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Debating Societies

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Well, what can I say?

I’m in favor of reproductive rights–and I’m probably the most radically pro-choice person you’ll ever meet–and I’m screamingly in favor of the equality of women.

I think the first is a legal imperative of any decent society, and the second is a moral imperative, period.

I just don’t think you can defend either of those things by appealing to what all societies agree on, because all societes do not agree on those.

And that’s my problem with  Paul Kurtz–he went looking for a foundation for the moral code he wished to defend and came up with something he cannot honestly use as its foundation, and then he just ignored the contradiction and plowed ahead as if he had made his point.

The issue in all these things–the issue in establishing a secular moral system–is the foundation on which you defend the particulars.  “God commanded it” is one such foundation.  “Human nature demands it” is another (and one used not only by Aristotle, but by Aquinas as well).

But you have to have something.

I’m still not impressed with the “if you get a bunch of people from the Abrahamic religions togerher you get X, but if you get a bunch of atheists together you don’t get X.”

If you get a bunch of atheists together, there will be no guarantee that they will agree on anything.  Jews and Muslims and Christians are each, in their communities, bound together by common philosophies and histories.  Atheists do not share such philosophies and histories just by virtue of being atheists.  It’s like saying, “Jews and Christians and Muslims do X, but if you bring in the next 50 people on the street who happen to be wearing red hats, they won’t.”

It’s not true, however, that moral debate is marginal to the Christian or Jewish traditions–whether it is or isn’t in Islam, I don’t know.

It’s possible that there isn’t much of that sort of thing in Protestantism, which I know less about, but there’s a lot of it that goes on in both the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and millennia-long tradition of it in Judaism.  That’s why Jews don’t stone rebellious children at the city gates any more (if they ever did).

In Christianity, moral debate is in evidence fro the very early Church, often argued at length and meticulously on many sides of contentious issues, and sometimes with very interesting results.

In Catholicism, for instance, it is a foundational principle that no one can go to Heaven if he dies in mortal sin.  Since suicide is a mortal sin, and suicides do not have time to repent when they kill themselves, then suicides must go to hell and cannot be buried “in hallowed ground.”


Well, not quite.

In order to commit a mortal sin, a person has to know that what she is about to do is wrong, and do it anyway without compulsion and with full consent of the will.

But most people who commit suicide seem to be under severe emotional distress. Many of them are clincally depressed.  Such people cannot be said to be “without compulsion” or giving “full consent of the will.”  Depression is a mental illness, and it impairs our ability to see questions clearly or to make decisions freely.


This is not a new argument, erected in the twentieth century to bring the Church in line with modern norms.  It’s been around at least since Peter Abelard.

The problem with atheist debates is not that they’re debates, but that they’re too often debates that start in the wrong place–that start with their conclusions, and that do nothing to establish a foundation for the morality they want to support.

Aristotle wrote at length on morality, and he did not use as its foundation “the gods tell me so,” but he did use a foundation–his conviction that human nature is fixed and can be understood, and in being understood can provide the basis for discovering what behavior is right and what is wrong.

I would have no problem with present day atheist discussions of morality if they were being made on that basis, or on any basis, but most of them are not.  Most of them are, like the principles championed by Kurtz, desperate attempts to backfill.  The writers already know what they believe to be right and wrong, and they then go on to produce arguments in favor of those rights and wrongs.

If I gave the ordinary atheist writer in Free Inquiry or The Humanist the following sentence

       It is morally imperative that we treat cats and dogs well and care for them

and asked them to finish it, they could finish it in a contingent way (for instance, by saying that cats and dogs are self aware and have emotions like ours), but they couldn’t ground it.

Cats and dogs are conscious and have emotions like ours?  So what?  Why should I care?  What makes “being conscious” and “having emotions like ours” things that are morally important for us?

If I asked a Muslim or  Christian or a Jew that question, assuming he agreed with it at all, he’d say something like, “because God made us stewards over the earth, and we are always required to follow God’s law.”

If I asked Aristotle, and he got him to agree with the sentiment, he’d say something like “it is in the nature of the human being to form bonds of feeling with fellow creatures and such bonds impose obligations on us, because to deny them is to deny their nature.”  Or something of the sort.  It’s early in the morning.

Most secular moral philosophy these days has no foundational principles.  There is no final answer to that “because.”

Part of that is that Robert is probably wrong about “the Movement.”  There’s no organized movement of any kind operating here.  What there is is a social consensus among various groups of people that has been arrived at scattershot, without anybody really thinking much about it. 

Most people are not moral philosophers.  They accept the mores of their time and place mostly without question, and are often startled and uncomfortable when asked to justify them.  Since we live in a world where there is no real society-wide consensus about much of anything, people are often called upon to justify what they believe.

That’s how we get to most of today’s moral “philosophy,” which isn’t really philosophy at all.

People know–in fact, they’re sure–that it is morally imperative that we treat dogs and cats well and care for them, but they don’t really know why they feel that, and they feel it more than they think it.  So they come up with a gazillion reasons that seem to fit, without really thinking if those reasons could be used as general principles or what would happen if they were so used.

And since these ideas are often arrived at emotionally to begin with, they’re also often contradictory.  A lot of the abortion debate is like this.  The same people who champion a woman’s right to abortion often want to put her in jail for drinking or doing drugs during pregnancy.  The same people who think that abortion should be legal if the fetus has spina bifuda would recoil in horror at the suggestion that we put to death any children born with spina bifuda.

I don’t think, however, that this is just a case of trying to institute “feel good” ideas.  A lot of the freefloating “obvious” moral ideas now littering the landscape are not particularly feel good.  What they are, very often, is a cross between a Lifetime movie moral and expediency.  It hurts us to see Grandma in pain and we hope she will be released, but if we champion her “assisted suicide” (or tacitly condone giving her a little extra boost of morphine that will finally put her to sleep) we also happen to be saving the insurance company a whole lot of money.

The profesional principles mentioned here once or twice are a slightly better organized case.  Our librarians could tell us that it is professional principles that compel them to assist in the free flow of information (even information they don’t approve of) or to protect the privacy of librarian patrons.  What I never have seen, at least yet, is an explanation of why the free flow of information is a good thing we should support, or why the clients should have privacy.

Once a group has decided on a set of axiomatic principles, it’s easy enough to defend them.  The problem is that clear moral thinking does not allow of axiomatic principles.  Somehow, somewhere, there must be something that fills in the blank–that tell us what is it, outside ourselves and unaffected by our wants and desires or likes and dislikes, that makes any such principles actually “moral.”

Of course, it’s easy to spot this kind of lack in something we don’t agree with, like the quote I posted here.  The man made lots of assertions–morality must be universal to be valid!–that we had no problems arguing with, and that I doubt if he could defend on any firmer grounds.

It’s harder to see the same flaw in things we do agree with–like the principle that we should be kind to dogs and cats and care for them–because the principles themselves just seem so obvious.   When people ask us to defend them, and then to defend what we bring up to defend them, we react as if we’ve been asked to  prove that 2 plus 2 equals 4.

And when that happens, we’ve got bigger problems.  Because almost any secondary moral principle can be defended in a dozen ways, and any one of those ways can be used to reason back to, if not a foundational principle, an axiomatic one, and those can be used…

But here I go again. 

And I’m cold.

Written by janeh

January 5th, 2010 at 8:23 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Debating Societies'

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  1. I don’t think Robert’s ‘Movement’ is organized either; I’d simply say the the culture – or social consensus – is shifting enough to change to be really noticeable. Of course, cultures continually change, so this shouldn’t be a surprise, but the rate at which they change also varies. It’s been a truism for much of the last century that our culture is changing more rapidly than any other, any time, due to the changes in technology.

    As for Granny – putting her out of her misery is feel good for the next-of-kin, and it saves the insurance company money – but when the next-of-kin start arguing that everyone has a ‘right to die’ (usually based on an argument related to autonomy), they’re doing it without much if any consideration for the possibility that Granny couldn’t give consent because of illness (including depression) or fear of being abandoned in some terrible nursing home. In other words, their claim, which is based on the importance of autonomy, falls down on the question of the ability of someone to express their autonomy. It’s difficult to get inside someone else’s head, but I don’t think that a lot of these people really try. They take their own emotions and opinions and generalize them to everyone else – generally while praising diversity!

    There’s still a feel-good element to this, though. Some people are absolutely sure that whatever makes them feel good will also make everyone else feel good, and if the others don’t agree, well, they feel no qualms about forcing them.

    I just watched an old Angel episode in which peace on earth was brought about by some kind of supernatural being who removed everyone’s free will and replaced it with her own. That’s the kind of ‘free will’ a lot of people would like!


    5 Jan 10 at 1:35 pm

  2. No, I don’t think the Movement is organized either, if by that you mean a directorate and a written agenda. But as I tried to point out, it also isn’t an a la carte thing. There’s a “menu” of maybe a couple dozen beliefs and practices, and those who hold some seem more likely to hold others. A lot of movements and political parties go through this before some politician manages to lock all the pieces into place. Take a look at the opponents of American liberalism before WFB and company organize conservatism out of some–but not all–of them.

    As for moral debate being “at the margins” obviously I wasn’t as clear in my wording as I hoped for. I meant that the broad moral principles were accepted, and the debate was over tricky cases and applications. All three religions condem murder. For the most part, they have rejected pacifism, but this does not make just war theory and the laws of armed conflict intuitive. It just means the range of the dispute is much narrower than it would be if one included the opinions of classical Romans and Viking raiders.

    Devout Christians, Jews and Muslims would all agree they have a moral obligation to help the poor–but that doesn’t tell us where it stops. At what point have I given enough of my income? Am I justified in robbing or taxing someone else to fulfull my obligation? And what about those who are poor because they won’t put the stopper in the bottle and go to work? We’ve been working on these for millenia. But a true believing communist would have a different range of answers. Nietzsche might question the moral obligation itself, and I don’t remember it from Aristotle.

    Plenty of room for dispute, and plenty of disputes–but less than the full range of human behavior.

    But whatever happened to those Muslim cab drivers?


    5 Jan 10 at 5:51 pm

  3. I think the fact that certain beliefs tend to go together -or that we think they will – is part of our innate tendency to look for patterns. Everyone does it, in spite of all the evidence we have about the dangers of over-generalizing from a small amount of data.

    You’d expect everyone adhering to a certain branch of Christianity to hold quite a range of views in common, particularly if that branch is one that uses a creed or other common statement of belief. They often don’t, and don’t agree among themselves as to what degree of non-belief means you’re not really a member, and what degree means you’re just struggling with doubt and temptation, like everyone does from time to time.

    What sort of ‘patterns’ are morally acceptable in a more mixed group is interesting. Personal characteristics are supposed to be omitted, but of course, many people ascribe, say, laziness to people of varying ethnicity, skin colour, age or socio- economic status. Some ascribe certain beliefs about laziness to people in certain political parties, or perhaps supporters of certain parties. And then you get the matching of beliefs, as you describe. Sometimes it’s more or less valid, as I expect many people have experienced situations in which they’ve opened their mouth about A in the presence of a lot of people who are like-minded about B, only to discover that they mostly are like-minded about A, too, only in the opposite direction as indicated by your comment. Some people find this hard to accept or understand – ‘But you’re a B-supporter, just like us; how CAN you oppose A!!!’ in the most hurt and offended tones.

    There are two things going on. One is over-generalization – the assumptions that everyone who supports A also supports B. And the other is that some people either haven’t thought their position through logically, or they have, but they haven’t allowed for the possibility that someone else might have thought just as logically, but starting from a different premise as to, for example, when human life begins.


    5 Jan 10 at 6:19 pm

  4. So what about “the veil of ignorance” as a basis for reasoning about moral philosophy? If you decide on moral principles as if you could be in any of the positions in society, that does lead to things like equality for women. I think I do reason about moral philosophy rather than accepting received wisdom. (I have been told I would make a good Jesuit or rabbi, but I make a pretty lousy congregant.)

    I favor individual autonomy to what is often seen as a pretty ridiculous extreme. I will fight like hell if I need to to keep my dad receiving medical care to the nth degree until he dies naturally, because that’s what he wants. I will also fight like hell if I need to to move my mom to palliative care, because that’s what she wants. I see, though, what Jane is saying, in that I may have to fight more for my dad than for my mom, because my mom’s beliefs are now more mainstream and accepted…and that even if she didn’t have them written down and witnessed, plenty of people would be willing to make that decision for her, which I think is wrong.

    I think parents should have the right to raise their kids however they want, except for imminent danger of life or limb. This puts me at odds with most on the left right there, and also most of the atheists. “What, you don’t think raising a child in a religion is child abuse?” Actually, no. And I am, as Jane is, against euthanasia. I see a lot of people, especially in my social circles on the left, who think if they personally can’t imagine wanting to live a certain way, that no one possibly could. I personally would rather end my life than continue in intractable pain from a fatal disease; my dad is a devout Catholic and disagrees. I personally would abort a fetus with Tay-Sachs or a similar fatal disease, but not one with Down Syndrome or spina bifida. I know lots of happy people with Down Syndrome and spina bifida. But I think a woman should be able to abort until viability with no limits–just as a man should be able to refuse to donate a kidney to save his kid’s life.

    We tend to notice the overlap, probably especially in the other camp, but there are lots of outliers. In my sort of social group, the fact that I am not vegan (or at least vegetarian!) is notable; the fact that I support the Second Amendment is a cause of no little consternation; the fact that I don’t say that “education” or “health care” is a right just confuses the hell out of people. When I try to explain the difference between rights and entitlements, and why the Universal Declaration of Human Rights actually makes no sense…well, eyes glaze over at the least. For a social democrat, I’m pretty libertarian. For a libertarian, I support way too much redistribution of wealth.

    Well, this is kind of all over the place. Blame the Vicodin.



    5 Jan 10 at 10:11 pm

  5. “(I have been told I would make a good Jesuit or rabbi, but I make a pretty lousy congregant.)”

    I sometimes attend study sessions of various types at my church, and I gather the priest who leads some of them thinks I have ‘interesting ideas’. I think I’ll take that as a compliment, which I’m sure it was intended as. I don’t think I’ve said anything unusually interesting, though, because I try to stick to the topic and also give others a chance to speak.

    Anyway, I hadn’t even finished the reading for last night’s session, in spite of having had all Christmas to do it, so I didn’t say very much. It was that really long and difficult chapter on ‘Memory’ from St. Augustine’s ‘Confessions’.

    I hope whatever the Vicodin is treating is responding to treatment. If you follow me.


    6 Jan 10 at 7:37 am

  6. I would have replied but Cathy made it unnecessary. That wasn’t all over the place, really – nice summary.

    In my case, what I’m dealing with is Dad’s strong desire to be independent as long as possible though he has Alzheimer’s. Right now he’s OK with home help, but at some point….it’s tough.

    Vicodin, ick – I hope the sciatica eases up soon. (That is still the issue?)


    6 Jan 10 at 11:22 am

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