22 November 2017

Discussion on morality

My recent post on Roy Moore led to a discussion in the comments with blogger Daniel Wilcox (his own blog is Lightwaveseeker).  I think this is of sufficient interest to merit a post in its own right, so here it is.  Text in blue is his, text in regular black is mine.

o o o o o

Daniel WilcoxStrong points. And you wrote, "What's striking to me is how closely the divide over Moore on the right correlates with the religious/secular divide. The very people who generally exhibit an outright obsession with Christianity's sexual taboos are going all out to defend a man plausibly accused of sexual misbehavior..."

It's even more absurd than that. Because in the past Christian leaders obsessed on Bill Clinton (and others) "sexual misbehavior" BUT all of those ethical choices were with adults.

Even Christian leaders' past defense of Newt Gingrich (who twice committed adultery, once when his wife at the time was dying of cancer!:-( isn't as bad as this current hypocrisy.

This Christian defense of Moore is much more like the Roman Catholic response to priests having sexual relations with young teens. How could anyone defend a Christian leader, a 32 district attorney, who has alleged sexual relations with a 14 year old who had told her mother that he would watch over her?!
(Of course, his legal 'out' is that he didn't go all the way. BUT that was also true of the priests who did sexual actions to the young teens.

So really nothing new here. Christian leaders have been defending fellow Christians who engage in sexual misconduct for many years.

WHAT surprises me is the nearly complete condemnation of Ray Moore's actions by secularists (after you ferret out their hostility to right-wing politics). Heck, in the last couple of years, I've gotten lambasted by secularists for stating that sexual misconduct--even rape!--is really ALWAYS wrong. In contrast, these secular leaders claim that all ethics are "subjective."

Some even claim that various unethical actions are only about subjective "like" or "dislike." According to them, even enslavement, slaughter, rape, etc. are no different than not liking coffee or tea or soda.

We need to promote the view of the Humanist Manifesto III, the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the Enlightenment view of thinkers such as Thomas Paine--
that humans have
"inherent value"
THAT ethics are real and molestation, sexual misconduct, statutory rape and adult rape are ALWAYS wrong.

Infidel753:  For fundamentalists, it seems entirely a matter of whose ox is being gored. Accusations against, say, Bill Clinton or liberal Hollywood figures are automatically true and must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. Accusations against fellow fundamentalists are automatically lies and, even if they're true, whatever they did isn't really all that bad.

Many of the abuse cases involving Catholic priests, by the way, involve boys considerably younger than the teens, and unambiguous use of force.

I would be curious what "secular leaders" have claimed that "enslavement, slaughter, rape, etc. are no different than not liking coffee or tea or soda" (and I mean actually claiming that in clear language, not just saying something that can be remotely interpreted that way). The only people I can recall ever hearing saying such things were Satanists (and those individuals were very much fringe figures even among Satanists).

We have pretty solid evidence now that morality is an evolved instinct in humans -- it's inborn and doesn't require philosophy to support it (I've posted about this a couple of times). That a few individuals are apparently born without morality should be seen as a type of birth defect; that rather more individuals act against morality out of self-interest is no more surprising than the fact that we are capable of defying other instincts for various reasons.

In my own writing I use the word "morality" to mean this real morality, while using the word "taboo" to refer to the random and arbitrary prohibitions imposed by local religions and cultures -- against eating pork, homosexuality, trimming one's beard, speaking certain words, working on certain days of the week, etc.

If secularists are unanimous in condemning Moore, I'd attribute that partly to a good awareness of the distinction between morality and taboo (fervent religionists tend to conflate the taboos of their own religion with moral absolutes), and partly to the fact that most secularists are liberals, or at least not radical right-wingers, and thus have no vested interest in supporting someone like Moore.

Daniel Wilcox:   Infidel753, I'll respond to your thoughtful comment with a list (that way I don't start writing a long article by me in your blog comment box:-) (My wife always emphasizes to me to give her the "short" version.)

#1 I completely agree with your statement, "For fundamentalists, it seems entirely a matter of whose ox is being gored." Look at evangelist Franklin Graham's statements about President Trump's bragging about committing adultery, and "grabbing"...etc.
Graham dismisses that as minor! But then in the same sentence calls Obama and Hilary "godless"! Huh?

#2 As for the priests, all the cases that I read-- a bunch-- dealt with, not little children but older kids, especially 12-13 year olds.

But I am not an authority on this. What url would you recommend which documents the fact that most of the priests' molestation were of young children?

#3 I hesitate even now (for the same reason in my first comment) to give you all the documentation because usually in the past, such discussions end up in legalese and the semantic jungle. Let me think on it some more. And I will need to search my computer files for the various statements by secularists. Bob Seidensticker at crossexamined

#4 I pretty much agree that morality came about through evolution. Heck, so did the human ability to think, reason, and compute, and invent, etc. BUT that doesn't mean that thinking, reasoning, computing, etc. aren't real.

Also, I have difficulty with secularists who claim that morality ONLY came through evolution. First, according to nearly all scientists, (including famous scientists who are theists), evolution as a process isn't "purposeful" in the sense that math is.

Secondly, if there is no basis for ethics inherent within reality or transcending matter and energy, then there is no basis for any version of ethics. Even Richard Dawkins, in several books and interviews, emphasized that he wouldn't want to live in a society based on evolution because evolution is often cruel, wasteful, and so forth. (By the way, Dawkins did appear to agree that even rape isn't really wrong, but is only a subjective view. This occurred in an interview. I'll try and find the shocking interview. Dawkins, of course, is opposed to rape. Though I find his approving of mild molestation by a professor horrific:-( As an educator, besides being a human being, I think that any form of molestation, sexual relations with teens, etc. are ALWAYS WRONG.

#5 As a former anthropology major at university, I am very familiar with concepts such as "taboo." It appears that we agree on this.

#6 Then you wrote, "If secularists are unanimous in condemning Moore, I'd attribute that partly to a good awareness of the distinction between morality..."

BUT that is the shocking part to me, is that so many secularists DON'T think real "morality" exists. I first encountered this incredible view studying Sartre, Nietzsche, and other non-Enlightenment thinkers at university (the U of Neb., and Long Beach State).

One of the individuals I admired back then was a Marxist graduate student who to a very strong stand against injustice, etc.

In contrast, almost weekly I run across secularists now who make the horrific claims that I mentioned.

Infidel753: Daniel, thanks for your response. Just for the record, I want to confirm that for me those kinds of questions (#1) are not just a matter of whose ox is being gored. I don't make excuses for people on "our side" when they are guilty of genuinely heinous things. See for example my obituary for Ted Kennedy.

#2: I haven't kept a lot of links about the Catholic priest molestation cases, but I've read a lot of stories about them over the years, the majority from outside the US. There have certainly been a lot of them involving boys around 8 or so. What age range predominated, I wouldn't know. As one example, this report on a large number of cases in Australia says the average age of victims there was 11. Certainly lots of cases I remember reading about in Europe and the US were younger.

#3: I did look at some of the links in your e-mail that seemed relevant. The people who were claiming that the Holocaust is morally comparable to preferences in trivial things are nuts, in my opinion, but this is the kind of rubbish that a few people generate when they get bogged down in airy philosophical abstractions instead of the pragmatic and concrete. Very few people do that (I certainly have no interest in it), and people that do are not typical of any general group of people, secular or otherwise. Using the same kind of abstract arguments, a person could equally well "prove" that love, hate, fear, etc. are unjustified on some abstract level, but so what? Those feelings are very real and most of the time we know well what causes us to feel them, just like with moral feelings. Most secular people never bother their heads with such meaningless word-games, just as most Christians, Muslims, etc. don't.

#4: By the same token, yes, morality did arise entirely by evolution -- there's nothing else it could have arisen from. And just like "thinking, reasoning, computing, etc.", yes, it is very real and the fact that it arose through evolution does not conflict with that. I can't imagine why it would. All our other instincts, and all the physical details of our bodies, arose through evolution, and they are certainly real.

It also doesn't matter that evolution is not purposeful. Evolution is an inevitable process in pretty much any population of organisms with heritable traits which work the way such traits do in life on Earth. It naturally tends to maximize traits which are conducive to survival under the prevailing conditions. It doesn't need to be purposeful to do that, any more than gravity needs to be purposeful to form stars and planets. (And as I argued here, yes, morality is a trait "conducive to survival under the prevailing conditions".)

Dawkins's point about not wanting to live in a society "based on" evolution reflects a similar observation. As his books emphasize, the process of evolution generates a vast amount of animal suffering. A human society which did nothing to mitigate the struggle for survival of the fittest would do the same. Evolution is a description of what does happen, not what should happen (science doesn't deal with "should" issues in that sense). Evolution is unpleasant and shouldn't be taken as a model to imitate. That doesn't change that fact that it is what happens under natural conditions.

(Fair warning: Dawkins is probably the person I admire most. I have most of his books and have read them cover-to-cover several times.)

#6: My remark about secularists here referred to people like the politicians, bloggers, and members of the public who have condemned Moore's alleged behavior, not the kind of navel-gazing twits you were arguing with.

I think I somewhat misunderstood what you were saying about "secularists say X-Y-Z" because I misjudged the type of debate you were referring to. As I said, I'm interested in the practical and pragmatic. I post about moral issues like "if the Catholic Church is so infested with people who engage in child abuse on a large scale, that means there's something fundamentally malignant about it". I'm not interested in arguing about things like "can we prove child abuse is bad" -- that kind of question reminds me of, as some wag once described it, "arguing about whether it's OK to shout 'theater' when you're in a crowded fire". Most people I deal with, secularist or otherwise, are the same way. Secularists who "don't think morality exists" are "so many" only in a very narrow and non-representative context.

For another example of what I mean by not wanting a society based on evolution, or nature generally, see here. It really doesn't matter to me whether things like illiteracy, ignorance, famine, lack of modern medicine, etc. are "immoral" -- most people would say they aren't, strictly speaking. The point is, they cause suffering and it's in our nature to want to minimize suffering.

Daniel Wilcox:   Thanks for recommending your article on nature! Gets the point across very well.

I'm going to keep that handy for all the people I meet who speak so appreciatively of "Mother Nature."

And you wrote, "Dawkins is probably the person I admire most. I have most of his books and have read them cover-to-cover several times.)"

I've read 8 of his books. What a brilliant biologist and powerful writer! (My BA is in Writing. I wish I had the ability to write such lucid prose on difficult subjects.

Have you read The Ancestor's Tale?
I think that tome on the history of evolution by Dawkins is one of the 5 best science books of the last 50 years.

o o o o o

A couple of other points have occurred to me in connection with this -- I'll post about them later.

[Edit:  Deleted my previous description of Daniel Wilcox as "Christian" after clarification of his views.]


Blogger Jono said...

This gives me some hope that there can be functional compromise made with religious people. These are the kinds of discussions that SHOULD be going on with our political leaders, not just "I am always right and you are always wrong" that I am getting really fed up with. Thanks for posting this discussion.

22 November, 2017 10:20  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Jono: It seems to be the case with some current developments, anyway. There are plenty of Christians on the net who are disgusted and embarrassed at the widespread Evangelical support for people like Trump and Moore, and want to rein in the tendencies it represents. That's of more practical importance than trying to agree on the abstract underpinnings of things, at least for now.

22 November, 2017 18:51  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Daniel Wilcox added a sequence of comments on this post. The first one begins with the following:

Infidel753, Thanks for widening the discussion with your blog post. After receiving more negative feedback on my own sites--both from Atheist and Christian, and seeing President Trump come to Roy Moore's defense, etc.,
Another thought has come to me about all of this disagreement. (If the following is too long for your comment section, maybe just put in the referring url for it, okay?)

Why do so many secularists claim that humans make up ethics, that there is no moral realism. And many Christians claim that God sometimes commands immoral actions, even rape and genocide and slavery, and so forth? For instance, a Christian leader told us Christian youth in 1964 that sometimes God will command us to do what is "immoral'And that we ought to do whatever God commands! Whew...

I think that a lot of this has to do with billions of humans' presuppositions. For example:

Here goes 10 short descriptions of the 10 most common views of Reality; hold on to your virtual hats;-):

The remainder of the series of comments is copied from the text of this post -- since Daniel himself suggested it as another option, I prefer to provide that link for people to follow rather than repost it all here. It's a matter not just of length but of relevance.

22 November, 2017 19:47  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I can probably best explain this by reference to the idea attributed to Buddhism (a religion about which I fully admit I'm not all that knowledgeable) that reality as we know it is an illusion. I don't believe that reality is an illusion, but even if it were, I don't see what difference it would make. Pain and pleasure feel real, everything about the "illusory" universe (if such it is) affects as exactly as if it were real, so there is nothing about this claim that would make any obvious difference to our pragmatic goals, our morality, or anything else. The question of whether the universe is an illusion is neither important nor, to me, interesting.

What is of some interest is the real-world consequences of believing such ideas. I have the impression that long-term progress in India and to some extent China has been hindered by a preoccupation with achieving a state of philosophical detachment from the "illusion" at the expense of solving practical problems as the Classical (Greco-Roman-Persian) civilization and its modern descendants (ourselves) emphasize doing. Again, I'm not expert enough in Indian history to know how big a factor this was (if at all), but it's an example of the damage done by too much navel-gazing over abstractions at the expense of focusing on real-world problems and solutions.

To put it concretely, I don't care why some people think the universe is an illusion, but I might be interested in whether that belief had any effect on how, say, public sanitation developed in the Roman Empire vs. in India during the same period.

The big bang is pretty close to being an established fact, as is the view that the universe is the product of natural laws with no evidence of any conscious intervention by a supernatural entity. This does not mean that determinism is absolute (quantum physics seems to have squelched that idea, anyway), nor that consciousness and free will are an illusion. I'm not at all bothered by the fact that we don't know how consciousness and free will can exist in a universe governed by impersonal natural laws; at the present state of human knowledge, "we don't know yet" is the only possible scientifically-honest response to the question. (Richard Dawkins has said that what consciousness is and how it evolved is one of the last great unsolved scientific mysteries left.) I don't find the question terribly interesting, though the answer might well be. More to the point, I don't think it's at all relevant to questions of morality -- to questions like what is the proper response to the allegations of Roy Moore committing sexual aggression against teenagers.

In short -- and I hope Daniel will not take offense at this, but I think it's best to express it clearly -- questions like these aren't part of discussion of morality at all, as I see it. The big bang, the nature and origin of consciousness, and whether a "many worlds" multiverse really exists, are question that in principle have definite answers we can know and prove. However, they have no moral implications. Questions like the universe having meaning or "transcendence", morality being created by an extra-cosmic "supreme being", and so forth, might have moral implications if we could know or prove anything about them, but by their very nature we can't know or prove anything about them, so they are basically just word-games and not worth spending any mental energy on.

22 November, 2017 19:53  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

This was a great discussion. A lot to digest, so I will have to read it more than once. It also reminded me that I should re-read my copy of The Ancestor's Tale, as well as his other books I own. :-)

24 November, 2017 06:24  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I appreciate your interest! And Dawkins is a great writer.

25 November, 2017 10:32  

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