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Part of me wants to respond to yesterday’s commnets by pointing out that I find two of the three examples Jem gave of what she thinks are simple, straightforward harms as problematic.

On the issue of racial epithets, for instance, I’d say that morally I can’t see any excuse for using them even in the privacy of one’s own mind.

But legally–well, that’s something else again.  I do not think it should ever be within the government’s power to make such speech illegal, at all, for any reason.  It’s a small step from “that’s an epithet” to “that’s hate speech” and the latter is most often an attempt to suppress ideas.

That’s clear both on those college campuses that have tried to establish speech codes and in Canada, that now seems to have a hate crimes law that includes ugly, nasty, and demeaning speech.  What starts out as “you aren’t allowed to say the n word” ends up as “you’re not allowed to say affirmative action admits have lower qualifications than those students not admitted under AA, even if it’s true.”

Part of that is that I don’t think “somebody’s feelings will get hurt” is a standard that should be allowed standing in any legal question.  And I don’t think racial epithets are any more naturally upsetting than being called a “stupid dumb fuck,” say, and in fact in some environments may be less so. 

So I’m glad that Oliver Wendell Holmes lost that argument.  In case you think that “you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater”–yes you can.  Holmes’s declaration that you can’t is part of a dissent he wrote in a free speech case in which his side lost.   The rest of the court was on my side.

But I’d have trouble with the case of the parent hitting the child, too, because short of a case of outright assault, I’d have to wonder if I was simply imposing my middle class mores about parenting on somebody of another class or culture.  My tendency is to feel that parents should be left free to make any decision about their children that will not lead to permanent physical disability or death–and that any less strict standard puts us in the position of becoming a nation of Mrs. Grundys, telling other people how to run their lives.

But it’s the end of the comment that interested me the most.  Jem quotes both the Bible and a sect of Buddhism to explain why she thinks we should not harm people–but that doesn’t answer the question.

Why should I care what the Bible or Buddhism think?  And do you really take them as a foundation of your moral code, or is it just that you’ve found parts of their moral codes that you like?

The Bible purports to be the word of God Almighty himself, and its vision of the human (at least in the New Testament) is that every human being is a child of God and an heir to the kingdom of heaven (see St. Paul),  but also an heir to Original Sin.  That means that we must all love one another, yes, but that loving one another means not just not causing harm to each other in a direct way, but being careful to correct each other so that we can turn away from sin and live a life that’s right with God.

If you accept the Bible as an authority, you have to accept all of it–and that certainly means rejecting, say, accepting homosexuality as an acceptable alternative to heterosexuality in marriage (“do not lie with a man as you would with a woman”–St. Paul again), and a fair number of other things that you probably wouldn’t agree with.

With Buddhism, I’m on less firm ground, because I know less about it, but from what I do remember, Buddhists believe that individuality is an illusion, that our goal is to rid ourselves of those things in us that cause this illusion (wants, needs, desires) so that we can return to the Great All and lose our individuality–our self-ness–for eternity.

The problem with that is that the Buddhism definition of what it means to be human is in direct contradiction to the Biblical one.  All parts of the Judaic traditions–Jewish, Christian, Muslim–are adamant about the central importance of the individual as something real, unique and eternal.  In Christianity, our individuality is preserved into eternity by the resurrection of our bodies.  Those bodies will be in a glorified state after the Second Coming, but they’ll still be most particularly our bodies.

In Buddhism, even our individual souls do not survive eternity.  The “me-ness” of me is just as much an illusion as everything else.

Nobody can hold both of those principles as the definition of what it means to be human at the same time.  They contradict each other.

So–what is it about human beings that means we should not harm them? 

It’s still an unanswered question. 

And although I think I have an answer–for me, a secular libertarian liberal in the 21st century–and I think my answer could be adopted by lots of people…

It’s surprising how many people out there don’t know why they hold the moral ideas they hold.

Written by janeh

March 26th, 2010 at 11:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Foundations'

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  1. First thing: I said nothing about shouting racial epithets being made illegal. What I did say is that I found it harmful. I do think spoken words have an impact. They are not just sounds. There are many things that are legally allowed that I think are quite harmful–among other things, spending billions of dollars fighting the war in Iraq. And that can be debated, too, I am certain. I would never, ever, want anyone’s right to free speech impeded. To me, harmful and illegal are not the same.

    Second, in the situation that I mentioned about the mother and her child, my sentence said: “You witness a parent severely whacking her child . . .” I can’t imagine an instance where “severely whacking” would not be considered assault. It’s interesting to me that when one person assaults another he can be brought up on misdemeanor charges but doing the same thing to a child is called discipline. The Florida statutes (ch 39) state that anyone observing child abuse should report it to DCF and it does include corporal punishment resulting in bruises or welts. Children are not property. If I observe child abuse, I will report it.

    Third, yes there are parts of many moral creeds (as you call them) that I accept and live by. I don’t adhere without question to all aspects of any one moral code above another. I do pick and choose. I’m not aware of anything, legal or otherwise, that prevents me from doing that.

    And as to not knowing why I hold the moral ideas I do hold, I agree, I don’t. But it’s worked for me so far.


    26 Mar 10 at 3:01 pm

  2. One other thing, there were five examples of situations in which I felt determining the kind thing to do was less complex. One was: the man/woman beside the interstate holding a sign “Hungry and homeless, please help.” I have given dollar bills or so to people in this situation in times past. This was before I learned through observation and from reading that a great deal of the time, this person is wanting drug money. Shelter directions, no cash.
    The other was: an ex-lover who physically or emotionally abused me moves on to another woman. I would tell someone close to the woman about this and ask that it be relayed to the new lover. The woman would be unlikely to believe me and I would feel it the kind thing to do to pass the information on to her.
    And if my answers don’t suffice as to what is there about humans that means we shouldn’t harm them, then what is the answer?


    26 Mar 10 at 4:01 pm

  3. Well, Jem said this:

    >>>And if my answers don’t suffice as to what is there about humans that means we shouldn’t harm them, then what is the answer?<<< and this one I can answer. The answer is to find an objective basis for morality--something OUTSIDE ourselves and what we want and feel through which moral law can be discovered (not invented by us) and that will apply universally to all people at all times. For religious people that ground is God--if the God of the Old or New Testaments, or the Koran, in fact exists, then morality is what He says it is, whether we like it or not, and it applies to all people at all times regardless of their circumstances. Christianity took this further, in saying that we could discover the moral law by understanding that each human being was infinitely precious, unique, and valuable and therefore called to be the best human being he could be--that the natural state of man was to aspire to the best within himself. For Aristotle, it was most of what was in the last paragraph. Aristotle declared that it was discoverable from observing man and the other animals that man was different in kind from those animals and therefore should aspire to the peculiarly human in himself, rejecting the merely animal as far as possible and controlling it when not. I could go on, but all these thinkers/movements/whatever provided a rationale for believing what they believed. It wasn't just "that's what sounds good to me," but "this is the way the world is. This is the truth, and every other version is false. Therefore, this is what is good and this is what is evil." WITHOUT such a foundation, all talk about good and evil is just talk--just a personal opinion with no more validity than any other opinion. WITHOUT such a foundation, your belief that we shouldn't harm people is neither better nor worse than somebody else's belief that we should euthanize "undesirables" (like the mentally retarded, or the "congenitally criminal, or, whatever). If it's all a matter of "what works for me"--well, the Holocaust worked for the Nazis. In the long run, the only way to prevent another Holocaust, or limit the amount of violence in your society or your world, is to be able to say: This is objectively right, and here's the reason why. This is objectively wrong, and here's the reason way. These reasons are logical, objective and immutatable. If you disagree with them, you're wrong. If your culture disagrees with them, your culture is fundamentally diseased. And there will be no compromises. But you can't say that unless you have a foundation for what you believe, and the foundation cannot be subjective or personal. At the moment, I think we're still in W.B. Yeats's time--the best among us have no idea why we believe what we believe, and no way to defend our believes against the bad people, who know for certain and are not letting go. In a clash between confident evil and timid good, evil wins every time. In a clash between "it's just my opinion" and "this is true in all times and places and anything else is false," "my opinion" loses to "it's true" every single time, even when "my opinion" is working for kindness and decency and "it's true" is working for tyranny and slaughter.


    26 Mar 10 at 5:40 pm

  4. I’m waiting with bated breath to see what Jane has to say. I have struggled with the same thing. I started out thinking that valuing humans was an axiom from which to derive the rest of it, but, you know, I was raised Catholic and that part stuck even if the rest of it got rejected. I haven’t really studied philosophy, so I have trouble figuring out how to this rigorously. I agree with Jane about Yeats–I do try not to be timid about my convictions, but I’d feel better if I could support them. I do think the evidence is clear that there is such a thing as “human nature” and that we build societies without taking it into account at our peril.



    26 Mar 10 at 7:10 pm

  5. In the earlier post you said “if you accept the Bible as an authority, you have to accept all of it–and that certainly means rejecting, say, accepting homosexuality as an acceptable alternative to heterosexuality in marriage (”do not lie with a man as you would with a woman”–St. Paul again), and a fair number of other things that you probably wouldn’t agree with.”

    And you also said:referring to either using a set moral code (either the bible or the teachings of Aristotle, or another code)
    WITHOUT such a foundation, all talk about good and evil is just talk–just a personal opinion with no more validity than any other opinion.

    Where would you find instances of people believing all aspects of a particular moral code and following them all?
    –In the Catholic church? Read in any newspaper about the current instances of sexual abuse by clergy in Europe. Conspiracy against the Catholic church involving almost every news source in the U.S.? Or truth that’s been excused and covered up for decades?

    –in the protestant churches? Think Jim Bakker with Jessica Hahn and illegal bookkeeping. Think Jerry Falwell, friend to Lester Maddox and George Wallace during the ’60s. Selling unsecured church bonds.

    If homosexuality is forbidden in the bible (and I don’t agree that it is) why does the Episcopal church allow gay priests?

    Find me two Baptists that agree on absolutely everything in the Bible, never mind their own denominations.

    Are you saying that anyone who accepts the bible as a moral code has to believe that every word of it is the infallible word of God? Really? What translation and whose interpretation? The bible is hardly crystal clear. There are as many interpretations as there are stars in skies.

    Also, according to James 2:26 Faith without works is dead. What good are precise, immutable moral codes if those who teach them don’t follow them to the letter?

    Also: “Aristotle declared that it was discoverable from observing man and the other animals that man was different in kind from those animals and therefore should aspire to the peculiarly human in himself, rejecting the merely animal as far as possible and controlling it when not.” What was Aristotle’s proof? Not that I’m denying he had any. Experiential? studying philosophy? General intelligence? Observation?

    One way I determine what I accept as morally right is if I can see good in the outcome and little harm in the means to achieve it. I don’t believe the end justifies the means. I believe in treating others as I would want to be treated. In my society that works. Of course, it might not in another country. Respect for others is a major belief of mine. Even if their beliefs are opposite mine, I’m not going to insult them. These aren’t the entirety of my moral beliefs but they are two of them.

    Additionally, most religions have a number of similarities regarding behavior toward other people.

    From my observation, a number of people who continually talk about morals and ethics and preach them to others have some moral weaknesses of their own. i.e. the televangelists mentioned above, various Republicans– who railed against Bill Clinton and Monica– who had extramarital affairs of their own. And an even more personal example: a priest I worked for who was on some sort of ethics committee within the diocese but who was one of the most self-righteous, mean spirited individuals I have ever come in contact with.

    Which of Yeats’ works has the quotation you mentioned?
    I know the one below from the Second Coming:

    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.(1919)

    I learned in grad school that he was referring both to post war Europe and the Irish rebellion.

    Do all secular humanists believe the same thing or claim the same belief system or moral code to make decisions on right and wrong?

    I know that I can’t name an example of moral purism.


    26 Mar 10 at 7:40 pm

  6. Christianity has often gotten around the problem of “This is the right moral law. Everyone must follow it.” and noticing that noone does so perfectly by adding “Everyone is a sinnner. Only Jesus managed life in a perfectly moral fashion, and even he suffered anger and despair. That doesn’t excuse you from trying to the best of your ability to lead a moral life.” And, moreover, “If you screw up, you’ve got a way back.”

    I don’t really know of any other group that is really that all-encompassing when it comes to dealing with the really hard cases. And they (meaning Christians in general) fail a lot, not merely by being imperfect, but by being actively evil. And yet…there’s still something there. Some way, if it is chosen, for the suffering to use as justification against those who made them suffer, as well as a way past those people, if they are dead or otherwise unable or unwilling to answer for what they did. And there’s a place for the people who cause suffering, too. I used to think the word ‘paradox’ was a silly joke word, like in the Pirates of Penzance, but holding two apparantly opposite ideas in tension – you may be a victim and think yourself worthless and ruined, but you aren’t, you’re a child of God AND that the person who tortured or killed you might think he was justified or couldn’t help it or anything at all,really, but he’s a child of God and of the same infinite value as you – while (I think I’m losing control of the ‘balance’ metaphor) insisting that some behaviour is wrong and some right – that’s an incredibly powerful force for a better humanity, in spite of all the broken vows and other crimes. And, actually, I suppose it could work if you had something to substitute for ‘God’ in ‘child of God’ (assuming God didn’t exist), but we don’t, and popular thought seems to be moving more and more in the direction of ‘just another animal’, and that doesn’t work at all if you want to create a good society, one in which evil can be faced down and some, at least, of the people who carry it out brought back into the fold, instead of everything degenerating into a genocide against real or imagined evil people.

    It’s the much-maligned ‘love the sinner but hate the sin’ that so many people seem to think means ‘find a way to hate people while pretending you love them’. If you can separate the person from his actions; if you believe that a person is more than the sum of his actions, you can still deal with that person as a human being, no matter what he has done. If not…well, why not just put someone you know or suspect of something evil in the “them” category – the one for the not-really-humans, for the people who can and should be torn to pieces in the street? Humans are really good at that kind of thinking. I suspect it’s innate. Religion fights against it. Others don’t, not really. I admit I know little of the eastern religions, but some of the idealistic left-wing political movements of my youth emphasized the ‘us and them’ dichotomy, as do many believers in so-called ‘inclusive’ approaches today, including some within Christian churches.

    Mary, I’d say you have to start out from an assumption that humans – ALL humans – are of value. I don’t think you can start anywhere else and deduce that all humans are of value. I can’t think of any one or any group that does. And the ones who shout the loudest about how they want to be inclusive or to give a voice to the oppressed etc etc are often the ones who think in terms of groups, not individuals at all, and run the danger of treating certain groups as being of no value. People who go to the other extreme and go on and on about individual rights and self-actualization and such run the risk of being so turned-in that they forget that we live in groups, and we find a lot of our meaning in relationships to others.


    27 Mar 10 at 7:19 am

  7. Jem, the obvious reason why no one should pick up whatever parts of moral codes suit them is that it’s a waste of time. If I decide that I’ll follow the Ten Commandments when it comes to idolatry, but not in the matter of adultery, I’ve just concluded that the Author had no authority–and hence no reason to pay attention at all.
    If you mean to do as you please, do as you please. Don’t put a religious gloss on it.


    28 Mar 10 at 4:05 pm

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