Morality without deities

Everyone believes they have rights. But individual rights crumble without universal human rights.

Near Phoenix, Arizona. © Dave DuBay

The universe, or nature if you prefer, seems indifferent to me.

Species evolve then die out. And things go on.

An animal eats another animal alive, at great suffering to one and benefit to the other.

Millions of human beings have lived and died but today are completely forgotten as if they never lived.

Yet, human beings evolved a set of behaviors that enhance the survival of individuals who depend in part on the group to survive.

Those who did not play well with others in the evolutionary environment found themselves ostracized — and perhaps unable to survive without the group. And the group killed some for being a threat to other people’s survival.

Our innate moral sensibilities, in order of importance, are:

  1. You shouldn’t do that to me.
  2. You shouldn’t do that to people I care about.
  3. I shouldn’t do that to you if others will hold me accountable.

We’re first and foremost concerned about what happens to us, and how we treat others is often an afterthought — especially if we think there won’t be any consequences.

This sounds cynical and selfish. But everyone is self-interested. Those who deny this are the most dangerous of all because they fail to see their selfishness until it’s too late.

But just because selfishness is part of our evolutionary inheritance does not mean things ought to be this way. The fact that we can do better challenges excuses for acting selfishly.

Further, morality isn’t just a matter of personal preference. It’s true that no man is an island — even a hermit needs other people to survive.

An important aspect of morality, then, consists of standards generally accepted by a group for continued membership in that group.

And the recognition that we are incorrigibly egotistical is necessary to see the larger group picture.

That’s why various iterations of the Golden Rule — from the Far East to the West — tell us to treat others the way we want to be treated.

It’s a moral ideal precisely because it runs counter to our impulses.

The problem, however, is that a group might oppress a minority or an out-group without negative consequences. Tribalism is also an evolved feature of human behavior, and it has serious consequences for our treatment of foreigners, minorities, and so on.

On what basis can say this is wrong?

If our primary moral sensibility is that “you shouldn’t do this to me” then the rights of the individual are the basis for all human rights.

To put it selfishly, if you don’t support human rights for others then you have no reason to expect others to support your human rights.

Moreso, culture is the mechanism for promoting ideals such as universal human rights.

If limiting ourselves to our biological inheritance were sufficient then we’d still be living in caves. But we are capable of creating technology that improves our lives and reduces the capricious effects of nature.

Likewise for culture extending moral ideals beyond our selfish impulses.

Still, we cannot completely eliminate tribalism. But we know we’re failing when we point a finger at others.

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Abortion & the limits of personhood

Personhood is an abstract concept. Most people’s concerns are mundane.

© Dave DuBay

The National Review ran a thought provoking article about abortion and the limits of the personhood argument.

In a nutshell, pro-choice advocates typically say a fetus is not a person while pro-life advocates say a fetus is a person.

The assumption is that personhood equals rights, and this is central for the right to choose or the right to life.

Philosophy professor Berny Belvedere summarizes the arguments of Judith Jarvis Thomson and Don Marquis, siding with the latter. Thomson argues that abortion is morally permissible even if a fetus is a person while Marquis argues abortion is immoral even if a fetus is not a person.

Thomson seems to view a fetus as a foreign imposition on a woman’s body, so even if a fetus is a person abortion still could be justified as a type of self-defense.

Marquis argues that killing in general is wrong because it robs someone of their future. This future is actual, not potential, because the future will unfurl unless someone intervenes. Fetuses, even if they’re not persons, also have futures. Therefore, abortion is no different from murder.

Belvedere addresses some objections to Marquis’ argument. Is killing a bug wrong? No, because qualitatively a bug doesn’t have a future in the same sense as a human being. Is euthanasia wrong? Belvedere concedes it is not (within this framework, at least) because the dying person has no future.

This is rather abstract, and I think it helps to bring it down to concrete cases:

  • What about rape or incest? Thomson’s view that a fetus is a foreign imposition seems strong here. Marquis’ position is less tenable. An abortion robs the fetus of its future. But disallowing an abortion robs the rape victim of her future (even though she’s still alive).
  • What about the mother’s life being in danger? Avoiding the truncation of someone’s future is impossible here, so who decides if the fetus’s future takes precedence—the woman or the government
  • What if the mother isn’t financially or emotionally ready for motherhood? The argument that she’ll still have a future—but it will be greatly altered—applies here too (though it’s weaker).
  • What if there are no extenuating circumstances, the mother is entirely capable of motherhood, but just doesn’t feel like having a baby? The fetus as a foreign imposition could still be used, though it may sound callous or selfish. And because an abortion would clearly diminish the fetus’s future more than the woman’s future, Marquis’ argument seems to be stronger.

But the personhood debate is unlikely to settle the abortion debate. What is personhood? How do we define it? Can we achieve consensus on this definition? What about those who fail to meet that definition or lose personhood status?

I’m pro-choice because ultimately I think our most intimate choices belong to us and not to the government.

Rights are things that belong to us—our opinions, speech, religion (or lack thereof), our bodies, our property, etc.—and government serves two primary roles regarding this.

First, our rights limit government. Our rights tell government what it can’t do. For example, the Bill of Rights says things like, “Congress shall make no law…”

Second, government must protect our rights against those who refuse to recognize other people’s equal rights. That’s why the government can lock you up for stealing other people’s stuff.

But what do we do when alleged rights conflict?

Obamacare mandates that insurance cover birth control for women (but not men), and that employers buy insurance for their employees.

Religious business owners, however, say forcing them to provide birth control coverage violates their religious rights.

Many women, on the other hand, say they have a right to birth control.

Women’s right to use birth control is not being attacked, however. The question is who pays for it. But there’s no right to have someone buy something for you.

But if your religion prohibits you from getting mixed up with birth control then you have the right not to be forced into an action you disagree with.

While conservatives will likely agree with me on problems of the birth control mandate—and progressives will likely become irate—the same framework leads me to conclude that abortion is a woman’s choice because the government cannot compel her to act in a way that is not of her choosing.

A final aside. What if scientists invent an artificial womb and can extract a fetus in a manner no more invasive that an abortion? Safe haven laws already allow women (but not men) to walk away from parenthood with no legal or financial repercussions.

In such a case, could a woman end her pregnancy but have no legal right to say whether the fetus will be destroyed or implanted in an artificial womb? My answer is that the woman would have no more right than the doctor to decide the fetus’s fate.

Nietzsche vs Stoicism

Stoics talk a lot about living according to nature. But what exactly does that mean?

In Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche calls the Stoic phrase “according to nature” a fraud of words.

He writes that living according to nature and living according to life are the same thing. And he rhetorically asks, “how could you do differently?”

It’s a good question. Human beings are products of nature. Evolution produced the human brain, which is the basis for human behavior. So human behavior follows the laws of nature just as rocks follow gravity.

Saying human behavior is natural doesn’t mean it’s good or bad. Bad things are a product of nature just as much as good things are.

When someone says something isn’t natural—take cannibalism for example—they really mean that’s it’s morally wrong.

But that’s the naturalistic fallacy—incorrectly assuming that whatever is natural must be good. Nietzsche claims Stoicism falls into the naturalistic fallacy.

Further, he says Stoics wish to dictate their morals and ideals to nature. That is, Stoics are creating the world in their own image, which is not only arrogant but self-tyranny.

This self-tyranny is found in the Stoic call to regard anything that neither contributes to nor detracts from virtue as a preferred or dispreferred indifferent.

Nietzsche writes that to live is to resist indifference. Living is “valuing, preferring, being unjust, being limited, endeavouring to be different.” He says Stoics imagine that indifference is power, but he doubts anyone can truly live in accordance with indifference.

I’ve described my philosophy as having many features of Stoicism—particularly acknowledging that I have no control over (but sometimes can influence) external events.

But referencing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I disagree that being a good person is sufficient for human flourishing. Needs such as food, water, shelter, and safety are also essential for happiness.

That is, I find Stoic talk about preferred and dispreferred indifferents to be unrealistic for most people (myself included).

A lost receipt, and loss of perspective

Sedona, Arizona

There was a missing receipt at work, and administration was frantically looking for it. At first I insisted I didn’t have it. But it turns out I had misplaced it. The receipt was on my desk—in the wrong pile—the whole time. Once I found it I turned it in and apologized.

But I felt embarrassed and feared that my coworkers would think I’m untrustworthy. Really this is a fear of social rejection. And the thought of rejection causes muscle tension and a faster heart beat.

At its worst, contemplating thoughts of social rejection can spiral to overgrown scenarios of conflict with others and an unmet need for approval.

Staying outwardly calm is the stereotypical stoic response. But it’s not a philosophically Stoic response—just like painting a rotting piece of wood covers the problem but doesn’t repair it.

How could I have handled this better? First there’s the acknowledgement that I have no control over the past. I can’t un-misplace the receipt, and I can’t un-speak my denial that I had it. Turning the receipt in did mean possible judgment from my coworkers (though this didn’t happen), but I have no control over their judgments.

Knowing I did the right thing by turning it in and apologizing should be sufficient for my peace of mind. The only things left are making a plan to keep better track of my receipts in the future, and reflecting on my spiraling thought process as the source of my distress.

Dreaming of handguns

The other night I dreamt I was in an office. There was a locked glass door, and if someone buzzed to get in I could push a button that would open the door.

I heard it buzz, but no one was at the door. Instead a cart that looked something like a rectangular skateboard was rolling toward the door. The cart had a box on it. This seemed odd to me.

I thought maybe I shouldn’t open the door. But whoever set the cart in motion wanted the cart in the office, and I didn’t want to disappoint that person.

So I opened the door. I took the lid off the box that was on the cart. Inside was a handgun. I knew that in the office there was another box that had several guns in it, so I picked up the handgun and put it with the other guns.

I decided it was no big deal. But then the police arrived looking for a man who just killed someone. I realized that the gun must be the murder weapon, and now my prints were on it because I touched it.

Book review: How to Be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci

Sedona, Arizona

If you’re interested in the philosophy of Stoicism, Massimo Pigliucci’s How to Be a Stoic is the place to start. Don’t let the fact that it’s philosophy stop you – Pigliucci’s conversational, straightforward writing style makes Stoicism easily accessible.

Donald Robertson’s Stoicism and the Art of Happiness is also a good introduction. But while Robertson is more detailed on the the finer points of Stoicism, Pigliucci focuses on general concepts.

If you like what you read from Pigliucci then read Robertson next. The reason I put William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy third is that Irvine modifies Stoicism somewhat – and being a philosophy rather than a religion you can do that. But to understand Irvine’s perspective it helps first to have a good understanding of Stoicism.

And if you’re still with us after these books then it’s time to delve directly into Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and other classical writers.

But back to Pigliucci. He describes Stoicism as a philosophy that

is not about suppressing or hiding emotions – rather, it is about acknowledging our emotions, reflecting on what causes them, and redirecting them for our own good. It is about keeping in mind what is and what is not under our control, focusing our efforts on the former and not wasting them on the latter. It is about practicing virtue and excellence and navigating the world to the best of our abilities, while being mindful of the moral dimension of all our actions.

Throughout the book Pigliucci uses anecdotes to illustrate Stoic ideas. He lucidly explains Epictetus’s Enchiridion and Discourses, often framing it as a conversation between Epictetus and himself. But Pigliucci never overdoes it. The effect makes Stoicism feel more like a way of life than abstract musings.

For example, at one point Pigliucci paraphrases Epictetus as saying to him, “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.”

Pigliucci saves the best for last. Chapter fourteen, “Practical Spiritual Exercises,” provides the reader with twelve actions we can undertake daily so we can actually practice Stoicism rather than just read about it.

But before he details these twelve actions he provides a succinct summary of Stoic philosophy (pages 204 and 205):

  • “Virtue is the highest good, and everything else is indifferent” because “nothing is to be traded against virtue.”
  • “Follow nature. That is, apply reason to social life.”
  • “Dichotomy of control. Some things are under our control, and others are not (though we may be able to influence them).”

And the four cardinal virtues of Stoicism:

  • “(Practical) wisdom: Navigating complex situations in the best available fashion.”
  • “Courage: Doing the right thing, both physically and morally, under all circumstances.”
  • “Justice: Treating every human being – regardless of his or her stature in life – with fairness and kindness.”
  • “Temperance: Exercising moderation and self-control in all spheres of life.”

Postmodernism and religious fundamentalism have similar roots

Sedona, Arizona

Religious fundamentalists and postmodernists may have very different political views, but philosophically they are cousins. Both have roots in the Counter-Enlightenment. Both say that factual truth claims are based not on scientific objectivity, but feelings, intuition, experience – and for fundamentalists, revelation.

In Explaining Postmodernism, Stephen R. C. Hicks goes back to the Enlightenment to expose postmodernism’s roots.

As he explains it, the medieval worldview was supernatural, faith based, collectivist, feudal, and believed in God’s will and original sin.

In contrast, modernism is naturalistic, individualistic, based on autonomy, values objectivity over faith, and lead to capitalism, democracy, and human rights.

Postmodernism, however, rejects scientific objectivity in favor of subjectivism, sees most things as social constructions, is collectivist, and socialist.

The Counter-Enlightenment

Christianity felt threatened when Enlightenment thinkers such as Francis Bacon, John Locke, and others promoted reason and scientific objectivity. How could the belief that there is one God who is three persons withstand rational analysis?

Hicks writes that Immanuel Kant sought to defend faith and counter Enlightenment ideas by restricting reason to analysis of one’s internal experiences. That is, reason is incapable of knowing reality itself. There’s an insurmountable barrier between subject (you) and object (the outside world). Other German philosophers took subjectivism all the way, advocating personal feelings over reason.

French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau rejected reason most explicitly. Pining for a mythological past, he thought modern society was pathological and should be replaced. Rousseau was especially protective of religion, rejecting the Enlightenment’s religious tolerance.

Today, fundamentalists often claim that reason cannot answer ultimate questions, and that God’s revelation – the Bible – trumps scientific findings about the origin of the species. In this view, science is as subjective as any personal opinion. Biblical revelation is supreme. And fundamentalists often oppose separation of church and state.

But right-wing Christians reject collectivism, seeing it as a governmental threat to religious liberty. Postmodernists, in contrast, are collectivist and see Christianity, not government, as oppressive. So a split happened somewhere along the way.

The leap to postmodernism

While postmodernists see science as one subjective opinion among many, they reject traditional religious claims as oppressive. But socialism originally claimed to be a scientific endeavor. What happened to that?

Hicks says that right-wing collectivism collapsed with the defeat of National Socialism – the Nazis – in World War II, leaving left-wing and atheistic Marxist socialism as the dominant collectivist ideology.

And by the 1950s mathematical rigor in economics had shown capitalism to be a superior system that increased wealth for both rich and poor, while socialism would fail in the long run. In the 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and liberal economic reforms in China, history proved socialism’s failure.

This left socialists with two choices: abandon socialism and embrace capitalism, or abandon science and reason in favor of subjectivism. So the far left rejected the Enlightenment just as the religious right had done centuries before.

Further, in the early twentieth century the Frankfurt School in Germany expanded Marxist thought beyond economics and into sociology and psychology. Herbert Marcuse popularized this in American universities. Class conflict became conflict between various identity groups.

More recently, intersectionality – a matrix of oppression based on membership in multiple oppressed groups – has amplified identity politics. Identity politics, however, is not just a left-wing phenomenon. Christians, whites, and men have also joined the game.

Postmodernism contradictions

Hicks notes postmodern contradictions and provides a compelling explanation:

  • Postmodernists say truth is relative, but insist that they tell it like it really is.
  • Postmodernists say all cultures deserve equal respect, but that Western civilization is uniquely destructive.
  • Postmodernists promote tolerance but are intolerant of anyone who violates their speech codes (political correctness).
  • Postmodernists say the West is uniquely racist and sexist, yet it’s the West that first championed human rights, identified and addressed ethnocentrism, abolished slavery, and promoted women’s equality.
  • Postmodernists say capitalism is inherently oppressive to the poor, yet the poor in Western countries are much better off than the poor in other countries.

Hicks provides a detailed explanation showing that at its core, postmodernism is absolutist and totalitarian. Relativism and subjectivism are merely rhetorical tools for arguing against Enlightenment values without having to provide real intellectual substance.

Political implications

While right-wing Christians are an older demographic, and their political power is likely to wane in the coming decades, Islamic fundamentalism shows no signs of slowing down. Islamists believe the West – with its Enlightenment values – is a to threat their culture. And they’re willing to kill to stop the spread of Enlightenment values.

In contrast, the postmodernists are far less violent. Their agenda is to invert Western society’s hierarchy. Status is derived from belonging to multiple oppressed groups. And oppressed groups are held to lower standards than dominant groups are.  For example, white people shouldn’t sell burritos, but it’s racist to similarly segregate minorities. And some have called for the abolition of men as a social category (as if men are not a biological reality), but to call for the abolition of women would be misogyny.

Hicks references Nietzsche’s description of weakling morality to describe the postmodern approach. People who cannot confront those who are more powerful feel frustrated and envious. They rationalize their hate by telling themselves they are morally superior because they are oppressed.

But what about those who are too smart to really believe that? They seek to passive-aggressively undermine Enlightenment values. Rhetorical techniques of relativism and subjectivism can cause a society to lose faith in itself. Hicks illustrates this with direct quotes from postmodernists such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Kate Ellis.

Islamic terrorists likewise desire the destruction of Enlightenment values – but with violence. It’s no surprise, then, that postmoderns are often willing to defend terrorists.

What the future will bring is hard to say. Postmodernism might collapse as groups competing for the status of more oppressed than thou turn on each other. Or, considering the recent rise in postmodernists’ violence on college campuses, postmodernism could surge ahead and feel more empowered to use violence.