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Posts Tagged ‘morality’

(Cross-posted to Tumblr, in response to theunitofcaring.)

I don’t personally experience their level of discomfort around people who believe in the existence of Hell in the same sickening way, but I find this an entirely understandable reaction.

It seems too obvious to even mention, but that’s almost never universal, so it’s worth spelling out: Hell, as generally described or conceived as a place of everlasting suffering, is the most evil idea that is possible to exist.

There are various other interpretations of what Hell is – “an absence of God” or what-have-you – which may or may not be more theologically rigorous than the colloquial usage. But the lasting image in many people’s minds is pretty much congruent with all those Renaissance paintings of lakes of fire filled with sinners. If you go there, you will be tormented without end. And whatever disagreement there is on what it takes to get sent there, this happens to a non-zero number of eternal souls.

Seriously, if you can come up with something even hypothetically more evil than that, leave a comment or something, I’d be fascinated.

So while there’s something horrifying about wishing that somebody would suffer such a fate, there’s an extra layer of grotesquery in accepting that such a self-evidently evil thing could be allowed to exist by a god who claims to love us, and who somehow still deserves our love in return. That it’s a sad necessity, or part of some great divine plan we’re not privy to, and not proof that this god is an abominable tyrant who we must never stop railing against.

All that said… I think the saving grace here is that most people just haven’t thought it through.

I can’t know what’s going on in other people’s brains, but I strongly suspect that many of those who profess a belief in Hell haven’t consciously, deliberately, formed a mental model of all the implications of that belief and truly accepted them. Far more likely that many of them are replacing the question with a different one, and answering that instead.

Rather than “What is an appropriate and reasonable punishment for people who do wrong?” they’re responding to something about how important it is to them to defend the integrity of their tribe, and how strong is the hate they feel toward the out-group. The feeling of enmity toward the other is interpreted as a wish for some non-specific ills to fall on said other, but in practice, they’re probably not imagining anything more appalling or painful happening to them than, say, death. (This is the same misunderstanding of scale as is often seen in the dust-speck issue, where people read “3^^^3” and think “billions, probably”.)

So, yeah. If you believe in Hell, then potentially we could still be friends, although it’s not exactly a great start. If you believe in Hell and we’re already friends, well, just know that I disagree with you on this even more than I disagree with you on politics, and we both know how out-of-sync I am on that front.

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Apparently I’m doomed to keep harping on about this for as long as the wrongness-on-the-internet continues.

In one of my sporadic Twitter conversations about atheistic morality the other day, the person I’d randomly picked on to start needling for justification of their incorrect opinion managed to get quite incisively to the heart of the matter. While questioning the purpose of doing good, or indeed doing anything, in a godless universe, he referred to my implicit assumption that caring for other people is a good thing, and asked:

Who says?

Which I think is what it always comes down to, with these people who continue to insist that an “objective morality” is something only a deity can provide, and that atheistic ethics are necessarily haphazard and lacking any solid foundation.

Never mind all the actual facts about how people behave in reality, which in no way support the claim that atheists are any less inclined toward benevolent behaviour than the religious. Clearly abandoning one’s ideological axioms based on reality isn’t on the cards for this guy, or we wouldn’t even need this discussion.

Leave aside for now the complete irrelevance of that issue to the empirical question of whether a god exists. He’s not visibly trying to argue that a god does exist. He’s not even particularly trying to argue that atheists are bad people, I think; just that they could be, at any given moment, not like religious believers, who have a solid foundation for their morality, y’see. Just don’t ask what the hell that means and what practical effects it’s supposed to have.

The point is, he poses a good question. Who does say that caring for other people is good?

Who says it should matter to me whether other people are suffering?

Who says it ought to make the slightest difference to my life if some other sucker knows only pain and desperation on his short and brutal journey toward death?

Who says it’s a good thing in any measurable way to help those in need, to soothe pain and provide happiness, to do stuff that’s morally right, out of love and compassion for my fellow man?

If throwing acid in a child’s face would directly benefit Winston Smith in some way, who says it should matter to him whether that child is permanently disfigured?

We obviously need someone out there, someone in charge, to tell us why these things should matter. Otherwise it’s all just arbitrary. It can’t really mean anything if we just make our own decisions based on love and kindness.

Taking the religious line, it’s God who says. Compassion for others is good because he says so. You should care for people because God says you should. Leaving children’s faces unscarred is morally correct, because God has ordained that the suffering of children is a bad thing (*cough*Exodus 12:29-30*cough).

But I don’t take the religious line. I’m an atheist.

And I say you should care about other people.

I say it matters what difference we make, how kindly we behave toward others, how much suffering we alleviate.

I say that nobody else has to tell you that these things matter, you can just fucking decide it, if you’re not an uncaring and inhumane monster.

If you’re waiting for someone else to set some rules which dictate that torturing children is bad, you are doing morality wrong.

The next time someone claims that only God can give an “objective foundation to morality”, remind them about this archbishop, who, during questioning about the sexual abuse of a child, recently claimed uncertainty as to whether, at the time, he understood that sexual abuse of a child was morally wrong.

Remind them about that, then ask what the fuck use a god-based “objective foundation to morality” actually is to anyone in the real world.

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The whole idea of a moral basis to capitalism seems inherently broken to me.

The Pope recently made his first “apostolic exhortation”, which is totally what I’m going to start calling my tweets in future in a further attempt at self-hype and aggrandisement. (“Apostles, I exhort you. Look at this picture of my cat making a derpy face. LOL. Please RT.”)

In this exhortation, he talked about poverty, and wealth inequality, and all the stuff that’s increasingly been interesting me lately. Pontiff Frankie Prime seems to genuinely give a crap about the whole poverty deal, at least by Papal standards. I get the impression he genuinely sees people suffering because of economic injustices and wants to prioritise improving this situation, even if he is only doing a minuscule fraction of what’s within his power from that massive palace of his.

Anyway, his description of the tyranny of “unfettered capitalism” got a lot of people agitated, and often with good reason. I’m not sure that his proposed improvements to the global economy are cogent, or that his statement of the problem is even internally consistent; part of what defines capitalism is the fetters, in the form of property rights and so forth.

I don’t have any especial interest in analysing the Pope’s proposed economic policies, not least because by his own admission he’s not really trying to speak in economic, academic terms. But I just listened to a Freakonomics podcast which discussed the Pope’s ideas with a number of economists, and a few things bugged me about the defenses of market systems that ensued.

Joseph Kaboski, an Economics Professor and a Catholic, argues that ethics comprise an important part of a market economy. He provides a simple example in which they come into play, of someone getting over-charged at a car dealership because they didn’t speak great English, and so weren’t in a position to fully inform themselves of the details which would have helped in their negotiations. The point he’s trying to demonstrate is that “ethics are important in markets”.

But being “important” is a vague concept – what role do ethics actually play here? It’s clear that unethical behaviour would be an option for some unscrupulous person in this situation, and that it harms some innocent bystander as a result (and arguably damages market efficiency) – but none of that needs to matter to the unethical actor. He’s just made a tidy profit off of some hapless loser, beyond what was merited by the quality of the product – and he’s strongly incentivised by the system in place to do so whenever he can get away with it. Unethical behaviour makes those doing it better off.

There’s no solution proposed to this. It’s not even recognised as a problem. Another contributor to the episode, Jeffrey Sachs, says that “our indifference, our brazenness, our hard-heartedness, is no favour to ourselves or to the functioning of our societies”. But sometimes brazen, hard-hearted, unethical behaviour is a favour to ourselves, at least in the short-term. It might screw over the functioning of society if we all act that way, but why should I care? I got mine, Jack.

Obviously I think I should care. There is a moral obligation, I’m not going full relativist here. But when people who flout that obligation flourish as a direct result, and do better than those who act more ethically, the system is inherently broken. There’s no point arguing that your system will work fine if people would just behave more ethically, when the system is designed to reward those who don’t. There needs to be something built-in to the system so that socially harmful and undesirable behaviour isn’t massively appealing to anyone with flexible morals.

On a briefer note, here’s another quote from Kaboski, amid some more detailed statistics of how much things have been improving lately:

More people have escaped extreme poverty in the past 25 years in part through the growth of China and India than in any period of human history.

There are aspects of this whole debate to take heart in. Things do get better. But I call bullshit on this limited success as a vindication of any given application of capitalist market economics in recent years. There are still billionaires collectively hiding trillions of dollars offshore, for whom sums of money equivalent to whole countries’ GDPs act like a meaningless high-score, and there are still thousands of children starving to death every day.

It might be better than it’s ever been. It’s still not fucking good enough.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Do we have any obligation to care what the Pope says about anything, given the global extent of the child abuse network he oversees?

2. What would “unfettered capitalism” actually look like? What, if any, role would the government play in such a system?

3. Shouldn’t we have figured out how to sort out all the money without being dicks about it, by this point in our civilisation?

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Theists often like to set the bar unreasonably high when demanding that atheists rationally or empirically support their position.

One obvious example of this surrounds the whole “you can’t disprove God” thing. It’s sometimes claimed that we have to go a really, implausibly long way to show that their god doesn’t exist. Given the limits of human knowledge even about the planet we live on, let alone the entirety of creation, it is asserted to be the height of arrogance to assume the “perfect knowledge of the universe” necessary to deny the possibility of God’s existence.

This, clearly, doesn’t stand up. I don’t need to know the exact position of every particle of matter in my bedroom to forthrightly assert that there’s not an elephant in there. And most gods that have ever been described are purported to be much grander and more noticeable than an elephant. Is Jesus hiding on a rock on Titan that we haven’t looked under yet, waiting for the right moment for the Second Coming?

We’ve been up Mount Olympus, and we didn’t find Zeus. For the same reason that believers don’t give the Greek gods much thought these days, atheists are fine ignoring Yahweh until he bothers to actually show up either.

But there’s another way I’ve noticed some theists expect atheistic standards to be impossibly high: morality.

Atheists often act morally to other people, making large charitable donations and demonstrating love for their fellow humans. Meanwhile, Christians are quite capable of ignoring what they think God wants or failing to stick to the rules (otherwise why would they be asking forgiveness all the time?). Sometimes they rationalise selfish and harmful acts as being part of some “greater good”, or just ask forgiveness later. In other words, they can do bad things and decide that it “doesn’t count” for any of the myriad reasons that people regularly use when they’ve acted in contradiction to their image of themselves as a moral person.

Given the obvious truth that both atheists and believers are capable of tremendous good or terrible harm, why should an ultimate religious source of morality be important? And, in particular, if atheists want to do good, to value humanity, and to care for other people, why isn’t that enough? Sure, they often fail to meet their ideals, but they’re not alone in that, and generally they’re striving toward morality and compassion. Isn’t that as much as you can hope for?

Seriously, what more do you want?

A secular morality is based on doing good for goodness’ sake. It depends on compassion and love for others, on community and caring and kindness, and yes, to a degree, on social structures and restraints designed to reprimand or discourage behaviour that doesn’t line up with this moral ideal.

If that’s not good enough for you – if that’s not an admirable system of ethics, which commendably aims to promote happiness and harmony and well-being and to nurture the best parts of us and bring out our optimal glorious humanity – then what do you think morality means?

I hope we’re not back to the tedium of “just do what God says” again. Surely we’re above that by now.

No matter how much we try to explain the basic concept of humanism, it’s still sometimes asserted that we have no “basis” for morality; that there’s no fundamental ethical bedrock giving meaning to our morals, in the way that religious people have God to define good and evil.

This is widely believed, even in the absence of any reliable trend toward more moral behaviour by the religious. Atheists are a tiny fraction of a minority of the prison population, and some acts – honour killings, for instance – are driven by religious motivation, but are deemed morally repugnant despite the religious basis that condones them. Theists and atheists alike are often quite capable of telling right from wrong, regardless of what they think about God’s opinions. (Also genocide.)

But it’s apparently vital that atheists come up with a way to provide an absolutely cast-iron guarantee that anybody who doesn’t believe in God will always act without the slightest hint of selfishness or cruelty. Any time they can highlight an atheist doing something immoral, it becomes a demand that we infallibly ensure that we never cross the line of moral dubiousness ever again. The mindset keeping the ungodly on the straight and narrow is expected to be completely impermeable, and 100% successful at all times, or else it’s deemed a dismal failure proving the whole concept of godless ethics to be impossible.

The people making such claims, of course, show absolutely no interest in concocting a similar system for their fellow believers. Religious folk “sin” all the time, because we’re human and fallible, and no abstract belief system is ever going to be able to exert a total, unbreakable hold over your behaviour.

But at least they still have a solid “basis” for their morality, in a way that’s totally different from how atheists behave, and obviously superior, because… umm…

It’s not. People do good when they care about other people, and when they’re not strongly incentivised to act selfishly in a way that’s harmful. In some people, religious beliefs help nudge them toward compassion; in others, quite the opposite. At best, belief in God is unnecessary for any kind of moral behaviour.

I just want people to care about each other and be kind. The idea that atheists have any loftier expectations to meet than that, to simply be taken seriously as moral beings, is misguided and deeply biased.

And if you’ve got a system of ethics which you think reliably produces more good in the world than “care about each other and be kind”, I’d love to hear it.

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Here’s something I got told this week:

I fear your embrace of compassion is fleeting and ungrounded.

This was a pertinent comment in the context of a discussion about morality and religion, not just a weird, out-of-the-blue attack. The surrounding discussion was about God’s involvement in questions of moral behaviour, and what constitutes “good”.

In particular, it was being questioned how atheists can have any motivation to do good things, and proposed that, even if I seem to hold compassion for other people as a value for now, it’s a shaky and unreliable kind of morality if it’s not grounded in something.

Like belief in God, somehow.

No, I’m as confused as you are.

If you’re after a cast-iron, completely unmalleable, 100% guarantee that I am absolutely never going to have a change of heart that sends me on a rampage of cruelty and violence, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. But what bizarre inhuman logic makes you think religion allows anyone to make such a claim?

The idea that people who believe in a god, and believe that this god wants them to behave in a particular way, are people who can be unerringly relied upon to follow this god’s edicts to the letter, never letting let this semblance of moral behaviour waver for a moment, is simply not borne out by even a cursory glance at the history of the planet.

People who read the Bible and take it seriously also kill, steal, lie, covet, and adulter…ise? Adulterate? They do some adultery, whatever the word is for that. They know they shouldn’t, and they know it’s not what God wants, but it happens all the time. Otherwise asking forgiveness wouldn’t ever be necessary within Christianity, let alone one of its central foundations.

Sometimes religious people do these bad things because they’re twisting the teachings of their holy book to suit their own ends. Sometimes they’re just human, and fallible, and not always completely frightened into compliance by any given set of divine instructions.

And other times, people do adhere perfectly to their understanding of how God wants them to behave – but this behaviour is harmful and damaging and cruel to their fellow humans, and completely detached from anything a reasonable person with a shred of basic humanism or decency would recognise as “moral”.

My morality might not be absolute, but it’s based on compassion and a desire to do good for other people; a genuine consideration for conscious creatures and their well-being. Looking at the comparative rates at which religious and non-religious people do bad things, I don’t see any reason to suppose that “grounding” your morality in obedience to God is in any way superior to letting compassion and love themselves be the fundamental, grounding factors.

I’d be much more comfortable around someone who feels compelled to do good for its own sake, than someone whose entire concept of right and wrong is dictated to them by some external force – particularly an external force which they themselves proudly assert is beyond human understanding.

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I’d like you to imagine two hypothetical scenarios.

In the first, a child is suffering. He’s in an extremely disadvantaged part of the third world. He’s six years old, and has depended on his mother all his life for food and nurturing and basic care. She’s now dead of malaria. He’s lost, and tired, and the hunger that’s accompanied him all his life is gnawing at him stronger than ever and there’s nobody to look after him.

In addition, God exists.

That’s scenario the first, okay? Don’t worry about the implications of that last bit, or think anything through in too much detail. A child is starving, as many children truly are, and also there is a god. The Christian one if you prefer, but whatever. Okay? Keep that hypothetical in mind.

Now imagine the same child, same suffering, same anguish and confusion and despair. Another human being in the same desperately miserable situation as described a few moments ago, in the same cruel, uncaring world.

And there is no god.

That’s the second scenario.

Now, you might have an idea as to which of these two pictures paints a bleaker view. That’s an interesting discussion – is it worse knowing there’s no-one to turn to for help, or seeing the one you could turn to allowing this to happen? – but not for today.

Here’s my question: When imagining the plight of the kid in each scenario described above, did you find yourself only giving a shit about one of them?

Did you feel saddened and motivated to help one of the children described above, and feel a strong compassion for him and desire to act morally by him – and find that the other just left you cold and unbothered, with no particular incentive to do anything about it?

Do you, in other words, only care about suffering and want to alleviate it if God exists? Is your compassion for other humans contingent on an all-powerful third party? Does the truth of one particular religion or another have any bearing on whether the plight of such a child sickens you and makes you determined to change it?

I expect your answer is no.

If I’m right, congratulations: you now understand how atheists can have morals.

But if I’m wrong… then, well, you have an odd system of deciding what is and isn’t a moral outrage, and I entirely fail to understand your process of thought.

I’d love to know what it is you’re using to decide whether or not a suffering child is “a bad thing”. For me, and many others, it’s pretty straight-forward, and can be judged largely in isolation. Whether or not we believe in God doesn’t really come into it. We just witness suffering and are moved by it. We want children not to be starving to death, scared and alone in a harsh world. Saving innocents from that fate is a sufficient end in itself.

God might be important to you, but I’m not sure why his opinion is the only one you care about when there are kids suffering and dying right in front of you.

You really are allowed to just love people and care what happens to them, you know. Even if there is no god and no afterlife and it’s all finite and bounded and there’s no ultimate arbiter to reward or punish you for getting it right or wrong.

It’s a pretty feeble kind of love that isn’t worth your effort any more without those conditions.

Yes, I’ve been finding theists to chat with on Twitter again. Some of them continue to baffle me.

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See, the thing is, religion isn’t all bad.

*FIRST PARAGRAPH CONTROVERSY KLAXON*

It’s not, though. But it’s still a long, long way from the best we can do.

The Skeptics with a K framed some ideas interestingly in a recent episode of the podcast. They were talking about the classically bullshit-ridden debate over whether religion or atheism has directly caused more historical death and suffering, and which is therefore “worse”.

The first thing to remember is that this is entirely disconnected from the question of whether God exists, or whether any religious ideas are reasonable to believe based on the available evidence.

But, even while there have certainly been religiously motivated murders numbering well into the millions, and also genocidal regimes led by atheists, I’m increasingly of the view that there’s nothing useful to be gained by trying to determine any sort of comparative body count.

As I think Mike pointed out on the show, the idea of atheism being responsible for murder seems ridiculous on its face; there’s no way to logically get from “there is no god” to “I should kill a bunch of people”, without adding a load of unrelated shit in the middle.

But then, theism doesn’t directly result in or endorse killing anyone either. There’s no more a logical way to get from “there is a god” to “I should kill a bunch of people”, without also adding a load of unrelated shit in the middle.

Unfortunately, adding a load of unrelated shit in the middle is precisely what religion tends to do. Hence “I believe in God” leads, blunderingly and meanderingly and by way of numerous distortions and corruptions, to the Crusades, the lynching of homosexuals, and all the rest.

And on the flipside, you have religious charities, and the unavoidable fact that belief in God, however mistaken, often engenders a kindness and desire to do good works in people of faith.

Atheists are always quick to point out various things when this is brought up – that historic religious institutions are in a much stronger position to provide infrastructure and funding for charitable organisation, that organised atheism hasn’t had centuries to establish a similar community that can embark on charitable projects, the name of the biggest lending community on Kiva, and so forth – all of which is quite correct. The idea we’re rushing to counter, in these cases, is the common claim that believing in God makes you a more compassionate, more generous, better person, than being an atheist. We’ve been told often enough that we all have no reason to be moral, and so that’s the bullshit we most easily react against.

But there are other things to be taken from the observed association between religion and charity. It’s not a condemnation of atheism to note that some forms of religion, as a system, are pretty good at arranging, organising, and motivating people to do good things, behave kindly and compassionately, and strive to alleviate suffering.

It’s also pretty good at helping people justify and rationalise the most grossly inhumane atrocities of which humanity is capable.

So it’s a mixed bag. Racist genocide and feeding the hungry are two things people are entirely capable of, with or without religion – but which religion often exacerbates and supports.

So, can’t we have one without the other?

It’s not that hard to conceive of a better system, which does more of the good things, and less of the bad. We could identify the parts of religion (or any other system) that are beneficial, separate out the ones that are harmful, and organise ourselves in a way that promotes and encourages charity without also helping people rationalise and justify tyranny and cruelty.

It should be possible. It doesn’t seem likely that, if you want everyone to be better at sheltering the homeless and not passing by on the other side when someone’s in need, you have no choice but to accept the corresponding tendency to lead armies against anyone else who’s basically trying to do the same thing as you but gives it a different name. We can surely have compassion without religiously inspired evil.

Atheism isn’t this system. (Though I suspect, and urge, that many people acting this way would be atheists.) Humanism might be it, or at least might be a few steps down the right path. It doesn’t need to be any more formal than that, nothing with an official hierarchy and rules and whatnot. Just a set of ideas, picked and chosen to help us do the best we can.

Skepticism and critical thinking are also positive things, and any belief systems we have in place should encourage and nurture these things. Religion often tends to be hostile to genuinely honest and open questioning of ideas – not always, but it throws up some serious roadblocks. So let’s see if we can’t do better.

The claim that religion is never any good for anything doesn’t hold up, but atheists shouldn’t feel they’re conceding anything important by abandoning it. Many people cling to their faith as a source of comfort and reassurance, in times of difficulty and pain. It does them some good, in a situation where simply removing it and replacing it with non-belief would not be better for them.

What’s important, though, is that religion is not the best we can do. Not by a long way. The comfort it provides comes only at the expense of a rational approach to the real world. It lets you feel better, but only by believing false things.

Can we improve on that? Can we come up with an approach which helps and supports and comforts people, and allows us to help and support and comfort each other, while remaining grounded in the real world, letting both compassion and rationality drive what we believe?

Christ, I hope so.

It’s unhelpful to focus too fixedly on whether “religion” or “atheism” is responsible for any of history’s great mass slaughters, because nothing’s that simple. But there are things to be learned about different approaches one can take to the world, and what kind of institutionalised behaviour these approaches tend to engender. Authoritarianism and inflexible thinking are strongly connected with cruelty and tyranny, and religion is by no means the best way we have of avoiding authoritarianism and inflexible thinking.

The demonstrable falseness of religious claims is ample reason to reject them; the regularity with which bigotry, hatred, and aggression are backed up by religious motivation should be ample to strongly compel us toward a more optimal system of organising ourselves to do good things.

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