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.

What’s my philosophy?

I’ve written quite a bit about Stoicism over the past year. And I’ve been asking myself, What do I believe?

The short of it is:

  • Ethics: Stoic with some modifications
  • Physics: Materialism
  • Logic: Empiricism

Ethics

I agree with the value Stoicism places on ethics and reason. And that centers on the idea that the only things I really control are my chosen values, goals, and my deliberate thoughts and actions. Nothing else is up to me, and I must accept this fact.

Related to this is knowing what belongs to me and what does not belong to me. And not touching what’s not mine while guarding what is mine.

But I’m not a Sage. Stoics say the mythical Sage only needs virtue to flourish—and no one has ever achieved Sage status.

While I agree that being a good person is necessary for human flourishing (eudaimonia), for me it’s not sufficient. I need basics such as food, shelter, and safety to flourish. Abraham Maslow’s research on the hierarchy of needs lends support to this view.

Physics

In ancient times physics was philosophy about the nature of the universe. Many of these pre-scientific ideas were about the gods—what we call metaphysics today.

Ancient Stoics were pantheistic. They believed that the material universe is all that exists, and the universe is God. Ancient Stoics also believed in divine providence. Based on this Marcus Aurelius concluded that everything that happens is just. But like many modern Stoics I don’t agree with this. As I noted in a previous post, “If everything is just then injustice doesn’t exist. Just like if everything were yellow then red wouldn’t exist.”

In contrast, Epicureans (who were Stoics rivals) believed in an atomistic universe. And though ancient Epicureans didn’t explicitly deny that gods existed, they did claim that the gods have little to do with the universe—a type of deism, or de facto atheism. This enabled Epicureans to take the problem of evil seriously.

With the advent of modern science, however, ancient speculations about physics and gods are moot. We can’t prove that gods don’t exist, but we don’t need gods to understand how the natural world works.

I don’t think gods exist. And I think the universe is impersonal. There’s luck—good and bad—but no providence.

Logic

How do we know what we know? Ancient Sceptics said we can’t really know anything. But most ancient Greek philosophers thought we can know things by thinking it through, or rationalism.

But eighteenth century philosopher David Hume disagreed. He said reason is often self-serving. Besides, if you start with a false premise then even perfect logic won’t get you to the right conclusion.

In a recent post I summarized the findings of psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who said David Hume was right. Hume’s empiricism is a model for modern science. We must use our sensory perceptions to test theories, and then draw a logical conclusion. Certainty is proportional to evidence.

Eye in the Sky: A Not Really Movie Review

Eye in the Sky stars Helen Mirren and that guy from Breaking Bad (the kid, not the old guy). And Alan Rickman is in it too, which made me feel sad because of his recent death.

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The premis (no spoilers!) is that British and American forces want to bomb a house in Somalia with four notorious terrorists whom they know are about to suicide bomb a crowded marketplace. But there’s a little girl selling bread next to the house, and she’ll be killed if they bomb the house. If they don’t bomb the house, however, then more people (including children) will die when the terrorists strike.

It’s a heartbreaking dilemma. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. It reminds me of the trolley problem, which philosopher Philippa Foot first proposed in the 1960s. It concerns a long-standing debate about ethics. Utilitarians argue for the greatest good for the greatest number. But what if enslaving a small minority benefits the majority? Is that okay? Deontologists argue that the rules are the rules. Slavery is wrong, so it doesn’t matter if more people will benefit. Lying is wrong too. But what if the Nazis show up and ask if you’re hiding Jews in your attic? If the rules say you can’t lie then do you tell the truth?

The trolley problem asks you to imagine that a trolley is about to go off the tracks and kill five people. What if pushing a fat man onto the tracks will stop the trolley and save five lives? One man dies to save five – that’s the greatest good for the greatest number. But the rules say killing is wrong.

Foot was less concerned about what people chose than why they chose one or the other. It turns out that most people would not push the fat man onto the tracks. Actively killing one person feels worse than passively doing nothing, even if five people die. That ethics is primarily based on emotion with reasoning being more like a post hoc justification is one key finding. And that people are motivated to avoid taking responsibility for a situation is also important.

But the trolley problem is kinda silly. No one can really imagine being in that situation. The fat man’s body probably won’t stop the trolley. And you could just yell at the bystanders, “Hey, you morons, get away from the goddamn tracks!”

Eye in the Sky turns the trolley problem into a plausible, real world dilemma that anyone could imagine being in. Do they bomb the terrorist’s house knowing the girl will die? Or do they save the girl knowing that the terrorists will kill even more people? You’ll have to watch the movie to see what they decide.

Religion, Secularism, & Atrocity

Religious atrocities are central to the atheist critique of religion. Christians often respond with a litany of atheist atrocities such as mass murder by communist regimes. 

Even when religion or anti-religiousness is directly to blame, we must ask: What does this prove? That one is better than the other? If both sides are guilty of atrocities, it would seem that we need to dig deeper than the veneer of belief systems. 

Criticism is the life breath of reason. When religious and political regimes commit atrocities, it is not because they are inherently evil, but because they too easily become evil when they refuse to permit criticism.

Taking it a step further, all ideologies need to seek out criticism. But communism and religion typically fail to do this.

It is politically correct to declare religion (especially Islam) innocent of any culpability for atrocities committed in God’s name. An unasked question, however, is this: If religion is not responsible for evil committed in its name, then is religion also not responsible for good committed in its name?

For example, one controversial theory claims that slavery was really abolished because it is incompatible with modern industrial capitalism, but religious sentiments served as a good marketing strategy for abolitionism because economic self-interest was too crude a reason. 

But wouldn’t capitalists love free labor? There are key reasons why they wouldn’t. For one, capitalism is based on incentive and self-interest. If you work hard, you’ll earn more money. A slave, however, will still earn nothing regardless of how hard she toils. But slaves do have an incentive for passive resistance, such as “accidentally” breaking tools, not bothering to think of ways to improve efficiency, and pretending to be stupid. Further, education is important in a modern capitalist society, but slave education was prohibited because knowledge is power.

Yet, it doesn’t seem plausible that the moral and religious sentiments of abolitionists (some of whom were also critics of capitalism) were less than sincere. The point is that religion is intertwined with politics and economics. Put another way, religion is not mutually exclusive from other social institutions. 

It’s not a matter of religion or politics. Instead, it’s the combination of religion, politics, economics, culture, and so on. Likewise, communist atrocities involved politics and economics, but atheism was in the mix too.

Further, the dividing line between secular and religious atrocities is not always clear cut. Nazism featured a confluence of two disturbing ideologies, one secular and one religious. Social Darwinism justified racism as survival of the fittest, and this created a new rationale for anti-Semitism, which the Nazis borrowed directly from Christianity. Hitler (a lapsed Catholic) was quick to sign a concordant with the Vatican upon taking power in Germany. And the Vatican, unlike its unrelenting criticism of communism, remained silent on fascism until after World War II.

Religion didn’t invent violence, and neither did atheism, although at times both have encouraged it. Only studying what promotes peace, and understanding what creates violence, will enable us to find ways of stopping atrocity. But simplistically blaming religion or atheism for the world’s problems is unlikely to get us anywhere.

The Dangers of Moralizing

Human beings are moral creatures. Whether you believe God made us that way, or that evolution favored people who worked well with others, doing what’s right matters to everyone. (Well, maybe not to psychopaths.)

For millennia, morality has been a religious monopoly, but today millions of atheists show that you can be good without God. Secular morality (such as the wrongness of homophobia) is overtaking religious morality (such as the wrongness of homosexuality). And that’s a good thing.

But not all moralizing is the same. Some moralizing is an abstract investigation of general principles, or ethics. Some moralizing is self-critical – striving to be a better person, or character. And some moralizing is accusatory, pointing a finger at others and demanding better behavior. Which is to say, self-righteousness.

I grew up in a very religious, Catholic family. In 8th and 9th grade I attended a Christian school run by the Pentecostal, evangelical Assembly of God church. I need not detail the characteristics of right-wing preachers. But I see liberals railing against right-wing evangelicals without pausing to consider why their reaction is so visceral. Yet, a casual glance at Twitter’s left-wing Puritans solves that mystery.

Another example is that the judge who released a court transcript where Bill Cosby admitted giving women Quaaludes for sexual reasons (that is, rape according to two dozen women) said he did so because of the “stark contrast” of Cosby the public moralizer who has behaved in an “improper (and perhaps criminal)” manner.

Which reminds me of the Bible verse where Jesus says “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” A priest once told me that Jesus wasn’t saying don’t judge. Rather, he was saying you’ll be held to the same standard, so be careful of the judgments you make.

I’ve heard it said, “When you point a finger you’ve got three fingers pointing back at you.” (Point your index finger then look at your middle, ring, and pinkie fingers.)

The problem with self-righteousness is that it’s often a cover-up for bad behavior. This includes passive-aggressive self-righteousness, where the person doesn’t say, “You are bad,” but rather, “I’m the kind of person who lives by a higher moral standard.” In other words, I’m better than you and you need to be more like me.

As a young social worker in the late 1990s I worked at a residence for people living with AIDS, some of whom were recovering heroin addicts. One resident (I’ll call her “Jane”) had become particularly vocal about the importance of recovery, and how most of the people at Narcotics Anonymous were lying about their sobriety. It got to the point where she began targeting a certain peer.

The residence manager, and de facto substance abuse counselor (and best damn substance abuse counselor I’ve ever known, even if she didn’t have the credentials), told me that Jane had either relapsed or was about to.

I was doubtful. How could someone so passionate about recovery be using? That’s the first sign, she told me. Jane is pointing a finger at others, and she doth protest too much. Sincerity is typically self-focused: the recovering addict talks about fighting her own urge to use.

That lesson stuck with me. As a counselor, she struck a balance between toughness and deep empathy. Such a hard balance! I can be empathetic. And I can be confrontational when need be. But I’ve never been able to be tough and empathetic simultaneously.

This is why I don’t like Dr. Phil. It’s easy to judge him. But it’s true that I don’t like what I see in him because I see it in myself. This is true for all of us, and the people we don’t like.

And that’s the key. If I see something that really riles me about someone else, I need to find where in myself that same fault resides.