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Fruit, Forbidden and Otherwise

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First, let me start with the book I mentioned.  It’s Forbidden Fruit, by Paul Kurtz, with a new edition published this year by Prometheus Press.  The original edition, if I remember correctly was put out by Transaction, which is the university press of Rutgers, in New Jersey. 

I may have the publishing history wrong, here–I have the paperback edition of the first edition of this book, and I even know vaguely where it is in my office, but crashing around among the piles for the last few days hasn’t brought it to hand.

The important thing to note here is that Kurtz, emeritus professor of philosophy at SUNY Buffalo, is a significant person in the debate we’ve been having–in the modern debate between religion and the lack of it, and whether or not one can establish a non-relativist moral code without religion–for reasons having very little to do with the actual content of the philosophy he publishes.

Kurtz is sort of the William F. Buckley, Jr. of secular humanism.  The parallels between the two men are actually rather startling. Both started out  in the Fifties trying to revive traditions of American thought they f elt had become moribund in the post-FDR liberal consensus.  Both founded magazines and organizations to promote those points of view.  Both saw the institutions they founded become the originating point of growing and more publicly visible movements.

Kurtz left the American Humanist Association to found what is now called the Council for Secular Humanism–it started out as CODESH, the Council of Democratic and something or the other, one of those names that sounds like a B-movie parody of a Communist front.  CSH was not a Communist front, however, and I have to give it, and Kurtz, credit for at least trying to include various political viewpoints, something the AHA is still unwilling to do.

Along with the organization, Kurt founded another, called CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal,which looks into things like ESP and telekenesis, mostly by sending out investigators who are or have been magicians, and who therefore know what the tricks are.  He founded two magazines, as well:  Free Inquiry, which reports on the CSH side; and Skeptical Inquirer, which reports on the CSICOP side.  He founded Prometheus Press, which was for a long time one of the few publishing houses willing to put out books criticizing and/or denying religion.  It’s now among the top five most successful small houses in the country. 

In other words, Kurtz has done a lot of things in his life, all to advance the cause and arguments of atheism and of secular philosophy in general.  If there are now New Atheists publishing with big national houses and showing up on cable TV, Kurtz is the reason.

But Kurtz’s primary vocation has always been philosophy, and besides doing all the things named above, he’s written a number of books attempting to present a coherent case for a secular morality.

I’ve read pretty much all these books, and the themes run together in my head, but in one of them–and I do think it was Forbidden Fruit–Kurtz pointed out that there is a solid agreement across cultures on at least some moral precepts, and that if we are to construct a useful secular morality, we have to start there.  He called these things the “common human decenies.”

And, so far, I agree with him.  The place we should start investigating the idea of morality, that we should begin looking for an objectivelybased moral code, is definitely in those ideas that we all, or almost all agree on.

And most of those ideas are unexceptionable.  Murder, theft and rape are virtually universally condemned, for example.  Yes, it’s true, the definition of what or who is “human” and therefore protected by such condemnations vary, but the principles do not, and that’s an important thing to know.

The problem with Kurtz’s book, and with every other book of secular morality written in the 20th century (or 21st) that I’ve read, is that the commitment to evidence-based research goes only so far.  When it meets up with something that is universal but contradicts Kurtz’s moral commitments, he ditches the evidence and pounds his convictions.

In other words, Kurtz assumes his moral conclusions, rather than letting the evidence lead where it will.

And there’s a word for what goes wrong, for Kurtz, in the evidence:  women.

Before I go on from here, I’d like to say a few things to the side.  First, we need to separate politics and morality in this discussion.  Democracy is neither moral nor immoral, and natural rights have nothing to do with morality, either.  They’re a separate issue from what we’re discussing here.

Second, I think the fact that some people dissent from the general consensus on some things–that some people don’t care about living in comfort and security and will give those things up for one reason or another–is blown way out of proportion in these discussions.  Most people don’t give a damn about forms of government or moral codes.  They want to have and raise their children in comfort and security, and they’ll go wherever they think they’ll be able to do that best.  They vote with their feet, and they put the dissenters into a distinctly marginal minority.  That’s why China has to pass laws to stop its people from emigrating, and we not only don’t have to do that, but have a bigger problem with too many people eager to get in.

But back to the problem Kurtz and company have, and the problem of women in particular.

I was put in mind of Forbidden Fruit by a review–sort of–in the latest issue of Free Inquiry.  Kurtz is better (smarter and better educated, at the very least) than his reviewer, who produced less a reviewer than a fervent declaration that the days of American conservatism are over, and that we’ll all embrace the federal government and make progress toward a single world government for the foreseeable future.

This is the kind of thing that made me write that essay on the web site called “Why I Am Not A Humanist,” and it’s endemic to organized atheism in the US, at least.   And it’s the frame of mind that leads to the mess Kurtz and others make of trying to work out a secular moral code, or a secular defense of natural rights.

Women, as I said, are the problem, because if we’re looking at universal moral precepts over time, one of the things we find is the double standard of sexual behavior between men and women.  Men can screw around.  Women must remain (at least relatively) chaste.  That’s the case in every single literate society that has ever existed on the planet before the second half of the twentieth century, and all of the ones that exist now outside the EuroAmerican sphere.

But there’s something else that’s universal across all literate (and most nonliterate) societies across time–that women are socially and politically secondary to men.  That phrase covers a lot of ground.  It takes in everything from the Taliban to the US in the Fifties,where women could do anything men could do at the same time that they were routinely discriminated against in employment and education because they were female and where women, but not men, lost significant social status if they were not married. 

Now, here’s the thing.  Any moral code which we adopt has to do at least one thing, and that is that it has to make it possible for a society to survive.  No matter how beautiful your principles are, they won’t do you much good if they result in your being unable to repel a neighbor who wants to conquer you or in your having so many children, you simply die out.

But here’s another thing:  we know from experience that women have fewer children when education are careers are open to them on the same basis as men, and they have a lot fewer children when that is true and there is no stigma attached to their remaining unmarried. 

In Europe right now, women are having so few children that what’s going on is beginning to resemble societal suicide.   In another generation, more ethnically Italian children will be born in the United States than in Italy.  In another three generations, there may be no ethnically Italian children born in Italy at all.

This is not to say that it’s the emancipation and full equality of women in these countries that’s causing the problem, but the problem is unique.  Societies have died out over the course of time, but before now they’ve always gone that route because of losses in war, or great natural devastation, that made the bearing and raising of children difficult to nearly impossible.  Europe is rich, Western Europe especially so.  For all the bitching and screaming they do about “American hegemony,” they’re powerful in the world in many ways, especially economically.

Of course, there may be other reasons why European women no longer have many children.  It can’t be the emancipation of women on its own, because the US is holding its own demographically, and women are at least as emancipated here as elsewhere.

But if we then start to look at what else Europe is doing differently than any society before it, we get even more of what Kurtz and company desperately want to hold onto–we get the cradle to grave comprehensive welfare state.

In other words, if we begin our search for an objective basis for morality in a survey of the moral codes of all cultures throughout time and their apparent effects on their socieites, it looks very much as if Kurtz and company will have to abandon one or more of the precepts they consider vital to human beings behaving morally.

Instead of doing that, they simply bull on past the contradictions and announce (as Kurtz did talking about abortion in one of the books I’ve read) that “all” socieites have agreed with us on this issue, and it only looks like they haven’t.

This is the explanation for the phenomenon John noticed in  his philosophy classes–modern philosophers give up God as a foundation for their preferred ideas (sexual equality, freedom of expression, whatever) and then come up with no actual basis at all for what they want. 

It’s  not that no actual objective basis for morality exists, but that there is no objective basis for some of the things they want to consider moral, and real morality at least may potentially lie in a direction they don’t want to go in.

Personally, I think that all sound thinking about morality starts not only with defining who we will consider to be human–and including everybody, beginning to end–but what we define a “human” to be–that is, back to that other question, of whether human beings are just another animal, different in degree but not kind from the rest of nature, or whether they are a special case.

And that’s a discussion for another time.

Oh, but by the way–NO, I wasn’t suggesting it would be morally good to discriminate against women in any way at all.

Written by janeh

June 30th, 2009 at 2:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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