Well, it’s been a while since I’ve blogged on anything of substance. Busy, busy, busy. Last month, my wife pointed out to me a new class being offered through the Continuing Education program at the local university called God, Atheism and Morality. It’s a discussion class using Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape as the backdrop and led by an ex-Lutheran pastor. A nice fellow, but maybe too nice for the things likely to come…
There are nine of us, from a wide range of backgrounds and beliefs. There’s a non-believing Teacher who wants to return to university, perhaps to get a PhD in the philosophy of science; a Lawyer who deals with immigrants and who made an excellent point on refugee claimants that I have suspected for some time that I will get to later on; another who grew up in a Secular household and does not understand faith (I do – I just don’t understand why anyone in their right mind discards reason and evidence in favor of wishful thinking); the Spiritual woman that made the claim that most atheists are really agnostics (which underscores a problem of definitions that might produce some trouble); another that wants to see if there are reasons to discard her Faith (burden of proof shift, anyone?) and “dragged” her husband along (well, according to him, anyway…); a retiree with a Physics background who didn’t really say much about himself; a believing Moral Relativist (!) who knows too much about philosophy, an intellectual pursuit that I have little patience for (and who actually told me that string theory is not testable, that I should Google it! Ah, the University of Google, where you can get a degree in 9/11 truthing! Michio Kaku, where are you when I need you?); and yours truly, who described himself as “the most unspiritual person that you will ever meet”. Quite a wide spectrum of beliefs which is a good start.
Spiritual woman claimed that “most people who call themselves atheists are really agnostics”; she is both right and wrong. It hinges on the meaning of the word “atheist”. Using a dictionary doesn’t help matters here at all, since they typically give two meanings: a lack of belief in a god and a belief that there is no god. I can’t fault dictionaries since all the authors are doing is reporting the varied meaning of the words. Obviously, she was using the latter definition. I think, however, that the first definition is far more coherent. Whether or not one is an atheist should be predicated on the answer to the following question: “Do you believe in a god?” If the answer is in the affirmative, then one is a theist. Any other answer means that the responder is an atheist. This definition is truer to the dichotomy implied by the words “theist” and “atheist” and frees up the word “agnostic” to describe the state of knowledge. This means, though, that there are different types of atheists. There are those who believe that there are no gods (“strong atheists”, or – as I prefer – “antitheists”); there are “agnostic atheists”, those that don’t believe in a god because there is no evidence upon which to base such a belief; there are even “agnostic theists” who, while understanding the state of knowledge is such that there is no justifcation but believe anyway.
I’m going to be up front here. I largely agree with Harris. If there is a flaw in his arguments, it’s that they are too reductionist for my tastes. But he’s not wrong. There are objective ways in which to gauge whether an action is moral. Harris calls the gauge “well-being”, though he leaves the definition open. I think this is a mistake. In a video in which Harris discusses this, he compares “well-being” to the concept of “health”. While the definition of “health” is hard to pin down, that does not mean we can’t talk about those things that are healthy or unhealthy. The problem with this is that it leaves Harris open to the attack that he’s being fast and loose with his terminology. The discussion leader (teacher or prof isn’t really the right word) defined it as “do no harm”. I think this is woefully incomplete, and I doubt that he limits the definition to this concept but was simply giving an idea of what it might mean in a one-liner.
Moral Relativist is quite down on Harris. He considers him a “religion basher”. So what? So am I. But I don’t limit my criticism to religion; I bash any harmful ideology whether it include a god or not. Yet he gave no salient reason why Harris’ criticisms of Islam and Catholicism (the two “low-hanging fruits” he zeros in on in the book) are invalid. If valid, not only is Harris justified in his criticisms of the fruits of these religions, we are all obligated to raise our voices in protest. But moral relativists don’t see it that way. Teacher, in response to this accusation against Harris of “religion bashing” by the Moral Relativist, told him that she didn’t disagree with Harris. For his own part, he responded that this statement was depressing, whereupon I also voiced my agreement with Harris’ criticisms of religions. Does he think Harris’ criticisms of Islam and Catholicism are inaccurate? If they aren’t, then not only is Harris’ criticisms justified, they are obligatory. Moral Relativist gave no response to whether there is merit in Harris’ criticisms of religion, only that he didn’t like such criticism. The idea that anything is above reproach and is given special status is anathema to me. What’s depressing is the need for Harris, Dawkins, Teacher, me, et al to raise the criticisms. If religoin is so wonderful and moral, why is it an incredible source of bad behavior? All absolutist ideologies – religious or not – are a pox on humanity. I sense a rant coming on….
Moral relativism. Let’s get this straight. Not only do I reject it prima facie, I consider it an immoral position. To use Harris’ example, when one considers the societal or religious affects (impossible to differentiate between the two in Islamic nations) of “demonizing homosexuals, stoning adulterers, veiling women, soliciting the murder of artists and intellectuals, and celebrating the expoits of suicide bombers” on well-being, to then say that what is clearly wrong in the context of a modern western society is okay in another culture I find to be sick and deranged. I am angered by the calousness and indifference of moral relativism, and it may be difficult to keep my anger in check in the classroom.
Critics of atheists complain that if there is no god then there is no objective morality and one must be a moral relativist are presenting a false dichotomy. Morality sans deity is extremely easy to explain. As a consequence of evolving using a social survival strategy, the ability to map our own feelings and emotions onto someone else in a given set of circumstances developed. We call this ability “empathy”. Mice have been shown to do this; in laboratory experiments they concern about the well-being of cage mates. Mapping our feelings onto others and predicting how we would feel in their place takes us a long way in determining good and bad. While I haven’t invoked Theory of Mind or reciprocal altruism here (are also important factors in how we form our morality), this gives us the gist of it.
Does this mean that assessing the effect of our actions on others in this manner is going to have grey areas? Of course. As Harris points out, losing a queen in a chess match is usually a bad idea, but we also admit there are exceptions. Sometimes, losing your queen is a brilliant move. It can even be obligatory. Lying is usually a bad idea, but there are times when telling the truth does far more harm. Quite the opposite of being a problem for using well being as a guide to determining values, gauging the effects of our actions on others deals with these exceptions quite handily.
In fact, it is those who put forward the idea that a deity is required who have the problem. There is the precept “thou shalt not kill”, yet there are situations where killing is admissable. If we are simply obeying a set of rules handed to us, is that even morality? I don’t think so. Nor is being forced to adhere to a moral code that we can’t understand on pain of punishment.
Can I say that an action taken in our society and values which would be considered bad should be considered the same in another? Darn right I can. Imprisoning atheists in Islamic countries violates free speech. Western societies value free speech because we found it is a path to a peak on the moral landscape, and violating it has the opposite effect on people. Well being transcends culture.
Can I say that actions that societies were indifferent to in antiquity were okay then but not now? Darn right I can. Slavery was ubiquitous in biblical times, so much so that it not only doesn’t have a problem with the ethics of it at all, it tells people how to mark a slave, punish them and even how to trick an indentured servant into becoming a life-long slave. Well being also transcends time.
What if it were determined that free speech blocked a path to increased well being of the members of society? Not a likely prospect, but so be it. The is why Harris leaves the definition of “well being” alone. The definition of “health” may change drastically in the future, but should this preclude talking intelligeably about health? I hardly think so.
So well being transcends time and culture. I can’t do anything about the morality of antiquity, but I can say things about the morality of this time in any culture in order to try and change them. This is why I want to have a conversation with the immigration lawyer in the class. What she said in her self-description about refugees fleeing religious persecution yet force strange practices on members of their own culture resonated with me. I’ve long thought that accepting refugees is a good thing. But it is not one-way. These people have an obligation to ensure that the values they bring with them are at least compatible with those of our own society. While mixing their culture with ours can enhance our society, some attempt must be made to integrate. Is culturally-enforced wearing of the burqa excusable on the basis of culture? It is difficult to imagine how one half of a culture tries to make the other half disappear enhances the well being of women. When pressed for an assessment of the right or wrong of the burqa, a moral relativist would say it depends on the context. In our culture, no, but in theirs, yes. I say “Can that crap.” If it is wrong in our culture, it is wrong in all. To say otherwise is to be indifferent to suffering within our own society. Examples abound of harmful precepts excused because of religion or culture. I firmly believe that there is an objective way to show that there are values that are better than others, and Harris gives us the language (if not the specifics) to use for just this purpose.
So, is the culture-enforced wearing of the burqa wrong? It goes back to well being transcending culture. Even if women in these countries say that they are happy with their lot in life, and that wearing the burqa is the greatest thing since sliced bread, it is still wrong. Why? A woman battered by her husband can say he’s a wonderful guy, but is staying married to him the right thing to do? I don’t think so. From our perspective it is clear that such women would be better off ditching their husbands. Does that mean it isn’t from the wife’s perspective? Nope. Just because she doesn’t think there is a better alternative to staying in the marriage that there isn’t. Same for women who have lived their whole lives behind the veil. Just because they do not know of a way which will enhance their own well being and profess that they are happy with life does not mean that there isn’t one and that they are. I’m not saying that it is easy to get to peaks on the moral landscape (battered wives don’t find it easy to end their marriages), only that it is possible to work towards getting to them and thereby increase the well being of all.
Harris is right that it does all come down to brain state, but it is unnecessary to reduce things to brain states. Phil Zuckerman (Society Without God) and others have ably shown using the metrics of the social sciences that the happiest and healthiest societies are the least religious ones, works Harris inexplicably ignores in the book. Indeed, science can certainly inform us information societal values leading to peaks on the moral landscape, though I’m not less sure it can give us the values themselves. We need not go to the level of the brain in order to determine this. (Our discussion leader informed us of something that makes perfect sense of this tendency to reductionism. The book is essentially Harris’ PhD thesis reformatted for a lay readership, and it certainly has this feel. So I understand where this is coming from – Harris was using the tools of neuroscience to study well being. I’ll cut Harris some slack upon learning this, but he should have acknowledged in the book – if not his thesis – that there are other ways to skin this cat, some of which are far more useful than fMRI and require far less expensive instruments.)
After the class, Moral Reletavist was telling me afterwards that he gets his morality from exploring his faith with god. The words were individually intelligeable and put together in a syntactically coherent manner, but made no sense to me whatsoever. Such people have a serious problem with the very existence of atheists. How, apart from whether a god exists or not, do we atheists come to be moral without faith? I’ll have to ask him. I know how some deal with this problem. They can ignore the problem altogether, fancifully claim that yes, atheists can obey the law but without god can not determine what is moral (hogwash) or go the route of denying that atheists can be moral at all. The latter claim that it is because we really know that there is a god but want to reject it in order to maintain our immoral ways. They read the idiotic drivel vomited by Ravi Zacharias, James Spiegel and their ilk onto paper, then congratulate themselves in confirmating their bias. There is a technical term for such people who display this level of unbridled ignorant bigotry: they are “fucking pricks”. I wonder if such people have ever knowingly met an atheist, and if they have, have they ever honestly tried to understand how they live moral lives without god? Probably not. In my view, such people are no better than KKK sans ghost costume, or Mel Gibson on a bender.
I doubt Moral Relativist is of this type. He’s far too insightful for that crap. But I still intend to ask him.
Till after next weeks’ class,
Yours in Reason,