Category Archives: Morality

New Edge interview with Joshua Greene

A few weeks ago I wrote a post on morality entitled, How I live as a moral relativist. The term “moral relativist” sounds scary and gets a bad reputation sometimes, but those concepts are an accurate description of the world as far as I can tell.

I intend on writing more on that in the future, but for now, here is a new Edge.org interview with moral philosopher and scientist, Joshua Greene. Greene is the guy who pioneered the neuroscience of morality – investigating how people’s brains work when they make decisions about moral problems. There’s some good stuff here on how morality probably evolved, and how our moral intuitions are incredibly quirky and inconsistent (try your hand at answering the questions he poses). This latter fact is a problem for moral realism, which asserts that there are definite answers to moral problems. Given moral realism, inconsistencies such as the ones Greene mentions in his interview shouldn’t exist.

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Filed under Morality, Psychology, Science

How I live as a moral relativist

I was surprised at how much I identified with this NY Times opinion column on morality. The author is Joel Marks, a bioethicist and emeritus professor of philosophy. In the essay, Marks describes how he came to realize that morality was not objective, and how this realization affected his actions and interactions with others.

A quick summary of Marks’ thought process goes like this (though you should read the whole thing if you find this summary isn’t enough for you):

A friend had been explaining to me the nature of her belief in God. At one point she likened divinity to the beauty of a sunset: the quality lay not in the sunset but in her relation to the sunset.

But then it hit me: is not morality like this God? In other words, could I believe that, say, the wrongness of a lie was any more intrinsic to an intentionally deceptive utterance than beauty was to a sunset or wonderfulness to the universe? Does it not make far more sense to suppose that all of these phenomena arise in my breast, that they are the responses of a particular sensibility to otherwise valueless events and entities?

Hume said something similar. Though my thought process was not quite the same as Marks’ or Hume’s, I do agree that morality, like beauty, is subjective, and moral rules do not actually exist.

The problematic thing once realizing this is… what do I do now? What is the basis for choosing a “moral” action over an “immoral” one? And if I want to convince another person not to commit an action that I find offensive (Marks gives the example of [tossing] male chicks, alive and conscious, into a meat grinder, as happens in the egg industry) how could I do so? I can no longer say “don’t do it because it’s wrong.

My own answer to this problem was to focus on what I want to do in situations that have a so-called “moral” valence. How do I feel about things like lying, stealing, or injuring others? In examining my feelings, I find that I generally want to treat people well. I like being honest, and not hurting people, and not taking their things. I don’t treat people well because it’s a moral rule, I do it because I want to. Others’ happiness makes me happy, and their suffering makes me sad. I think most people are similar.

What struck me about Marks’ essay was how similar his answers were to mine. For starters, he too focuses on desires:

It seems to me that what could broadly be called desire has been the moving force of humanity, no matter how we might have window-dressed it with moral talk. By desire I do not mean sexual craving, or even only selfish wanting. I use the term generally to refer to whatever motivates us, which ranges from selfishness to altruism and everything in between and at right angles. Mother Theresa was acting as much from desire as was the Marquis de Sade. But the sort of desire that now concerns me most is what we would want if we were absolutely convinced that there is no such thing as moral right and wrong. I think the most likely answer is: pretty much the same as what we want now.

For instance, I used to think that animal agriculture was wrong. Now I will call a spade a spade and declare simply that I very much dislike it and want it to stop. Has this lessened my commitment to ending it? I do not find that to be the case at all.

For Marks, animal agricultural elicits the same feeling that any of us would experience if an innocent person were being tortured or detained in squalid conditions. It is an empathic response to the suffering of other conscious creatures. Naturally, we want it the suffering to stop. Again, rules do not dictate this experience for us. It is simply there, and we act upon it.

How, then, do we get others to act with us? My answer has been to teach others what I know. Humans naturally respond to the suffering of others. The key is to teach people about what others are going through, to imagine themselves in another person’s shoes. When they do that, their actions naturally incline toward greater empathy and consideration.

Marks says much the same:

…to argue that people who use animals for food and other purposes are doing something terribly wrong is hardly the way to win them over. That is more likely to elicit their defensive resistance.

Instead I now focus on conveying information: about the state of affairs on factory farms and elsewhere, the environmental devastation that results and, especially, the sentient, intelligent, gentle and noble natures of the animals who are being brutalized and slaughtered. It is also important to spread knowledge of alternatives, like how to adopt a healthy and appetizing vegan diet. If such efforts will not cause people to alter their eating and buying habits, support the passage of various laws and so forth, I don’t know what will.

Indeed. Good does not come from forcing people to do what you say, or what you think they ought to do. It is better to be convince them*. (This is why I object so strongly to religious morality, in which people are not convinced or entreated, but simply told what to do. This has nothing to do with morality, and amounts to merely following orders.)

So I take it as good news that two people who agree about the non-existence of morality can come to similar conclusions about where to go from there. I think society will be better if we move away from moralistic thinking, and instead focus on showing others why we care about the things we care about.

 

*This isn’t to say, by the way, that we should not put dangerous people in jail. But we do this not because they have broken some moral law, but because we cannot allow them to threaten others’ safety or freedoms.

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Filed under Humanism, Morality

It’s all in the brain

How to live with introvertsA lot of my friends have been sharing these how to live with introverts/extroverts posts lately. The idea is that certain people’s brains just work a certain way, and so you might as well try and get along with them. For example, introverts need alone-time, and extroverts who are jonesing for a conversation should be respectful of others’ needs for solitude.

This is good advice, but the ramifications are broader than presented. The logic that “people’s brains operate a certain way and so you have to work with them” actually applies to everyone, all the time – from the introverts in your life, to the assholes at work, to the criminals on the street. No matter who a person is, their thoughts and actions are a result of their brain at that particular moment.

The upshot is we need to not think that anger and indignation are the answer when people aren’t acting as we think they should. If you think introverts deserve extra consideration for having brains that “just work that way,” extend that consideration to everyone else. Because it’s true – everyone’s brain is doing what it does. We can’t change what people have done in the past, but we can work with them to create new possibilities for future actions.

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Filed under Morality, Psychology

Beatriz lives

I’m really happy that this woman lived.

Beatriz is a 22-year-old mother of one. She waited months for the government of El Salvador – a highly Catholic country – to approve a medically necessary abortion. They would not approve, even though Beatriz’ fetus was non-viable. Many people, including myself, signed a petition by Amnesty International to change the government’s decision.

In the end, the government didn’t approve of the abortion. However, the fetus became old enough that doctors could deliver it and it would count as a “birth.” The baby died within hours (it was missing most of its brain), and Beatriz is recovering.

I’m happy that Beatriz lived, but I’m angry that this ever became a problem. El Salvador’s laws on abortion are the kind of laws that organizations like the Catholic Church would like to have in America. Even though there’s no evidence that such laws do any good whatsoever, people still push for them to become reality. (For a look at the harm that El Salvador’s abortion laws do, see this harrowing report from the NY Times.)

As someone who used to be anti-abortion, I can say that many abortion opponents do not display half of the humanity that is displayed in that NY Times article. We are taught by our religions or our cultures to think in absolutes, to ignore grey area, and to believe something because somebody told us to. We should never make decisions for other people based on so little understanding of their experiences. Doing so leads to the death of women with hopes, plans, fears, lived experiences, and social and familial ties to others.

If anyone disagrees, I’d love to hear what you think here or in private (you can email me through my Google+ profile).

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Filed under Catholic Church, Human Rights, Morality, News, Religion, Reproductive Rights, Women's Issues

President Jimmy Carter writes about women and religion

I have just come across an article that President Jimmy Carter wrote in 2009 on the intersection of religion and the status  of women in society. The article appeared in the National Times in Australia and is titled, Losing my religion for equality. I find the piece to be mostly good, with a few not-so-good parts mixed in.

President Carter at the LBJ Library in 2011.

President Carter at the LBJ Library in 2011.

In the article, Carter describes how he severed his ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after sixty years of membership, due to their scripture-based stance that women should be subservient to men. Specifically, the SBC,

…claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be “subservient” to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service.

Carter notes that this philosophy isn’t just limited to Southern Baptists.

This view that women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or belief. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths. Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women’s equal rights across the world for centuries.

Carter goes on to list tragic consequences of this type of thinking, from the restrictions and injustices heaped selectively on women in many third-world countries, to the discrepancies in pay and status between women and men in Western society. Carter makes the case that this sort of thing really matters.

And that’s what I think is good about the article – Carter’s outright rejection of the idea that women are inferior to men, and his insistence that we stand up to people and organizations who say so. What I dislike is the way he excuses the Bible for its misogyny.

Carter blames the problem of misogyny in the Bible on “interpretation,” and a self-serving bias on the part of religious leaders:

The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter.

While I agree that many religious teachings are invented for self-serving reasons, it cannot be true that religious texts are completely malleable to any interpretation. For example, how can the following passage from the Bible possibly be interpreted to exalt women?

A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. (1 Corinthians 11:7-10)

How about this passage?

I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you. (Genesis 3:16)

Or this?

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. (Ephesians 5:22-24)

There is no way to interpret these verses in a positive light; the best one can do is pretend they don’t exist. The problem with the texts of the Bible then is not just one of interpretation, but one of content. The inferior nature of women is a theme that runs throughout. Carter is right to speak out against this, but wrong to try to exonerate the Bible (or other religious texts) in a way that isn’t rationally doable.

Why do I think this is important? Because if we ignore the parts of religious texts that we don’t like, we are never forced to face the obvious fact – that those texts are full of passages that are wrongheaded, immoral, or factually incorrect. In the United States alone, there are millions of christians who are anti-science, anti-women’s rights, and anti-gay. Their religion forms part of their defense against better, more humanistic ideas. What these christians need to do is not ignore questionable passages from their holy book, but pay attention to them, so that at some point they realize that maybe they shouldn’t put so much faith in something so full of error.

On this point, President Carter seems to be still in denial. He finds fault with the humans who interpret religious texts, but he gives a free pass to the idea of putting faith in texts that are morally and factually questionable. Carter encourages us to think for ourselves when it comes to women’s rights. We know that women are just as smart, talented, and capable as men. I would just take that idea one step further, and say that we should think for ourselves on every subject, and not give credence to silly ideas simply because they have been held up as holy.

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Filed under Freethought, Human Rights, Humanism, Morality, Religion, Women's Issues

Reasonable thoughts on premarital sex

There was an excellent article in the Guardian on Monday making a positive case for premarital sex and rebutting the myriad silly arguments against it. I don’t have anything to add to the article – the author hits all of the relevant points. Just give it a look.

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Filed under Marriage, Morality, Relationships, Sex

If you read one thing this week…

On the anniversary of his wife’s assisted suicide, Eric MacDonald is in excellent form on the subject of assisted dying. This cannot be shared enough.

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Filed under Assisted Dying, Government, Human Rights, Humanism, Morality, Religion