Archive for the ‘morals’ tag
I’m sure many readers are familiar with the famous “trolley dilemma” in which a person much choose one of two scenarios: imagine you are driving a trolley and in front of you are five people who will die if you don’t switch the tracks to divert the car. If you divert the car, however, one person is standing on the other track and will be killed. Most people, I would bet, would choose to save the five people versus the one, unless there was an important reason why the single person might be more significant or special than the five.
Say, for instance, that on the first track, there were just five blue collar railway workers, all single men with no wives or children, but on the other track stood a single mom who was eight months pregnant. True, five lives is still greater than a woman and an unborn child, but the decision, I think, then becomes a little tougher. Or, say the scenario included the five blue collar workers versus the Dalai Lama, Bill Gates or some other figure who has had a sweeping impact on humanity. Or, five privates who just enlisted in boot camp on the one side and one four-star general on the other track.
Nonetheless, the dilemma is an interesting one to think about because it forces us to put value judgments on life itself. Is one important person’s life more valuable than a bunch of nobodies? Should we always choose to save the greatest number of people no matter who the single person is on the second track?
Carlos David Navarrete, a evolutionary psychologist at Michigan State University, recently put 147 participants using a virtual simulation. Ninety percent of those tested pulled a switch to divert the car, while 14 let the car kill the five people. Three people pulled the switch to change the tracks but subsequently changed their minds.
Here’s a brief analysis of the findings:
While the findings corroborated with the results of a previous study that relied on self-reported methods, the experiment also showed that participants who did not pull the switch were more emotionally aroused. This means that their inaction might not be so much a conscious choice but a result of freezing up during highly anxious moments, which is akin to a solider failing to fire his weapon in battle, Navarrete said. Perhaps if they had remained calm enough to process what was happening, the percentage of people who would have pulled the switch to save five and let one die might have actually been greater.
“I think humans have an aversion to harming others that needs to be overridden by something,” Navarrete said. “By rational thinking we can sometimes override it – by thinking about the people we will save, for example. But for some people, that increase in anxiety may be so overpowering that they don’t make the utilitarian choice, the choice for the greater good.”
And a video (with some nifty accompanying music, I might add):
In a piece titled, “Good Minus God,” Louise Antony makes the case that non-believers can act morally and be good without God, and indeed, that what it is means to be good must exist independently of any god. If this is not the case, she explains, and if God is the origin of morals, then this makes God himself an exceedingly appalling figure because God could decide that it’s “moral” to slay millions and pillage entire cities (as he supposedly did in the Old Testament).
Antony says that both non-believers and theists live based on the assumption that notions of “good” precede God and that this puts both God and man in a better light.
Accordingly, many theists, like many atheists, believe that moral value is inherent in morally valuable things. Things don’t become morally valuable because God prefers them; God prefers them because they are morally valuable. At least this is what I was taught as a girl, growing up Catholic: that we could see that God was good because of the things He commands us to do. If helping the poor were not a good thing on its own, it wouldn’t be much to God’s credit that He makes charity a duty.
While “many theists” — I think “many” might be a stretch — may believe that good exists independently of God, some adamantly do not. Evangelicals believe that God and God alone is the source of that which is good and moral. But as I just stated (and made the case again here), if God dictates that which is moral, then God can make anything moral, and we must obey sheepishly, no matter how ghastly it may be to our modern sensibilities. Antony calls evangelicals’ view “remarkable,” and while it may be to her, this is the illicit illogic with which I am all too familiar.
To say that morality depends on the existence of God is to say that none of these specific moral judgments (That slavery is wrong, for instance) is true unless God exists. That seems to me to be a remarkable claim. If God turned out not to exist — then slavery would be O.K.? There’d be nothing wrong with torture? The pain of another human being would mean nothing?
This is precisely the consequences that we must accept and swallow like shards of glass down the hatch if we are to accept divine command theory. Of course, evangelicals will then inevitably ask the question that Antony did not quite get around to answering: if morality does not come from God, from where does it originate? The long answer would be book length. The short answer:
- While members between various out-groups can and have prolifically pillaged, killed and plundered members of other groups, members within in-groups tend to treat each other morally, and this axiom holds across continents and millenniums.
- We know that in-groups and communities, once they develop to certain stages, invariably establish laws that govern acceptable behavior within their societies. Within the context of individual in-groups, it is in a person’s best interest, for instance, not to go around raping and murdering at will, for this will cause the person considerably more harm and displeasure than not, and it is in a community’s best interest to establish laws against murder and rape because those actions (and many others) stunt growth and comfort within the society as a whole and those actions are detrimental to the society itself.
- We know that there are objectively better choices, as Sam Harris puts it, in the food that we eat or what choice should be made in moving a piece in a game of chess. Why should morality be any different? There must be some objectively moral ways in which humans beings can act toward one another, even if we haven’t discovered all of them and even if there are exceptions, that will maximum well-being while minimizing general harm. Certain societies demand that a woman be killed if she gets raped. To this day, some women can’t show their faces in public. These societies don’t have much to tell us on the well-being of sentient beings, but notice that this does not destroy my point above about in-groups. These societies, although some of their laws look backward to us, they still do not rape, murder and steal at will within the context of their own communities because if they did, they would not survive for very long. Killing a woman because she gets raped is a way for the family to alleviate the shame (here is one article) and is not, in itself, an example of capricious murder. Believers (and even some philosophers) will then ask: “Well, who are you to say what’s better for those societies. Isn’t that just as authoritative as religion?” As Harris argues in his book, “The Moral Landscape,” if those societies could experience the freedom of being able to wear whatever they wished in public, they may see how dimly lit their societies really were. Here is Harris from the above-linked video:
Whenever we are talking about facts, certain opinions must be excluded. That is what it is to have a domain of expertise. That is what it is for knowledge to count. How have we convinced ourselves that in the moral sphere, there is no such thing as moral expertise or moral talent or moral genius, even? How have we convinced ourselves that every opinion has to count? How have we convinced that every culture has a point of view on these subjects worth considering?
Back on point, Antony only whiffs in the next to last paragraph when she concludes by saying that when the non-believer gives up God, he also gives up the “not insignificant” concept of redemption:
I imagine that the promise made by many religions, that God will forgive you if you are truly sorry, is a thought would that bring enormous comfort and relief. You cannot have that if you are an atheist. In consequence, you must live your life, and make your choices with the knowledge that every choice you make contributes, in one way or another, to the only value your life can have.
This “consequence” is fine by me, but Antony appears to break from her own statements above because if true, if God isn’t necessarily good, if he could just as well be evil for all we know, then he also isn’t capable of bestowing forgiveness.
Sam Harris touches on some of these points in “The Moral Landscape.” In any case, this makes a succinct and detailed case against William Lane Craig’s notion of the source of morality:
I’ve often contended that for one to argue that, not just morality, but objective morality, can exist without the assumption of a god, one only need to find cases in other species within the animal kingdom that experience empathy and display altruism. For, to find such cases would be to show that other species, while, perhaps, operating on a more simplistic, less evolved level, still display shades of what it means to be of a higher intelligence, that is, dogs and cats have feelings (the former more than the latter!) and various monkey species, like us, care, not only for their own kin, but for strangers without any outside forces operating on their consciences in anyway whatsoever. Here are two good articles on animals and morality: Animals can tell right from wrong and The moral status of animals.
In an intriguing article titled, “Morals Without God,” Frans De Waal argued against folks like the Rev. Al Sharpton, whom Waal quotes from a debate (I believe with Christopher Hitchens), in which Sharpton states:
If there is no order to the universe, and therefore some being, some force that ordered it, then who determines what is right or wrong? There is nothing immoral if there’s nothing in charge.
Of course, Sharpton wrongly assumes that something is needed to determine right or wrong and that something needs to be “in charge.” One might, for instance, be quite appalled if the something “in charge” (and all-loving something) has sat silently by while atrocity after atrocity has taken place under his omniscient eye.
Waal, in response to this and Dostoevsky’s oft-quoted, “If there’s no immortality of the soul, then there’s no virtue, and everything is lawful,” had this to say:
Perhaps it is just me, but I am wary of anyone whose belief system is the only thing standing between them and repulsive behavior. Why not assume that our humanity, including the self-control needed for livable societies, is built into us? Does anyone truly believe that our ancestors lacked social norms before they had religion? Did they never assist others in need, or complain about an unfair deal? Humans must have worried about the functioning of their communities well before the current religions arose, which is only a few thousand years ago. Not that religion is irrelevant — I will get to this — but it is an add-on rather than the wellspring of morality.
Getting more specific farther down in the essay, Waal argues for the kind of objective, scientifically-based morality that I would:
Fortunately, there has been a resurgence of the Darwinian view that morality grew out of the social instincts. Psychologists stress the intuitive way we arrive at moral judgments while activating emotional brain areas, and economists and anthropologists have shown humanity to be far more cooperative, altruistic, and fair than predicted by self-interest models. Similarly, the latest experiments in primatology reveal that our close relatives will do each other favors even if there’s nothing in it for themselves.
In a universe of blind physical forces and g0enetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no other god. Nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is.
So too, ethics in humans, perhaps, just are, and Harris briefly mentioned the case for objective morality in his earlier work, “The End of Faith” before more largely expounding on it in “The Moral Landscape.” The most basic argument for objective morality is this: Would humans cease being good and generally civil to one another without a god? I would emphatically say, “No,” and this notion is absurd because there have existed numerous societies that have been built on the secular principle of the separation of church and state and religion as a private, not public, concern, with America being just one of them. Also, without some intrinsic, naturally endowed ethical elements, no society, be it the British empire, the Roman empire or America would exist very long without them. While there have existed societies with very different notions of what is right or wrong based on time, place and social norms, some basic ethical principles itself holds the line within every functioning and thriving society. In the absence of ethics, societies fail for they self-implode. Here is Harris in “The End of Faith:”
The pervasive idea that religion is somehow the source of our deepest ethical intuitions is absurd. We no more get our sense that cruelty is wrong from the pages of the Bible than we get our sense that two plus two equals four from the pages of a textbook on mathematics. Anyone who does not harbor some rudimentary sense that cruelty is wrong is unlikely to learn that it is by reading — and, indeed, most scripture offers rather equivocal testimony to this fact in any case. Our ethical intuitions must have their precursors in the natural world, for while nature is indeed red in tooth and claw, it is not merely so. Even monkeys will undergo extraordinary privations to avoid causing harm to another member of their species. Concern for others was not the invention of any prophet.
And Dawkins’ response today to Harris’ conclusions?
I was one of those who had unthinkingly bought into the hectoring myth that science can say nothing about morals. The Moral Landscape has changed all that for me. Moral philosophers, too, will find their world exhilaratingly turned upside down, as they discover a need to learn some neuroscience. As for religion, and the preposterous idea that we need God to be good, nobody wields a sharper bayonet than Sam Harris.