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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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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After trip to Brazil, Pope realizes that gays are people

Pope Bergoglio in RioPope Bergoglio said on Monday something that was completely revolutionary to hear in the year 2013 – that gay people should not be marginalized from society. This came as a shock to nearly everyone.

Bergoglio went on to say that he would not judge gay people, and that he respects their efforts to avoid the sinful, morally wrong way in which they express romantic love for one another.

In his interview, the Pope compared gay lobbies to the “lobbies of greedy people,” and said that such groups were problematic. “We can’t have people working together to effect legislation that would better preserve their rights as human beings,” he said. When asked if he thought it was hypocritical that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops spent $26.67 million on lobbying in 2009, the Pope replied “Uh… no.”

Bergoglio then spoke with reporters about some old issues in the church. “We cannot limit the role of women in the Church to altar girls or the president of a charity, there must be more,” he said. “But of course women can never be priests, because that would just be silly.”

One attendee at the Pope’s rally, Marianna Vericiano, asked reporters, “If the Catholic Church cares about people so much and has so much influence, shouldn’t they use their speaking time to tell people to fight poverty, or adopt clean energy, or use condoms, or fight for women’s education in third world countries? And is the bar really set so low that we cheer whenever the Pope says something marginally positive about gay people?”

No one else at the rally had any idea what she was talking about.

 

Image source: Tânia Rêgo/ABr (Agência Brasil)CC-BY-3.0-br

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Missoula’s new anti-sexual assault ads

Anti-rape poster

She was on her own, so I made my move… and told the guys hassling her to back off. They were really crossing the line.

These are some excellent anti-sexual assault posters from Missoula, Montana. They not only discourage assault, but encourage bystanders to help out others who look like they might be in trouble.

We have good reason to believe that ads like this are effective, even when the ads are directed at the rapists themselves. A Canadian campaign similar to this one seems to have decreased the rate of sexual assault in Vancouver by 10 percent. This isn’t surprising, given what activists are always saying about rape – it’s supported by culture. If it weren’t, then changing the culture wouldn’t have any effect on the incidence of rape. That it does shows that rape is not some biological inevitability, but a social issue we can do something about.

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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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A Catholic sister writes questionable things about contraception

The other day, a Catholic friend of mine shared a blog post written by one Sister Clare Hunter. Sister Clare is a contributing writer to the Diocese of Arlington’s Encourage & Teach blog. The blog’s mission is to “encourage all readers to find out more about their faith and to embrace the fullness of the truth that the Catholic Church offers.” But the truth Sr. Clare penned in her post wasn’t very… well, truthful, so I left a comment. As of this writing, Sister Clare hasn’t responded (I will update this post if she does). Regardless, I decided that since there’s a good amount of information in the comment, I should share it here as well.

In her post, Sister Clare argues against the benefits of contraception, asserting that contraception hasn’t helped us decrease abortion rates, or increase women’s health or happiness. She also implies – citing a rather dubious non-medical source – that birth control pills are unhealthy for women, or at least that they do more harm than good. If you’ve read any of the research on contraception, you know that these claims aren’t true.

I’ll leave it up to readers to take a look at Sister Clare’s full post for context. Without further ado, here is the comment I left her (slightly edited after proofreading). Note that my comment starts with a quote by Sister Clare about how contraception hasn’t decreased abortion rates:

I am BEGGING someone to help me wrap my mind around this anomaly! …WHY, WHY, do we still have 1.2 million abortions a year? 52% of pregnancies are unintended.

I can help you with that!

It’s simple, really – there are still lots of abortions because 95% of all unintended pregnancies in the US are a result of women who do not use contraceptives, or who use them inconsistently. The women who do use contraception correctly and consistently account for only 5% of all unintended pregnancies (scroll down to the first graph here).

The reason many women don’t use contraception or don’t use it correctly is because they don’t have the money, don’t have adequate knowledge about contraceptives, and don’t have access to effective contraceptive services (See Guttmacher’s report here.)

When women are given the tools to regulate their reproduction effectively, they make the choice to use those tools. As a result, unintended pregnancy rates and abortion rates drop sharply. A study done in the St. Louis area gave 9,000 women and teens their choice of no-cost birth control. A year later, this had cut abortion rates by 62-78% of the national rate.

So it really is simple. If you want to decrease unintended pregnancy and abortion rates, contraception and comprehensive sex education are the way to do it.

As for your concerns about women’s health, it seems like you’re less well-informed than the women who are using the pill. Oral contraceptive pills (OCPs) offer a host of health benefits in addition to contraception. Fourteen percent of OCP users rely on the pill exclusively for noncontraceptive purposes, including 762,000 women who’ve never had sex.

I agree that women (nay, everyone!) should be duly informed of the risks of any drug or medical procedure they may undergo. But they should be informed by doctors and other relevant experts – not the questionable sources pushing their own health products that you linked to.

Really, this entire post is very misinformed. It seems like you’re just throwing up whatever arguments you can to support the view you already hold, rather than doing your research about contraception or anything else. And it makes me angry when I think of the college students who might be taking your advice.

Though I didn’t comment on it, Sister Clare also argued in her post that overpopulation isn’t really an issue (and therefore contraception isn’t important to control it). I’m no expert on overpopulation, but my understanding is that, globally, it is an issue. And what did Sister Clare cite as a source for her claim? A pro-life organization called the Population Research Institute. I’m sure they aren’t biased in any way!

The facts are in: contraception is important, and contraception works. The only people who claim otherwise are those with a conflict of interest, who have to ignore certain facts in order to reach conclusions they were wedded to from the get-go.

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Standing at a crossroads

It was only last month that the verdict was handed down in the Steubenville rape case, in which two boys raped a girl while she was unconscious, and seemingly an entire school community played a part in publicly shaming and harassing her via social media. The case was notable for its demonstration of rape culture, as well as the cruelty and insensitivity of mass numbers of people.

Rehtaeh Parsons

Rehtaeh Parsons

This week, a disturbingly similar case was reported in Canada. 15-year-old Rehtaeh (ruh-TAY-uh) Parsons was allegedly gang-raped by four boys at a party. The boys took pictures, and distributed them in their school and community. Rehtaeh was then relentlessly bullied and harassed via social media. 17 months later, at the age of 17, Rehtaeh hung herself.

It’s hard to know how to contextualize or understand these tragedies. Teenage suicides due to bullying have reached seemingly epidemic levels in the past few years, and the details of each case are always appalling. According to Rehtaeh’s mother, one of Rehtaeh’s rapists was giving a “thumbs-up with a big smile” in the picture of him raping her. Somehow the circulation of this picture resulted in Rehtaeh being harassed. As a classmate explains in the article above, students at her school were “putting the blame on Rehtaeh.” I don’t know what on earth they were blaming her for, but apparently her faults were enough to justify unrelenting harassment, in the form of boys asking her to have sex with them since she “had sex with their friends,” and girls texting Rehtaeh just to call her a slut. The mind boggles at the level of cruelty and insensitivity. Is there not a point at which even a callous person has a moment of conscience, and declares “this has gone on long enough – I won’t be party to it any longer”? Sadly, we know from cases like this that if those moments of conscience do come, they are too few and far between.

The next question then is what can we do about it.

To begin with, a great deal of educating needs to be done on the subject of rape. Many people frankly do not know much about rape – what it is, who it is perpetrated by, what emotional scars it leaves. The popular discourse is full of comments from people who think that if you penetrate a woman’s vagina with your finger it isn’t rape, or that if a person is drunk it isn’t rape, or that as long as she didn’t say “no” (regardless of whether she had the chance) it isn’t rape. A high school English teacher, Abby Norman, writes about the time she discovered this moral confusion among her own students. Her class was discussing the Steubenville rape case:

I realized then that some of my kids were genuinely confused. “How can she be raped?” they asked, “She wasn’t awake to say no.”

Well there you have it! The girl was out cold – clearly anything you do to her couldn’t be considered an assault!

Norman continues…

These words out of a full fledged adult would have made me furious. I did get a good few minutes in response on victim blaming and why it is so terrible. But out of the face of a kid who still has baby fat, those words just made me sick. My students are still young enough, that mostly they just spout what they have learned, and they have learned that absent a no, the yes is implied.

Clearly, our teenagers need to be having these conversations now.

And they are done a disservice by adults who minimize the consequences of rape, as many news organizations did in their coverage of Steubenville, or who perpetuate the myth that rape is committed only by evil criminals who will stop at nothing. Most rapists are their victims’ friends, boyfriends, neighbors, or classmates – people they know and trust. Most rapes are committed by people who could have acted better, had they been taught more about compassion and less about entitlement. We know that telling rapists not to rape works. So let’s do that, and not accept any attempts to distort the issue.

There is also the need to take bullying more seriously. From the description of Rehtaeh’s case, it sounds like there was no small number of students making hell for her over the fact that she was raped. You mean to tell me that her school knew nothing? They were able to do nothing? Throw an assembly! Sit the entire school down for a talk! There couldn’t have been a more important teachable moment than the time when an entire community gangs up on a child. Let no one repeat the lie that sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can never hurt us. The results are in on that experiment, and it is hogwash. How many more children have to take their lives, or come close to it, before adults decide that we are not going to let this happen?

The hard-to-face truth about the bullies and the rapists that we’ve seen in the international media is this: they’re normal teenagers. They aren’t monsters, or psychological outliers. They’re the kids we knew growing up – our neighbors, our friends, and our classmates. They are a manifestation of human possibilities. Here’s Amy Norman again:

It is a strange thing about looking into the face of a 15-year-old, to really see who they are. You still see the small child that their mother sees. You see the man or woman they will be before they graduate. They are babies whose innocence you want desperately to protect. They are old enough to know better, even if no one has taught them.

So we have to teach them.

Adolescence is a formative time in a young person’s life – every teenager will make decisions about what paths to take. We need to do a better job of pointing the way.

Image source: Youtube

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