who would doubt or question the writings of Hippocrates would be threatened with execution or torture or other social and economic punishments. Nobody was permitted to practice medicine except exactly as prescribed by Hippocrates, and nobody could be elected to public office who did accept the writings of Hippocrates in all matters related to medicine.

The results would have been tragic.

Yet, this describes the attitude that many have for the relationship between morality and scripture. Their claim that scripture contains the last word in all questions of morality is as absurd as the belief that Hippocretes wrote the last word on all matters of medicine. The consequences, in some areas, have been equally tragic. Whole cultures are practicing primitive morality to the detriment of their populations in the same way as practicing a primitive medicine would be to the detriment of those populations.

There are some differences in the ways that cultures draw this relationship between morality and scripture.

We can describe two fundamentally different ways of thinking, for example, that everything that Hippocrates wrote on matters of medicine was literally true, and all truth is contained in the writings of Hippocrates.

The most tragic way is to take a body of writing as true as it was originally written. This method allows for no advance - no improvement. Its practitioners are locked in a primitive mindset that they cannot escape.

The second way is to constantly reinterpret what is written in the sacred texts of Hippocrates to accommodate new understandings. In the realm of medicine, this would be represented by a person pointing to passages attributed to Hippocrates and saying, "Here is where Hippocrates wrote about the germ theory of disease. Here is his passage on penicillin. Over here he discusses radiation treatment for certain types of cancer, and in these passages he describes all of the parts of a cell and their legitimate functions."

This type of person would likely claim that everything Hippocrates wrote was true and all truth is contained in Hippocrates. However, he wrote in metaphors and symbols rather than by reporting literal truths.

These types of people, though their interpretations of Hippocrates abandon all reason, would still be able to practice modern medicine and provide their patients with its benefits. We may still have reason to worry about their ability to link symptoms to causes where their minds and their thoughts imagine passages in the writings of a primitive writers to cover these truths, but they can still effectively treat illnesses and injuries.

Similarly, those who constantly reinterpret scripture - finding within it an opposition to slavery, equal rights to women, an opposition to rape (except insofar as adultery is wrong and rape is adultery - and a spouse cannot be raped), acceptance of homosexuality and the eating of shellfish, democracy as opposed to the divine right of kings, the right to trial by jury, freedom of speech that includes a freedom to criticize religion, are just as imaginative as the hypothetical doctor who thinks that the writings of Hippocrates include passages on gene replacement therapy and the causes and treatments of Alzheimer's Disease. Yet, they can still oppose slavery, promote equal rights for women, condemn rape as something worse than adultery and accept that a spouse can be raped, accept homosexuality and the eating of shellfish, promote democracy, defend the right to trial by jury and freedom of speech.

This is not to say that atheists are morally superior to theists. Taking primitive fictions as true is not the only source of error. Atheists make moral mistakes as well. This includes falling victim to the psychology of tribalism and adopting absurdities that allow them to see members of their tribe as morally superior. Certain brands of Marxism, Ayn Rand Objectivism, social darwinism, the notion of an evolved moral sense (which excuses taking personal likes and dislikes and misinterpreting them as moral prescriptions), common subjectivism, are all examples of atheist mistakes. Another possible mistake is my claim that one of these atheistic philosophies is a mistake.