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Happy Birthday to Matt! Happy Birthday to Matt!

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The title of this post is an attempt to do an end run around my older son’s command that I not sing Happy Birthday to him today, because, because–well, he’s not so good on the because, but I’m not supposed to do it.  So I did this instead.

Yesterday would have been my twenty-sixth anniverary, if Bill had lived–and yes, I think we’d still have been married.  I think we would always have been married.  It’s just the way that worked.

But it is the second, now, and I’ll sing at Matt eventually whether he wants me to or not, so let me try to address some more of this, and get back to the Middle Ages again.

First, Robert wants to know where are the hospitals and other charitable institutions founded by “secular humanist” groups–and the problem there is mostly in the nomenclature.

Not everybody who is an atheist is a “secular humanist,” which is a particular branch of ethical ideas with a very specific set of principles, which differ from the humanist proper, and who in turn differ from groups like American Atheists or the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

But if you’re asking where are the organizations founded on secular lines by secular people–I’ve got a ton of them.  In Connecticut, we have exactly one publicly funded hospital.  All the rest of the hospitals in our state are private non-profits (except for one up in Sharon which may be for-profit by now, but I’m not sure about that.)

Anyway, the vast majority of our hospitals were founded not by religious groups (excepting, of course, the four Catholic ones), but by local “philanthropic” groups who tended to be spearheaded by local doctors during the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, and all of them do a good deal of charity work to this day, even though they are unaffiliated with and claim foundations in no religious group.

Then there are international groups like Doctors Without Borders, and the Free Clinics USA operation–I wish I could be sure I have that name right, because I love these people–that Keith Olbermann has been doing so much to promote on his MSNBC program.  They go around and set up Mobile clinics in various American cities and take on anybody who walks through the door for everything from routine testing to considerably more complicated stuff, and follow that up with referrals to doctors in their networks who will treat for a nominal cost.

(Sometimes, by the way, violating federal law to do it–federal law requires doctors who accept Medicare patients to charge ALL patients at least as much as they charge Medicare for any service.  So if your doctor wants to knock a couple of hundred off your bill, but that makes his charge to you less than he charges Medicare–well, you could all be in big trouble.

I mean, think about that.)

I know of dozens of secular people who start and run soup kitchens, do voluntary outreach work in the inner cities, provide their expertise (as doctors, lawyers, whatever) free of charge to the poor in the US and out of it.

Secular organizations, however, are a different matter. 

One of the problems, I think, is that none of the existing secular organizations was started as the kind of all-encompassing institution that churches are supposed to be.  Nobody asks why the local softball league doesn’t found hospitals, or why the local women’s golf association doesn’t run a homeless shelter.   And nobody says that golfers or softball players must be less charitable or concerned with the welfare of their fellow citizens than Christians.

Most of the secular organizations now in existence were started with very narrow goals in mind–to provide a critique of religion, say, or to serve as the center for philosophical work on developing a secular philosophical alternative to religious ethics.  They’re more like the Hoover Institution than the Methodist Church–and the Hoover Institution isn’t out there founding hospitals, either, in spite of the fact that the majority of their fellows identify strongly with traditional religion.

My problem is not that the secular organizations do not do charitable work that is beyond their scope or function, it’s that when they do what they are supposed to be doing–when they try to provide a secular basis for moral reasoning–they increasingly make a bang-up mess of it. 

I’m not entirely certain why.  The Greeks and Romans saw morality as something we discovered, like we discovered Contintents, but not something handed down by gods in a set of edicts, and yet they could not have managed to screw themselves up as badly as these people do.

I’m going to give you an example, taken from the latest issue of Free Inquiry magazine, the flagship publication of the Council for Secular Humanism.  Then I’m just going to let it ride, and see what you think of it.

I do hope, though, that you’ll keep in mind that this same magazine has seen a couple of recent publications demanding that school children be required to attend secular state schools–no religious schools and no homeschooling allowed–that will forcibly counteract the ‘”religious lies” their parents tell them. 

I presume neither the writers of those nor the editors of the magazine know about Pierce vs Society of Sisters, 1925.

But here’s the quote, from an article entitled “Environmental Philosophy’s Challenge to Humanism:  Revaluing Cosmopolitan Ethics,” by Hugh McDonald.  McDonald is described as “an associate professor at The New York City College of Technology.”  It does not say an associate professor of what.

The quote is long, so bear with it.   I’ll get around to commenting on it tomorrow:

>>>The view of humans as elevated has neither scientific nor moral warrant.  a species that is as dependant upon the environment as any other cannot be privileged.  Our need for myths is one source of “humanism,” the view that we are something more than, in Rorty’s words, “clever animals.”  To be sure, humans differ from other species, just as any species differ in some respects.  Horses differ from elephants; that is precisely what it means to be a distinct species.  Humans are incapable of certain animal capacties, just as animals may be incapable of certain human ones.  So what?  Why are these facts morally relevant.  What is at issue is whether the differences that categorize one species provide moral warrant.  Why is a species difference a unique ethical warrant?  It is speciest to count only humans as morally considerable, to speak nothing of violating the basic premise of ethics:  the golden rule or some variant.  More formally, ethics requires universality or it cannot be rational.  Practical universality must include at least the majority of other species, or humans put themselves in the position of the elite, an ideological stance.  Since ethics must be universal and reciprocal, a species difference cannot provide such a warrant.  It is not universal as distinct and unique to a species; not reciprocal as confined to a species.<<<<

Okay, it goes on from there, but with any luck, you get the drift.  If you want to read the piece, it may be up on the CSH website by now (www.secularhumanism.org).  It’s almost certainly still on the newsstands.

So, I’m going to go sing at my son, and I’ll go from here tomorrow.

Written by janeh

January 2nd, 2010 at 11:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'Happy Birthday to Matt! Happy Birthday to Matt!'

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  1. Happy Birthday to Matt!

    I can see the point about organizations set up to promote secular or atheist viewpoints not necessarily being organized to provide charity. Certainly there have been secular organizations that do so, although the individuals involved may or many not have been agnostic or atheist. Some of the old social ‘clubs’ and fraternal societies were linked to religion, but a lot weren’t or aren’t now. And at least a couple atheists I know personally turn out every Christmas to help with a church-run dinner. There’s probably more; volunteers aren’t selected by relgious belief, although the core group who do most of the work do belong to the church hosting the event.

    I’ve run into ideas like those you quote before. They underlie the beliefs of those in the loonier reaches of the animal rights movement. Has anyone else noticed that if a group looking for donations refers to ‘animal rights’ instead of ‘welfare’ or ‘protection’ they are more likely to use your money for lobbying governments and hiring lawyers to deal with accusations that they engage in ‘direct action’ (ie violence) than to use it to buy animal food or pay for shelter for homeless animals?

    Anyway, I don’t think much of the philosophy, and not just because this author uses such buzzwords as ‘privilege’ (which appears to mean ‘prefer’, but to imply ‘unfair advantage’) and ‘speciesist’ (which, I strongly suspect, doesn’t include a respect for the rights of rats and bacteria).

    There are lots of unsubstantiated claims in that particular take on the subject. ‘as dependant upon the environment as any other’….really? Only in the sense that all living organisms have to have an environment. ‘ethics requires universality or it cannot be rational’? That just doesn’t make sense. I can see that the overall quality of a system of ethics might have some connection to its ‘universality’, but it’s perfectly possible to be rational about small things and small subsets of the universe. Easier, in fact, than trying to generation an ethical GUT. But it doesn’t matter much, because he promptly descends from universality to ‘at least the majority’. I’m not sure about the equivalence of being an elite and taking an ideological stance. I mean, I think I know what the author means – something vaguely marxist about elites being generated by ideology. I tend to thing they’re generated by a lot of different things, depending on what kind of elite you are talking about, anything from the tendency of so many human characteristics to be displayed in frequencies with a more or less normal distribution, with only a few people at either end, or the way societies are structured, or the way a particular person interacts with others in a society and so on and so forth.

    And if ethics are universal and reciprocal among all species, I want my cats to decide that it would be immoral to eat me if I drop dead in the house and the cat food bowl is empty. After all, I don’t eat them when my food runs short.

    I’m always a bit surprised when I am reminded that some people take this sort of thing totally seriously.


    2 Jan 10 at 12:44 pm

  2. Happy Birthday to Matt!

    “McDonald is described as “an associate professor at The New York City College of Technology.” It does not say an associate professor of what.”



    2 Jan 10 at 3:17 pm

  3. Happy Birthday to Matt!
    I stand better informed re Connecticut hospitals. More generally, my phrasing was poor, but for good reason: the non-believers prefer “secular” to “atheist” but “secular” by itself in this context can have other meanings. Many Catholic priests are “seculars” for instance, which would only have added to the confusion. And I was trying to distinguish individual charitable giving and volunteer work from the building of institutions. Doctors without Borders certainly qualifies, though.

    Haven’t run into Free Clinics USA. In Fort Wayne, the free clinic is Mathew 25. In DC, I’ve had charity clinics turn down donated supplies, because that sort of thing comes from the government.

    I suppose another way of phrasing it is that I can understand the religious impulse behind an act of disinterested charity. And while I’m glad enough to see the poor fed and clothed and the sick healed whoever does it, I sometimes wonder if the charitable secular has thought these matters through.

    Which brings us to working out morality. Well, for one thing, the critical bit may be that the classical Greeks were attempting to “discover” morality. Aristotle isolates moral and immoral behavior and attempts to draw general conclusions. What he doesn’t attempt to do is work out morality from first principles. “No one speaks of good adultery” he says in the Nichomachean Ethics, and lets it go at that. I would be quite surprised if that would pass unchallenged in Free Inquiry.

    And let us not overrate classical Greece. You can’t get morality, in terms of humanity, much further wrong than Plato, and he was not without followers and rivals.

    Nor is he today.


    2 Jan 10 at 4:01 pm

  4. Happy Birthday, Matt.

    I’m glad I’m not a student in McDonald’s class.


    2 Jan 10 at 5:38 pm

  5. With regard to both Peter Singer and McDonald, I suggest that their conclusions should be regarded as examples of “reductio ad absurdum” which indicate false premises.


    2 Jan 10 at 6:55 pm

  6. Happy Birthday to Matt. As to the quote, what a load of unmitigated horseshit.

    Humans are the only creatures that *have* a concept of morality, in the sense of consciously choosing contra-survival behavior that benefits others. Sure, dogs will try to save their masters, but that comes from inborn pack behavior, not a reasoned choice. Until McDonald can point to a non-human entity with morals or ethics, I’ve got to say that human beings are indeed of a different kind than other earthlings.

    And yes, I know about dolphins saving swimmers. I’m not sure they do so in the presence of threats to themselves. If they do, then maybe humans aren’t unique in that. But ethics do NOT have to be reciprocal. A lie damages the liar just as much as the lied-to, and boy oh boy try to get that point across in a discussion with anyone under 25. They just don’t get it, and apparently, neither does McDonald.


    2 Jan 10 at 11:29 pm

  7. “They just don’t get it.”
    – Maybe if you tried talking about honour and how lies impinge on one’s honour, you’d get through to at least the ones who watch Lord of the Rings or read certain kinds of fiction. Otherwise…ethics need to be taught, and some bits aren’t taught, or don’t sink in.

    As an ex-teacher and ex-student, the ethics of cheating is a prime example of this. Cheats don’t seem to realize that they are not only stealing something – a reputation, grades – that really belong to those who actually have the knowledge – they are lying each time they claim to have really, honestly gotten an A in that course. Their idea is that as long as they get that mark, nothing else counts. It doesn’t have to represent anything real, and isn’t affected by the process used to get it.


    3 Jan 10 at 8:25 am

  8. I’m right there with you, Cheryl. I try in my little corner of the world, teaching my children. They know how much I value integrity, and the lengths I’ve gone to to live the example. They probably think I’m a querilous old fogey, but on the other hand I have children whom I can trust with the PIN number to my bank account.

    Other people’s children, not so much.


    3 Jan 10 at 2:09 pm

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