Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


Rowan Williams: Why society needs God

posted by Rod Dreher

I know he’s a favorite punching bag of a lot of folks who share my religious sensibilities, but the fact remains that Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is one of the most thoughtful and intelligent religious leaders in the world. I know you can’t say a good word about some people without inviting attack, but even when he says and does things that drive me around the bend, I always listen to the Archbishop, because he always gives evidence that he’s thought carefully about matters. Here’s a recent interview in New Statesman with the man. Excerpt:

Can we make sense of morality without a religious notion of a transcendent or supernatural being?
I think that, to make sense of unconditional rights or claims, we need to be clear that there is such a thing as universal human nature and that it has some intrinsic dignity or worth. To try and ground this independently of the idea of a transcendent source of value seems to me not finally feasible. People do, of course, make such claims, and do so in good faith, but I don’t see how you can define a universally shared, equal, independent-of-local-culture-and-habit conception of human flourishing without something more than a pragmatic or immanent basis.
In other words, I think morality ultimately needs a notion of the sacred – and for the Christian that means understanding all human beings without exception as the objects of an equal, unswerving, unconditional love.
What are the consequences of pushing religion to the margins of the public sphere?
If religion is pushed into private spaces, as increasingly it tends to be by our public discourse, we lose one of the most emotionally and imaginatively resourceful ways of seeing human behaviour; we lose something of the sense that certain acts may be good independently of whether they are sensible or successful in the world’s terms. I suppose you could say that we lose the “contemplative” dimension to ethics, the belief that some things are worth ­admiring in themselves.

I wish I could disagree with him about the social need for God as a transcendent source of value, but I don’t see any way around it.



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Geoff G.

posted July 19, 2010 at 4:15 pm


In other words, I think morality ultimately needs a notion of the sacred – and for the Christian that means understanding all human beings without exception as the objects of an equal, unswerving, unconditional love.
I generally battle against the “no morality without religion” idea, especially as it’s generally presented (God as the cosmic cop, prosecutor, judge and jury dishing out ultimate justice at the end of time).
As part of that exercise, I’ve recently started on a fairly grand project, closely reading one of Cicero’s best known ethical works, On Duties. Mostly, it’s a discussion of morality which is notable for its lack of reliance on the divine.
Oddly enough, Christian doctrine until quite recently also understood morality in this way. Witness the censured Prof. Howell’s email; he insists that “Catholics don’t arrive at their moral conclusions based on their religion. They do so based on a thorough understanding of natural reality.”
Prof. Howell’s statements notwithstanding, I think that most Catholics do take their moral cues from their religion; it’s a kind of short-cut that avoids the heavy thinking necessary to reach a conclusion.
I think it’s also worth pointing out that for all of the value and impact of Cicero’s own philosophizing, it can hardly be said that it helped create a sound moral order, even among the Empire’s educated elite. At best, it influenced a scant few and perhaps helped with laying the philosophical foundation for Christianity.



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Geoff G.

posted July 19, 2010 at 4:17 pm


Just to clarify my point, religion is not necessary for forming a solid moral framework. But as a practical matter, it’s method of dissemination of that framework is unparalleled.



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Geoff G.

posted July 19, 2010 at 4:19 pm


Argh…I need an “edit” or at least a “preview” function. Will those be on the new blog?
And I hope you’re retaining recaptcha over there too…it’s a huge improvement.



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Eric

posted July 19, 2010 at 4:25 pm


Rod, you shouldn’t be surprised when you get pushback on this from non-believers. While Rowan Williams is obviously trying to make the most gentle possible version of this argument, this line of reasoning is often used to advocate for the marginalization of non-believers in public life. It’s not a huge leap from this argument to the argument that non-believers are a threat to social order and public safety. Nothing about this is hypothetical; a lot of a personal bigotry and hostility toward non-believers has its origins in this argument. You shouldn’t be surprised that non-believers routinely find this argument obnoxious and vaguely threatening.
Since he can’t empirically demonstrate that the absence of religion leads to defective morality, Williams falls back on the tired routine of saying that such morality is philosophically unsatisfying for him. That isn’t an argument. I realize that a brief interview in the New Statesman might not be the place for a more extended discourse on the subject, but you can’t expect people who aren’t already in your camp on this to be impressed by this as you are, Rod.



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Rod Dreher

posted July 19, 2010 at 4:40 pm


Huh? Did you read my post? I’m talking about pushback from fellow religious conservatives, who don’t like it when anybody says something nice about Rowan Williams. You misunderstood me.



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Larry

posted July 19, 2010 at 4:42 pm


Since he can’t empirically demonstrate that the absence of religion leads to defective morality,
I don’t think that he is trying to make this argument. He is not arguing that non-believers are immoral, but, rather that their morality has no warrant or grounding. Yes, most atheists and agnostics are good and moral people, but this doesn’t mean that they have a sufficient reason (beyond the policeman around the corner) for that morality.



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Cultural conservative?

posted July 19, 2010 at 4:54 pm


Exactly, Larry:
The authentic Christian challenge to atheism is not “you are inherently bad people because you do not believe in a higher power” (although many inept and non-thinking Christians do make this inane suggestion) but rather “you cannot convincingly say that the way you live is good because – ultimately – you have no objective standard against which to measure your behaviour.”
So an atheist might say “I pay my taxes, I look after my family, I never cheat or steal, I’m kind to strangers and give money to charity. I’m a good person – better than many Christians I know.” The problem remains that he has no way of explaining why any of those things are admirable or good or just.



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Grumpy Old Man

posted July 19, 2010 at 4:58 pm


Although I am a believer, its seems to me one can argue that our status as social omnivores with a high investment in a small number of offspring, has moral consequences independent of theology. The question comes round to that of cultural universals–are there ethical principles that emerge in the life of all human societies, regardless of whether they are small bands of hunter-gatherers, nomadic empire builders, slave traders, or industrial capitalists?
There do seem to be linguistic universals–all languages have vowels and consonants, for example.
One could argue there are moral universals, even though they are not always obeyed by individuals, such as reciprocity, a duty to care for infants and small children, loyalty to the social group/family, and the social regulation of sex and reproduction (usually by some form of marriage). Belief in a supernatural or spiritual realm is itself at least a near-universal. Even nominally atheist societies seem to reinvent religion in a secular guise–the cults of Lenin and Mao, for example, and the sacralization of the writings of Marx.
This discussion is potentially long and complex. These few comments will have to suffice for now.



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BobSF

posted July 19, 2010 at 4:59 pm


This is so tiresome.
1) Society needs religion.
2) Only monotheism gives people what they need to be good people.
3) Conveniently enough, the best solution is Christianity.
4) Of course, not just any Christianity, oh no, only orthodox and traditional Christianity can save humanity.
There, that’ll save us all a lot of time.
The argument is so disingenuous. It’s embarrassing to see Rowan engaging in it.



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MH

posted July 19, 2010 at 5:05 pm


The argument from morality is getting really tired. It keeps coming up and the same counter arguments are made for it, and then it comes back again.
Recaptcha: financial crybabies – that would be better for a different thread.



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John E. - Agn Stoic

posted July 19, 2010 at 5:20 pm


“you cannot convincingly say that the way you live is good because – ultimately – you have no objective standard against which to measure your behaviour.”
Okay, so what?
Assuming that I live within the prevailing social and legal restrictions and that I do not find those restrictions unduly burdensome in my own personal pursuit of happiness, what do I care about convincing you, or anyone else, that the way I live is good?
Captcha: reruns was
How appropriate for the way this thread seems to be heading.



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Rod Dreher

posted July 19, 2010 at 5:30 pm


Bob, you are doing wrong by Rowan Williams. The only thing from your list he asserted was No. 1. And you deciding that you are bored by the discussion does not constitute a satisfying refutation.



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TTT

posted July 19, 2010 at 5:31 pm


An atheist might say “I pay my taxes, I look after my family, I never cheat or steal, I’m kind to strangers and give money to charity. I’m a good person – better than many Christians I know.” The problem remains that he has no way of explaining why any of those things are admirable or good or just.
Of course he does. He can make the argument as well as any theist who invokes God’s commandments can. You will just not find it plausible. He, in turn, will not find yours plausible. You’ll just have to deal with it.



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kenneth

posted July 19, 2010 at 5:44 pm


Pushing religion into private spaces is the only way to save it from being the tool of oppression and facade of faux piety that it usually is when it dominates public life.



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BobSF

posted July 19, 2010 at 5:45 pm


Rod, I wasn’t summarizing the good Archbishop, I was summarizing commentary here. I’m not the only one to note that this is a well-worn road.



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Geoff G.

posted July 19, 2010 at 5:58 pm


Larry and Cultural conservative?, at the risk of repeating myself, your argument betrays a certain ignorance about the state of affairs in the West before Christianity came on the scene. The entire panoply of ethical and moral philosophy is precisely centered around discovering that “objective standard” without any recourse whatsoever to religion (except insofar as religion and piety was generally regarded as a “good thing”)
The quality of this work by pagan philosophers is instantly revealed as soon as one recognizes exactly how much of their work was adopted wholesale by the nascent Christian church, to the extent that most serious Catholic thinkers still assert that their morality is founded not in religion, but reason (as my quote above demonstrates).



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BobSF

posted July 19, 2010 at 6:05 pm


And how can one refute Williams? The only assertion he makes about the subject is that he thinks it. And he doesn’t make the claim at the head of this thread.
You (not necessarily you personally) ask me to choose a religion to ground my beliefs in something (revealed so someone else long, long ago as) transcendent and call it “objective” because my newly adopted tradition tells me it’s objective. It’s absurd.
Let’s say, for a moment, that the traditionS do matter (and I do think they do). What would be more “objective” in a situation of competing religions subjectively claiming objectivity than to survey them for commonalities and give weight to those commonalities? The more common the belief, the more central it is to human morality. That seems to me to be far more objective than latching onto a belief system because doing so allows me to assign objectivity to its set of beliefs which I can readily see are subjectively accorded that status by believers of that faith.



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Charles Cosimano

posted July 19, 2010 at 6:05 pm


The truth is that atheists and secularists have a perfectly good reason for being moral–they want to be. Just as those who reject morality have a perfectly good reason–they don’t want to be. Everything else is just window dressing.



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Jillian

posted July 19, 2010 at 6:10 pm


So an atheist might say “I pay my taxes, I look after my family, I never cheat or steal, I’m kind to strangers and give money to charity. I’m a good person – better than many Christians I know.” The problem remains that he has no way of explaining why any of those things are admirable or good or just.
Because good human community is an end, and universally desired end, in human life.
The problem with the theist answer is that you’re explaining abstractions in terms of another, less tangible, abstraction which is purportedly more desirable.



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Broken Yogi

posted July 19, 2010 at 6:26 pm


I like there being some religion in the public sphere, but not so much that it dominates. And, of course, the biggest problem is that since religions don’t tend to mix well, once they get into the public sphere a fight is just around the corner. Most people seem to want THEIR religion to be more visible in the public sphere, but not other people’s religion. Which is why, in general, it’s best for religion to lay off its superior or exclusive claims when in public. Which of course offends those people to know end, since the whole point for many is to make clear WHICH religion is best, and the public sphere is the place they want to make that case. And then you begin to see why in a secular society religion really does need to lay low and clean up its act when it appears in public. Not muzzled, but at least polite and wary of creating a disturbance.
Except, of course, on the internet, where everything is fair game. A great medium to counter-balance the mainstream needs of society.



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Larry

posted July 19, 2010 at 6:58 pm


at the risk of repeating myself, your argument betrays a certain ignorance about the state of affairs in the West before Christianity came on the scene.
And you show a certain ignorance of the state of culture before Christianity came on the scene. Discarding unwanted infants, especially girls, gladiatorial games, girls marrying as young as 8 or 9, and so on. Don’t even get me started over pagan religious practices, except maybe to note that modern “pagans”, aren’t really pagan. And your precious philosophers didn’t have a problem with any of it, by and large. If any of them truly came across an objective standard without reference to God, it was one that allowed for a lot of evil. Nor were they as irreligious as you seem to think. If natural law can truly reveal an objective standard, why did Barth think natural law led straight to the Third Reich?



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Larry

posted July 19, 2010 at 7:01 pm


Most people seem to want THEIR religion to be more visible in the public sphere, but not other people’s religion.
Including believers in secularism. The secular position doesn’t have a superior position, there is no superior position.



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Turmarion

posted July 19, 2010 at 7:26 pm


Geoff, you’re right about the pagan philosophers, both West and East; but what you leave out is that in general they tended to ground ethics in some transcendent reality or other. Plato himself said that goodness comes ultimately from the Good, which is God (though not as Christians understand Him); Stoics ground ethics in the Logos, which is a sort of Deist God who nevertheless sets norms for ethics; ditto, mutatis mutandis the Pythagoreans, Hermetists, and most other schools of philosophy in the West, and Confucius (tian, “Heaven” is the norm), the Daoists (the Dao, “the Way” is the norm), Hindus (Brahman or the Atman), and Buddhists (universal Buddha nature) in the East.
Please note that many of these schools were non-theist or atheist.
The only major pre-modern Western philosophical systems that I know of that didn’t ground morality in some sort of transcendent reality are Epicureanism and Aristotlelianism. Epicureanism, of course, contrary to the modern implications of that term, was extremely ascetic, far more so than most modern religions, let alone secular philosophies. It also had some misogynist tendencies. I doubt, in its Classical form, that it would be very popular today.
Aristotle didn’t ground ethics in a transcendent or universal reality; but, that allowed him to argue that some people were slaves by nature and that women by nature were inferior to men. Say what you will about poor, maligned Plato, but at least his ethics, grounded as they were in the Transcendent, compelled him, in the Republic, to be egalitarian and non-sexist.
I’m not as conversant with Cicero, so I withhold comment on him.
The point is that humans are observed to be different in all major ways. The naively obvious take-away from this is that they are to be treated differently. The problem is that this allows slavery, infanticide, genocide, sexism, etc. It would seem that the only way out of this is to appeal to a universal. To appeal to common human nature would seem to be insufficient, since one might say, “Sure, women/blacks/barbarians/Jews/whatever are human, but that doesn’t mean they have equal rights with men/whites/Greeks/Germans/whatever. After all, you don’t treat kids like you treat adults, right?” It would seem that you need to posit something like, “All humans are made in God’s image/share Buddha nature/are treated equally by Heaven/are all aspects of the Atman/whatever, therefore despite their observed temporal differences, they all deserve equal regard.”
Note that the transcendent here does not necessarily have to be God at all, let alone the Christian God; and also note that “transcendent” is what Williams actually said.
I guess you could say that even if there is no transcendental quality shared by all, that all should be treated equally; but the only reason I can think you’d come up with would be, “Because we say so,” or “Because that’s the right thing to do,” both of which to me seem very weak.
Having said this:
TTT, even atheistic or non-theistic systems, as I’ve pointed out, have derived universal human rights from an objective transcendent reality of some sort. The split as to who finds what compelling isn’t between theists of any stripe and atheists, but between those who postulate a Transcendent Absolute of some sort and those who don’t.
Jillian: Because good human community is an end, and universally desired end, in human life.
True; but without some way of grounding some form of human equality, how do you prevent a view of “good human community” which says that women and certain other groups are inferior and must “keep in their place”? Good human community is universally desired, but not desired universally for everyone!
The problem with the theist answer is that you’re explaining abstractions in terms of another, less tangible, abstraction which is purportedly more desirable.
One, as I pointed out, it doesn’t have to be theist; two, you need a certain level of abstraction (“all humans deserve equal rights”) to avoid the very concrete problem of saying, “Since humans are observed to be different, they deserve different treatment–so we can have slaves, keep women from owning property, etc.”
BobSF: You (not necessarily you personally) ask me to choose a religion to ground my beliefs in something (revealed so someone else long, long ago as) transcendent and call it “objective” because my newly adopted tradition tells me it’s objective. It’s absurd.
To say that one needs to ground one’s beliefs is not necessarily to ask him to choose a particular religion, or any at all. Of course, being a Christian, Williams would move on to say, “Yes, that ground is the Christian God”: but even without going there, one could still argue that there must be an objective, transcendent ground, as I’ve discussed above. Such a transcendent doesn’t necessarily involve revelation at all, either–many of the great philosophers came to it through pure reason. You may disagree with their reasoning, but it’s not necessarily a matter of revelation. As to it being long, long ago, what does that have to do with validity? The mathematics of Pythagoras and Euclid are as valid now as they were two and a half millennia ago.
MH, what you say is true, but it seems that those on both sides feel the need to make them, or they wouldn’t keep doing it. Some of us would argue that what (if anything) one uses as a basis for morality is of great importance.
John E., as I’ve said before, if it comes down to a “who cares” argument, dialogue is stopped. For you, a good breakfast is enough; for some of us, there needs to be meaning in the world. For such divergent views all you can do is paraphrase Wittgenstein and say, “Whereof we cannot communicate, thereof we must pass over in silence.”



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BobSF

posted July 19, 2010 at 7:46 pm


“Because we say so,” or “Because that’s the right thing to do,” both of which to me seem very weak.
No, no. Because it’s transcendent. There. All better.



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BobSF

posted July 19, 2010 at 7:48 pm


As to it being long, long ago, what does that have to do with validity?
That, it strikes me, is a question better left to the traditionalists among us.



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Frank

posted July 19, 2010 at 7:56 pm


John E., as I’ve said before, if it comes down to a “who cares” argument, dialogue is stopped. For you, a good breakfast is enough; for some of us, there needs to be meaning in the world. For such divergent views all you can do is paraphrase Wittgenstein and say, “Whereof we cannot communicate, thereof we must pass over in silence.”
Tumarion seems to have framed this argument as well as I’ve ever seen it. For one to transcend being merely a common animal, interested only in his breakfast, for one to become a truly enlightened human, no longer mere animal, one must not only need meaning in one’s life but also find it in a transcendent reality that can be used as proof of the God of choice at the moment.
Not even meaning in this earthly life is good enough. There is apparently something inherently defective about that.
You can attempt to be as oblique as you can manage, Tumarion, but the condescending meaning of your argument always seeps out.



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Pat

posted July 19, 2010 at 8:02 pm


What use is a transcendent source of value, if not everybody believes in it? You can’t use divinely inspired morals to solve moral disagreements, because those disagreements often arise because the people involved worship different divinities. And making other people accept your divinity is a lot harder than making them accept your morals.
If anything, ascribing morals to some divinity *reduces* your chance of defining a “universally shared, equal, independent-of-local-culture-and-habit conception of human flourishing”; it can turn what might otherwise be a win-win discussion of what people need to flourish into a battle between religions, where one must lose.



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John E. - Agn Stoic

posted July 19, 2010 at 8:05 pm


Frank, don’t be too hard on Tumarion’s argument – we’ve got a long standing discussion that revolves around our diverging temperaments.
For me, if it were proven that there was no God, I would still be happy to get out of bed and enjoy a good breakfast.
Tumarion, if I understand him correctly, would see no point in doing anything at all and would (he can correct me if I am wrong) likely kill himself because if it were proven that there was no God, then he would see no reason to continue to live.
I do not understand his point of view, but then I do not require transcendent meaning in my life to make my life important to me.
I believe he has said that he finds this view impossible to understand.



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Geoff G.

posted July 19, 2010 at 8:14 pm


Larry
And you show a certain ignorance of the state of culture before Christianity came on the scene. Discarding unwanted infants, especially girls, gladiatorial games, girls marrying as young as 8 or 9, and so on. Don’t even get me started over pagan religious practices, except maybe to note that modern “pagans”, aren’t really pagan. And your precious philosophers didn’t have a problem with any of it, by and large. If any of them truly came across an objective standard without reference to God, it was one that allowed for a lot of evil. Nor were they as irreligious as you seem to think. If natural law can truly reveal an objective standard, why did Barth think natural law led straight to the Third Reich?
Ignoring the standard reductio ad hitlerum that can never be resisted in these arguments, shall we compare the horrors of medieval Europe, presumably far more Christian than today, with those of Rome or Greece? Perhaps the Wars of Religion of the 17th century? Or the 11th century slaughter of Jews in Germany after the preaching of the First Crusade (itself an early exercise in Christian colonialism)? Perhaps you might care to comment on medieval anti-Semitism as a whole, which was overwhelmingly religious in tone?
And, as I pointed out, there were, in fact several pagan philosophers who did indeed eschew the vulgarity of the day. Even fundamental social institutions like slavery were challenged by pagans like Seneca.
Turmarion
What you say about some kind of transcendent being present in most pre-Christian philosophy is quite true, but as you say, that transcendent bears little resemblance to how God is understood by most people here in the West.
And, regardless of what Williams may actually have meant, his remarks are taken by all sides to reduce back to “there is no morality without religion.” After all, was Rod’s title Rowan Williams: Why Society Needs the Transcendent? Of course not, and no surprise. One would expect the Archbishop of Canterbury to articulate at least some vaguely Christian understanding of the divine.
This is exactly the leap that many secularists simply cannot make: accepting some kind of Primum Mobile is one thing; translating that into a God intimately involved with human affairs is quite another.
Note too the emphasis on “a notion of the sacred.” That is quite a different matter than simply accepting the existence of some kind of Stoic or Pythagorean Logos.
Stoics in particular (n.b. Larry, Seneca was a Stoic) formed their morality in deliberate emulation of that Logos. Even more than the thinkers of the Enlightenment, they worshiped at the altar of human reason.
As I stated previously, I think religion is an excellent tool for propagating morality. One of the very great insights of the founders of Christianity was to bring religion and morality together in such a powerful way that, 2000 years later, it’s very difficult to tease them apart. And that is not an insignificant achievement.
But there is something very utilitarian in this understanding of the social need for religion. I get the impression that lots of political elites have understood this precise point. Confucius in particular, from my understanding at least, appreciates religion precisely as a means of social control, not necessarily out of any particular reverence for Tian.



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John E. - Agn Stoic

posted July 19, 2010 at 8:17 pm


John E., as I’ve said before, if it comes down to a “who cares” argument, dialogue is stopped.
Actually, Tumarion, my question wasn’t so much as ‘who cares’ but rather why I should have to justify the basis of my moral code to anyone else.



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Turmarion

posted July 19, 2010 at 8:28 pm


BobSF: No, no. Because it’s transcendent. There. All better.
Snark doesn’t speak to the question. On what would you base an ethic of universal human rights without the transcendent?
BobSF: (quoting me) “As to it being long, long ago, what does that have to do with validity?”
That, it strikes me, is a question better left to the traditionalists among us.
It’s not a matter of tradition–Euclidean geometry is eternally true by its nature. The square root of two will never, under any circumstances, be rational; the fact that this was discovered in the 6th Century BC by the Pythagorean school is utterly irrelevant to its validity.
Thus, if there is a transcendent, be it God, the dharmakaya, the Great Eternal Burrito, or whatever, then by definition it is universally and eternally valid. Whether such a thing exists is a different matter; I assume you’d say it doesn’t. However it’s important to note one, that not all who assume it does exist do so on the basis of revelation or religion, and two, if it exists then it’s not bound by culture or time.
Frank: Not even meaning in this earthly life is good enough. There is apparently something inherently defective about that.
If you want me to be more explicit, I’m happy to oblige–I’d agree with this completely.
You can attempt to be as oblique as you can manage, Tumarion, but the condescending meaning of your argument always seeps out.
Perhaps I may be more convoluted than necessary at times–it’s who I am–but I don’t think any long-timers here would say I’m oblique.
John Stuart Mill, an atheist, secularist, and utilitarian, famously said that Socrates dissatisfied is better than a fool satisfied, that a human dissatisfied is better than a pig satsified, and that if the fool or the pig disagreed, it was sufficient to say that Socrates or the man could see both sides of the issue. Thus, even he seemed to think that there’s more to life than being a “mere animal”.
Some might think it condescending, or worse, to say that this life and the meaning in it is enough when the majority of humans throughout history have lived lives that were, in Hobbes’s phrase, “nasty, brutish, and short”. Some might think that to postulate that this is all there is is the equivalent of saying “tough t****” to the vast bulk of the human race and their misery and suffering. Some might think this a rather impovereished view, to say the least.
In any case, there are several here, notably MH and John E. with whom I’ve been able to cordially disagree (and sometimes even agree). If you think I’m being condescending, you’re misreading me. I would never insist that others embrace my belief system; and though I admit I am completely incapable of understanding someone who doesn’t consider the “meaning of it all” important (and perhaps vice versa), I bear such people no ill-will at all. Many of them (maybe most) are probably better persons than I. The God I believe in is not going to condemn them to perdition for honest disagreement. And if they’re right, then that’s my problem, isn’t it?



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MH

posted July 19, 2010 at 9:01 pm


Turmarion, my reaction is likely my metaphysics fatigue kicking in again as there’s no way to settle the debate.
Moreover, even if I accept the premise that a God is required to ground a moral code, I don’t know which God or which moral code! Even if I accept the Christian God I’ll find that Christians can’t agree among themselves what’s moral when it comes to things like: masturbation, homosexuality, divorce, contraception, abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and the death penalty. So it looks like Christians apply their own ethical standards from outside the Bible to formulate these disagreements.
So how exactly is this a step forward? This is quite unlike the square root of two where the truth of the premise is obvious.



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Larry

posted July 19, 2010 at 9:01 pm


Ignoring the standard reductio ad hitlerum that can never be resisted in these arguments, shall we compare the horrors of medieval Europe, presumably far more Christian than today, with those of Rome or Greece?
Be glad to. Medieval Europe was far from perfect, but was far more humane than classical civilizations. You have undoubtedly heard of the pagan practice of entail reading, were you aware that it wasn’t always animal entrails that were read?
Bringing in Barth’s opinion of natural law, and why he thought so, is hardly reductio ad hitlerum. Godwin’s law has turned into a quick and facile “argument” for those who don’t want to face up to some of the implications of the Third Reich.
Perhaps you might care to comment on medieval anti-Semitism as a whole, which was overwhelmingly religious in tone?
Sure. For instance were you aware that Jews were often protected by local Cardinals (who had the manpower and authority to protect them). The Medieval pogroms were more popular than religious, or at least they didn’t have the sanction of the church. The worst outbursts were often in towns that lacked a cardinal so there wasn’t anybody around with the power and authority to stop the mob. As I said Medieval Europe was far from perfect, but mobs killing members of an “out” group was hardly a Medieval invention.
Even fundamental social institutions like slavery were challenged by pagans like Seneca.
Seneca never challenged the legitimacy of slavery, though he did argue that slaves should be well treated. Also, Seneca wrote after the establishment of Christianity, so may very well have been influenced by Christian ideas. especially those of Paul.



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Turmarion

posted July 19, 2010 at 9:27 pm


John E., thanks for getting my back. ? Your description of my viewpoint is, indeed accurate. As to justifying one’s ethics or moral code to others, in one sense no one has to. On the other hand, when people try to get abortion legalized or banned, support or oppose affirmative action, call for intervention in a foreign country or isolation, etc., they usually make moral arguments (“abortion is murder/the woman’s choice”; “affirmative action is unfair/necessary”; “we must stop the atrocities in Whatsistan/it’s not our business”; etc.). In such cases, we generally have to take at least a stab on justifying our ethics (“Why is it our business to intervene, or not, in Whatsistan? Why is abortion murder, or not? “ etc.).
MH, fair enough. I’m aiming more at others than at you specifically. I think we’ve agreed to disagree, and that’s OK. I certainly don’t want to metaphysically fatigue you!
Geoff G. at 8:14 PM: Excellent, and I’d pretty much agree with you on all points. It’s true that the post said religion, not the transcendent, and that Rowan Williams is indeed an archbishop. It’s also true that the god of the philosophers is very much different from the Abrahamic God.
Having said that, what I’m getting at is this: whether you’re a Christian or even a theist at all, if you want universal human rights you have to have something beyond the merely human, something transcendent. In this respect, moderns (mid-19th Century onward) are unique or nearly unique throughout human history in that they wish to discard or even deny the existence of the transcendent. Now if one goes the Nietzschean route that it’s all about the will to power and doesn’t claim any namby-pamby stuff about human rights and dignity, that works. If one goes Existentialist and says the world is harsh and meaningless and we’re “condemned to be free,” that also works. If one goes Deconstructionist/postmodernist/relativist in which it’s all a sort of Dada-like game that is whatever you make of it, that, too, works.
However, if one wants to be a sort of secular humanist type who values human dignity and equality and universal human rights while denying any source for them, well, all I can say is that there seems to be extreme cognitive dissonance going on!
I think in this sense that the ancients of all cultures are much closer to members of Abrahamic faiths and other theists than they are to moderns. I imagine that if Plato or Seneca or Marcus Aurelius or Confucius or any of the other ancient worthies were to come back and study modern ethical philosophy, they’d be perplexed, nonplussed, discouraged, and would vehemently disagree.
This is why I consider this important. If you lose the basis, theist or not, you are, in my opinion, on the way to trouble in the long term. Admittedly, the issue gets stated in theistic terms; but that tends to irritate me since lots of people conflate the two—in short, they think that if you promote an objective basis for morality you’re ipso facto pushing a religion, which is far from the case.
As to “a notion of the sacred”, I think that was present in Pythagoras, Plato, and Laozi, for sure, though their philosophies don’t rise or fall on it. Confucius did see the rites (li), that is, the conventionalized expression of religion, as utilitarian, true enough; but he seems to have had some vague belief in Tian as the actual guarantor of moral order, nevertheless, although he was reluctant to say anything about it.
One more thing, re the god of the philosophers vs. the god of theists. In his excellent book How to Think about God, the late Mortimer Adler says that while (in his view) the god of the philosophers can be established beyond a reasonable doubt by reason alone, that this is not the same as establishing the God of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or any other theism. He gives some suggestions for bridging the gap, but ends by saying that ultimately it’s a leap of faith. In his autobiography Philosopher at Large, he explains why, despite being a Thomist, he was not Catholic or even Christian. Succinctly, he believed in the god of the philosophers but had no faith. Later, as he described in Philosophers Who Believe , he made that leap of faith and became Episcopalian. Before he died he converted to Catholicism.
The point is that I think for someone like Rowan Williams who is speaking, perhaps, to intellectuals in an intellectual milieu, the first job is to establish the god of the philosophers, since many don’t even accept that anymore (whereas in antiquity such a belief would be nearly universal among the intelligentsia). If someone doesn’t even accept the philosophers’ god, they’ll never accept the God of Abraham. From that point, it’s a matter of trying to elicit that leap of faith. This is not necessarily illegitimate.
My personal perspective is this: If one can be brought non-coercively to theism from such arguments, that’s great—after all, I am a theist! ;) However, I don’t think God is hurling atheists, agnostics, and such into the pits of Hell, either, so I don’t see it as a vital necessity, and it’s not something I spend time on. However, I do think that getting people to the god-of-the-philosophers stage is important, because I think the lack of even that bodes ill, not because I think God is damning people for it, but because I think that in the long term, for society. Shorter me: more theists would be nice, but more Stoics (or such) is vital!



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michael

posted July 19, 2010 at 9:33 pm


I once lamented the trend of religion being pushed to private spaces… until I realized that the alternative would be a country where the likes of Sarah Palin, D. James Kennedy, et al would be the leaders of ‘public Christianity’. Private spaces, please.



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John E. - Agn Stoic

posted July 19, 2010 at 9:58 pm


Now if one goes the Nietzschean route that it’s all about the will to power and doesn’t claim any namby-pamby stuff about human rights and dignity, that works.
How about if one takes a Nietzscean view that it is my will to see universal human rights and dignity enacted and I will extend the power I have to make it so?
Because ultimately I can’t give a transcendent reason why there should be universal human rights and dignity, but I would have it be so because that is the way I want things to be.
Sort of a benevolent Nietzscan.



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James Boggs

posted July 19, 2010 at 10:17 pm


“Just to clarify my point, religion is not necessary for forming a solid moral framework. But as a practical matter, it’s method of dissemination of that framework is unparalleled.”
Sadly, it is also a method for disseminating bigotry, ignorance, cruelty, and a general disdain for critical thinking. And, the statement is simply unsupported.
As for a secular source for morality, it’s almost stupidly simple.
I want to be treated well.
Treating others well is more likely to result in being treated well, and causing harm to others is more likely to result in harm to myself.
Not to mention the biological roots of altruism and social cohesion common among primate species, and many other mammals.
Its just a good idea.



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James Boggs

posted July 19, 2010 at 10:24 pm


“However, if one wants to be a sort of secular humanist type who values human dignity and equality and universal human rights while denying any source for them, well, all I can say is that there seems to be extreme cognitive dissonance going on!”
Elaborate on what this cognitive dissonance is?
Also, I have to point out that I don’t know of any secular humanists who deny a source of humanist ideals; Humans are the source of humanist ideals.
I want to reap the benefits of living in a world where people are treated well, and fairly, and I would like my children to reap those benefits as well.
How is that hard to understand?



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TWylite

posted July 19, 2010 at 11:23 pm


I’ll throw out that Objectivism (Ayn Rand’s nominally atheistic philospophy) claims that biological life and death is a metaphysical absolute that is the fundamental basis of ethics. Generally, ethical descisions can be reduced to a “life-versus-death” choice.
Objectivism also pays fealty to considering “quality of life” versus merely clinging to life at all costs: man’s “happiness” as some kind of standard, while at the same time it tries to sidestep the Nietszchean caricature of anything-goes moral solipsism with a concept of universal individual rights. Basically, the freedom of my fist stops at your nose.
This is a great simplification based on my limited understanding. But it is an example of a secular moral system that trie to span the “is/ought” gap usually filled in by a supernatural bridge. Rand claimed to be very influenced by Aristotle, for what that’s worth. At one point in my life, I found all this very intriguing, but lacking in it’s rather robotic view of human nature. And once offspring came into the picture, I could clearly see it as a product of someone who never had to change a diaper at 3 AM.



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Turmarion

posted July 19, 2010 at 11:56 pm


John E.: Sort of a benevolent Nietzscan.
I think that would be a contradiction in terms! ;)
James Boggs: As for a secular source for morality, it’s almost stupidly simple. I want to be treated well.
So did Jews in Nazi Germany, black slaves in the antebellum South, slave in general throughout history, the Helots in Sparta, Koreans under Japanese rule; so do the minorities in Darfur now, the Tibetans under Chinese rule, non-Muslims in Islamist states, the Untouchables in India…..
Treating others well is more likely to result in being treated well, and causing harm to others is more likely to result in harm to myself.
Only among peers. In societies where some groups (slave, women, untouchables, etc.) are denied full humanity, the members of the dominant group feel no compunction about mistreating the members of the oppressed group, and have little fear of retaliation because they hold all the power. Even when the oppressed rise up, it rarely is successful (think Spartacus–the Servile Wars were the greatest slave rebellion ever seen, and nevertheless the slaves were brutally put down and the institution survived for centuries more).
Not to mention the biological roots of altruism and social cohesion common among primate species, and many other mammals.
Chimpanzees, our closest living kin, also go to war, commit murder, rape and infanticide, and sometimes cannibalism.
Elaborate on what this cognitive dissonance [of humanists] is?
To say, in effect, “there is no ultimate source of value or meaning” and simultaneously “all humans are of worth” is a logical contradiction. If there is no ultimate source of value, then “all humans are of worth” does not logically follow any more or less than, “all Aryans are of worth, but not others”, “all whites are of worth, but not blacks”, “all men are of worth, but not women”, “all freemen are of worth, but not slaves”, “no humans are of worth”, etc. To maintain belief in contradictory propositions is cognitive dissonance.
Also, I have to point out that I don’t know of any secular humanists who deny a source of humanist ideals; Humans are the source of humanist ideals.
Ah, but what if I say that human nature thrives on competition and the subjugation of the weak by the powerful? Plenty of humans have believed (and still believe) that through the ages. Why is that any less legitimate than humanist ideals?
I want to reap the benefits of living in a world where people are treated well, and fairly, and I would like my children to reap those benefits as well.
So do I, but all too many people don’t care about people in general getting treated well and fairly, but only theirs and their own. Ever heard the aphorism, “Look out for Number One”? Heck, right on this blog stari_momak is constantly advocating a “look out for white people’s interests, keep the rest of ‘em out” ethos. For the world as a whole, changing “white” to “my group”, I sadly am inclined to think his view is normative, not ours.
How is that hard to understand?
Perfectly easy. How hard is it to understand that wanting it that way ain’t gonna make it so?
I might point out that I’m not so naive as to argue that if everyone suddenly agreed on a transcendent source of ethics that Utopia would arrive. The very ancient cultures that I have put forth as accepting a universal, transcendent source of value were also cruel and brutal. What I do think that if a loss of a concept of transcendent value became the norm, the long-term effects on society would be even worse.
TWylite, excellent post. Like libertarianism in general, Objectivism works best for childless immortals!



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Franklin Evans

posted July 20, 2010 at 12:04 am


Larry, the only answer to out-of-context readings of history is simple: So long as you insist on applying modern cultural and social norms to ancient practices and beliefs, you will always be right. Seems like you might be wasting your time posting here, seeing as how no one could possibly convince you otherwise.
I once met a man online, an historian with an (I’m seriously sure is a well-deserved) international reputation in his field, who insisted to me that I could not possibly be a Pagan of any stripe or variety unless I practiced blood sacrifice. I couldn’t even cite to him the various legal and moral prohibitions against that practice implemented by Pagan governments during their reigns. He had a ready answer: They at one time practiced heinous acts. I can’t identify with them even under the very broad label of “Pagan” unless I believe that those practices were valid.
The tu quoque fallacy rules, I guess. That humans perpetrated egregious acts of evil throughout our species history, and some of those humans were Christians, is clearly of no importance. After all, Christianity is perfect, and anyone straying from that perfection cannot be validly called True Christians.
Feh.



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John E. - Agn Stoic

posted July 20, 2010 at 12:08 am


John E.: Sort of a benevolent Nietzscan.
Tumarion: I think that would be a contradiction in terms! ;)
Well, okay, not so much benevolent, but rather a Nietzsean whose Will is that human rights and dignity be applied universally – and that anyone who opposes this WILL BE DESTROYED!!!
Better?



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Franklin Evans

posted July 20, 2010 at 12:13 am


And since I’m in a mood to add to the tu quoque fire:
Discarding unwanted infants, especially girls, … a common practice amongst Christian monarchies who both believed in Eve’s guilt as the Original Sinner and God’s blessing on male primogenitor, though admittedly the unwanted girls ended up in convents; gladiatorial games, … a common form of entertainment amongst the Christian monarchies, in some places called jousting; girls marrying as young as 8 or 9 … a common result of arranged marriages between Christian monarchs, for political, mercantile and dynastic reasons.



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TTT

posted July 20, 2010 at 12:17 am


To say, in effect, “there is no ultimate source of value or meaning” and simultaneously “all humans are of worth” is a logical contradiction.
Atheists do not deny an ultimate source of value or meaning–merely a supernatural Intelligent Designer variety. The uniqueness of life, uniqueness of humanity as part of life, and objectively superior experiences for human communities made possible by certain conditions–peaceful coexistence, rule of law–are all pretty good sources of value.
Ah, but what if I say that human nature thrives on competition and the subjugation of the weak by the powerful? Plenty of humans have believed (and still believe) that through the ages. Why is that any less legitimate than humanist ideals?
Argument from naturality is subject to evidence of natural behavior–and they would be hard-pressed to prove that humanity *as a whole* thrives from inequality and subjugation. They would have to argue only for their own personal / caste / in-group benefit–and in that case there is no need to make an argument, since no one outside the favored group matters.



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Turmarion

posted July 20, 2010 at 12:20 am


John E.: Well, okay, not so much benevolent, but rather a Nietzsean whose Will is that human rights and dignity be applied universally – and that anyone who opposes this WILL BE DESTROYED!!!
ROFLMAO!!!
Better?
Immensely! :)



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Karl G

posted July 20, 2010 at 1:41 am


Turmarion,
To posit that secular morality is obviously invalid because early philosophers that took a stab at it used it to validate injustices that they were culturally biased towards is about the equivalent of saying we should throw out modern chemistry because ancient alchemists were barking up the wrong tree. While they may have been brilliant and insightful for their times, that doesn’t somehow make them the last word, any more than Galileo was the last word on astronomy, or Newton on physics.
Humanist morals don’t need any external justification when they can simply point to the evidence of millennia of human history as a body of evidence from which to draw their conclusions about what values lend the best health to human society. All of your examples of the failures of inequities serve, in and of themselves as the answer to your question as to why those aren’t equally justified- the suffering and social collapse caused by such abuses is argument enough against them.
A car engine without oil fails because of the heat generated by friction, not because of the decree from the manufacturer that oil is needed. It’s possible to learn of the need either from the manual or by understanding of the basic physical properties involved. One can reach the understanding that a certain amount of lubrication is necessary by either method, though it may be a longer and more costly process overall to learn it by studying the physical processes than it is to simply accept the word of the manufacturer. (And, of course, if you are inventing an engine yourself, then you must go by the former method rather than the latter as part of your engineering process.)



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MH

posted July 20, 2010 at 6:52 am


John E. – Agn Stoic, that sounds like the God of the old testament to me.



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Turmarion

posted July 20, 2010 at 6:53 am


TTT: Atheists do not deny an ultimate source of value or meaning–merely a supernatural Intelligent Designer variety.
Depends on the atheist, doesn’t it? You’re being rather sweeping here! Many atheists, particularly the Existentialists, to say nothing of some posters here in such discussions, most certainly have denied any ultimate source of value or meaning, supernatural or not, intelligent or not.
Argument from naturality is subject to evidence of natural behavior–and they would be hard-pressed to prove that humanity *as a whole* thrives from inequality and subjugation.
I don’t know–it looks to me as if human society throughout most of history has been characterized by inequality and subjugation. Are we talking about the same planet?
Karl G.: To posit that secular morality is obviously invalid because early philosophers that took a stab at it used it to validate injustices that they were culturally biased….
See, you’re misconstruing what I said. Confucianism and Stoicism, for example, were perfectly secular. I did not say that no secular morality works–like others, you keep putting words in my mouth. What I said is that no morality without an objective, external basis works. That does not necessarily imply God or religion. Even moralities with such a basis (that is, all moralities before modern times) didn’t work that well for slaves, women, peasants, etc.; but there is no long-term evidence that moralities lacking such a basis would work at all, though we seem to be making a society-wide experiment in implementing such a morality.
Humanist morals don’t need any external justification when they can simply point to the evidence of millennia of human history as a body of evidence from which to draw their conclusions about what values lend the best health to human society. All of your examples of the failures of inequities serve…. (emphasis added)
Right here you’re also misunderstanding me. My point was that the “evidence of millennia of human history” is that the values we moderns hold dear are very rare and rarely sustainable. Inequities did not in fact produce failures. Slavery, oppression, subjugation of women, etc. have flourished throughout history and societies that practiced them did not “suffer social collapse caused by such abuses”–on the contrary, dislike it as we may, they did quite well. Look at how long Rome lasted. Look at China–its human rights are appalling, but it seems to doing just dandy.
The vision of universal human rights and the ethos that comes with it is very, very recent, dating only from the Enlightenment. Philosophies that had a basis for this have been around for a long time, but it seems that only with the relatively high levels of technology from the 18th Century onward coupled with the application of this ethos across cultures in a way never before seen that societies have actually been able to pursue humanistic values by freeing slaves, emancipating women, etc. To say, as you, TTT, and others do, that humanistic values are somehow the natural outcome of things, or that societies that don’t pursue them collapse, when the entire sweep of human history shows the exact opposite, is truly astounding. To say that the fragile concept of universal human rights and humanistic values could remain if humans give up the notion of objective morality, which even the Enlightenment philosophes held, is at very least yet to be demonstrated. Maybe you’re right–since things seem to be moving that way, we’d better hope you are; but I’m not sanguine about it.



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Michael C

posted July 20, 2010 at 7:41 am


So an atheist might say “I pay my taxes, I look after my family, I never cheat or steal, I’m kind to strangers and give money to charity. I’m a good person – better than many Christians I know.” The problem remains that he has no way of explaining why any of those things are admirable or good or just.
He might also say “I don’t keep slaves just because some book says I can. I don’t denigrate other people for their sexuality. I believe that every citizen should have the same rights as every other citizen. I believe that there is nothing that I can do that a woman cannot do. I do not murder other people because my book says I should. I do not believe that laws decided by religious leaders take precedence over national laws.



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Franklin Evans

posted July 20, 2010 at 9:06 am


This “external source of justification” being bandied about… Have any of you read the preamble to the Constitution of the United States?
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
One could argue — and that would include me — that mentions of higher powers are both unnecessary and, as this document goes on to state explicitly, a potential hazard that the Founders both recognized and acted to avoid.
Employing Occam’s Razor — and demonstrating zero sympathy for religionists of any stripe — only those who seek to re-insert religion into secular life argue against this wholly (ahem) secular establishment of a national, societal morality.
“But they were men of Faith!” religionists cry, as if holding a religious faith is the only justification needed to assume that surely they meant to establish God as the final “authority”.
Article VI, section 3: “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Emphasis added.
It doesn’t say “no religious test except a Christian one,” nor does it specify in the negative or positive any other belief system. Notice two little words in there, as well. “Public trust” is as big as it gets. With the religion clauses of the First Amendment, it sets up a clear boundary between an individual’s religious faith and the nation’s secular morality. It states, unequivocally, that the highest priority is the secular morality of the nation in the governance of it, the promulgation and enforcement of its laws, and the consequences of failure to fulfill that oath or affirmation.
No religious test means that no matter how much you (general) might distrust those not of your religious faith, no matter how much you might question their lack of religious faith, so long as that person offers his or her oath or affirmation, they have fulfilled the requirements of public trust and the secular morality.
You (general) have recourse. You can choose to not vote for that person, to exercise your freedom of speech to propagandize (but not lie!) against that person, and at the secular nihilistic fringe withdraw completely from your obligations as citizens because your religious faith bars you from swearing an oath or affirmation to anyone or anything other than your deity. The recourse you don’t have is to impose any of that on those who do not agree with you.



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TTT

posted July 20, 2010 at 10:28 am


it looks to me as if human society throughout most of history has been characterized by inequality and subjugation. Are we talking about the same planet?
Yes, but not the same topic: I was responding to your prior description of a hypothetical argument that it would be “best for humanity” to enslave and subjugate people. You are now talking about whether it works at all. Very different! In general, someone arguing that inequality makes the best societies is no different from someone saying that civilization could only have happened thanks to Christianity, or that stubbing your toe must have given you that headache, or that air conditioning only exists because the people who built the technology had all had chickenpox as a child.
To say, as you, TTT, and others do, that humanistic values are somehow the natural outcome of things
I have never said they are the natural outcome; I say they are the best. The natural outcome for most of humanity through most of history was to have smelly armpits. Underarm deodorant was by no means a fait accompli, but it was the right way to go.



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Larry

posted July 20, 2010 at 10:59 am


Discarding unwanted infants, especially girls, … a common practice amongst Christian monarchies who both believed in Eve’s guilt as the Original Sinner and God’s blessing on male primogenitor, though admittedly the unwanted girls ended up in convents; gladiatorial games, … a common form of entertainment amongst the Christian monarchies, in some places called jousting; girls marrying as young as 8 or 9 … a common result of arranged marriages between Christian monarchs, for political, mercantile and dynastic reasons.
Yes, putting children in orphanages is exactly the same as throwing them on garbage heaps.
Jousting can’t be compared to the Roman games, while it was a very rough “sport” steps were taken to limit the lethality. Lances had rounded tips, swords and knives were dulled. Also Innocent II did what he could to stop the tournaments, proclaiming that anybody killed during a tournament could not receive a Christian burial. He did this in 1130, shortly after the establishment of jousting and tournaments.
While Medieval marriages might have been arranged for very young girls, they weren’t consummated until the girl reached a more suitable age, unlike the ancient custom.



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Turmarion

posted July 20, 2010 at 11:14 am


TTT: I have never said they are the natural outcome; I say they are the best.
There’s the nub–by what criteria do you say they’re the best? How do you argue the point (short of war) with someone (like a Nazi) who says that inequality and subjugation are best?
Of course, one probably has to use force on a Nazi anyway. My point is that if there is a shared idea that morality is not just a human construct that some (not necessarily all) think is “best”, but something transcendent (and let’s be clear–the concept of karma in the Dharmic religions is completely impersonal and non-theistic, but very much objective and transcendent; so “transcendent” does not equal “Old Man in Sky ready to smite you with thunderbolt”–as if most intelligent theists believed that, anyway), then there is in my opinion at least a slightly better chance of agreement in moral debate. Both sides can take the argument to a higher level, so to speak, and it’s not just about what each group wants or thinks is best for itself.
I teach, and it would shock you the number of students I’ve had (some of them well-behaved, “good” students) who have point blank said that the only reason you should do the right thing is that you might get caught; if there’s no danger of getting caught, there’s no problem in cheating, taking something not yours, etc. It’s like the Ring of Gyges. Even as far back as that, the pagan Plato was making the same argument that I am: if morality is nothing more than a social construct, or an evolutionary advantage, or some such, then it is extremely fragile and will be violated by most people at the first opportunity. In short, if people don’t think there’s some “higher reason”, and not necessarily a theistic one, to behave, they won’t, by and large.
I guess you could accuse me of taking a cynical, “social utility” view of moral philosophy and/or religion. Perhaps I am more pessimistic about human nature than you are. In any case, I believe in a transcendent objective morality for other reasons; but such a view damn sure is useful, too.
BTW, Franklin, I agree completely with your last post, but I trust this one makes it clear why, with respect, it’s completely irrelevant to the point I’m making.



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Franklin Evans

posted July 20, 2010 at 11:31 am


Turmarion, that’s okay. I’ll fix it for you. ;-) (Many readers may not know that Turmarion and I are well acquainted with each other on this forum.)
The “I won’t get caught” paradigm is quite rational and reasonable. Most college students have vivid memories of their childhoods, and the thought processes they had when faced with (the simple, for children) moral questions.
Paring away the abstract rhetoric and philosophical musings, the founders (at least by implication) acknowledged the “only if I might get caught” mindset by saying: Let them try. If they get caught, the law defines their punishment. (That’s a practical application of the abstract concept of “innocent until proven guilty”.)
The conflict I see in this topical area is something of a cognition problem. We (myself included) fail to stay aware of the dividing line between abstract and practice. We discuss “prevention” under the former, but then project that into the latter. History (recent, for those of us with children) know that even the strongest attempts at prevention fail to with the stubbornest child bent on doing the wrong thing. How can we forget the Napster saga, with older children and younger adults justifying their theft of property simply because they could get away with it… until, of course, some of them got caught.
Clearly, the moral teaching provided to/imposed on those people failed… or is theft no longer immoral? I have trouble keeping up with the inner workings of faiths I don’t follow or observe daily. :-\



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Franklin Evans

posted July 20, 2010 at 11:40 am


I hope you can forgive me, Larry, but you responded almost word-for-word as I expected you to.
So, tell me. If no one is getting killed, if the girl is kept in purdah until she reaches puberty, that makes the practices okay?
Yes, putting children in orphanages is exactly the same as throwing them on garbage heaps.
Why, yes, it is. That orphans grew up being taught they are worthless (you really should read up on the literature concerning bastardy and the de facto slavery of orphanage) is pretty close from my POV to not being alive. But, then, I wasn’t alive back then. I am hypocritically projecting my modern sensibility on the former practices. I’m sure we can find a handful of success stories amongst those untold thousands of children abandoned by their parents to justify the practice.
Innocent II did what he could to stop the tournaments, proclaiming that anybody killed during a tournament could not receive a Christian burial.
Seems a pretty lame effort compared to the laws passed and enforced in Pagan regimes, prohibiting past practices like human sacrifice. But since they weren’t Popes, I guess they don’t count.



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sigaliris

posted July 20, 2010 at 11:50 am


Turmarion, I think you and everyone else should declare a moratorium on references to Pan troglodytes unless and until you’re willing to consider with equal weight the social arrangements of Pan paniscus,, the bonobo. Do the words “bonobo handshake” mean anything to you? In her book of that name, primate researcher Vanessa Woods points out:
They [bonobos] share their food with neighbors, resolve conflicts without argument or violence, and they mate consensually with several same- and opposite-sex partners. In fact, Woods coins the phrase and title of the book, “bonobo handshake,” when she observes bonobos offering their genitals to one another as a greeting.
In any case, the fact that Pan troglodytes, like other animal species, sometimes engages in hostile and aggressive behavior, doesn’t by any means change the fact that animals do demonstrate altruism and social cohesion in ways that are pretty hard to explain if you posit that they’d have to be receiving instructions from a transcendent source of morals before they could create a way of life that was mutually beneficial.
Human society, like the human genome, evolves. Religion is a part of that evolution. There are complex interactions among environments, behaviors, and the group mythos that helps transmit cultural constructs over time. Assuming that morality can’t exist until there’s a transmission from a transcendent source poses a lot of problems, particularly if you’ve accepted the necessity of some form of physical evolution.
To stake out ethical behavior as something that can only exist in the presence of religious faith, it’s not enough to point out that non-believers have done some bad things now or in the past. Wouldn’t you have to show that acknowledging transcendence actually makes believers behave better over all? This is the crucial FAIL in these discussions of the origins of morality, I think. Becoming a religious practitioner clearly DOESN’T make a person a good, moral, ethical, altruistic, non-violent, just, temperate, honest human being. So what’s the point of believing in an transcendental ethical code if it doesn’t reliably change your behavior?



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sigaliris

posted July 20, 2010 at 11:52 am


Sorry for html fail. If only I had an all-knowing source for my typography, I’m sure I’d be such a much better typist! : )



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MH

posted July 20, 2010 at 12:08 pm


Turmarion, the problem with the “social utility” view of religion is that it comes really close to the Straussian necessary fiction argument. I recoil from that because noble lies tend to become ignoble in practice.
Also, this might work in the short term, but you know people will start asking “Is this religion true or not?” If they conclude that the religion is false, then your basis for morality crumbles. But if you base it in something everyone can agree upon then it can survive some shocks to the system.
Personally I can see an objective basis for morality rooted in our biology coupled with game theory. The fact that tit for tat is the best strategy in iterated prisoners dilemma seems pretty compelling.



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Franklin Evans

posted July 20, 2010 at 12:15 pm


If only I had an all-knowing source for my typography…
I’m here for you, Sig. A steady supply of good ale would be quite sufficient compensation. ;-)
I prefer Pan Progenitor myself.



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Larry

posted July 20, 2010 at 12:18 pm


So, tell me. If no one is getting killed, if the girl is kept in purdah until she reaches puberty, that makes the practices okay?
That both practices are wrong doesn’t make them equally wrong. Shoplifting is wrong, but murder is more wrong.
Why, yes, it is. That orphans grew up being taught they are worthless (you really should read up on the literature concerning bastardy and the de facto slavery of orphanage) is pretty close from my POV to not being alive.
I’m glad you clarified that.
Seems a pretty lame effort compared to the laws passed and enforced in Pagan regimes,
And which regimes would this be? An example would be nice. There were also, by the way, Christian kings who banned tournaments in their lands. I mentioned the Innocent only because you were trying to lay these things on the church.
I never said the medieval era, or our own for that matter, was perfect, but that doesn’t excuse the barbarity that took place in classical culture. Here’s another example for you. This is how a “love potion” was prepared by a Roman pagan sorcerer, you start with a young boy, sew his eyes open, bury the boy up to his neck. You then place platters of food just out of his reach, continue until the boy dies. Dig up the boy, dry and grind his liver, which was supposed to be saturated with the longing sensations produced by his starvation. Sell potion. Profit! Do you not understand why practices like this would draw a reaction from Christians?



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Franklin Evans

posted July 20, 2010 at 12:36 pm


And which regimes would this be? An example would be nice.
A fair challenge. If you will be patient, tonight from home I’ll provide specific citations that refer to contemporary writers (at the times of those regimes). I’ll expand the citations as well as I can so you can verify their credibility for yourself. As I recall, there is a reference to that “love potion” included in the description of the laws passed banning such practices. The regime in question is, in fact, the Roman Republic.



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Turmarion

posted July 20, 2010 at 12:37 pm


sig, I’m quite well aware of bonobos–they help illustrate the problem, in fact. No amount of pointing to “nature” is of the slightest help in determining ethics. First, no one has an acceptable definition of what “nature” even is–are stone tools “natural” but not shovels? Shovels but not bulldozers? Organic food but not factory farmed? Farmed food at all?
Second, using apes, for example, is like a Rorschach test. Are we more like savage chimps or sexy bonobos? Vegetarian gorillas or carnivorous baboons? Is nature “red in tooth and claw” or fluffy bunny happy get-along? Which is more “natural”, altruism or competition? Who can say? Nazis who argued for extermination of lesser races and humanists who argue for compassion for all and even Peter Singer who argues in favor of infanticide in some cases all appeal to the same nature. Doesn’t seem like an effective strategy.
To stake out ethical behavior as something that can only exist in the presence of religious faith….
Please excuse the caps but…I’M NOT TALKING ABOUT RELIGIOUS FAITH!!! I’M TALKING ABOUT OBJECTIVE, TRANSCENDENT MORALITY WHICH DOES NOT NECESSARILY IMPLY GOD, FAITH, OR RELIGION!!!! AAAAHHHHH!!!!!!
OK, I feel better, now.
So I’m not comparing believers and unbelievers, or religious practitioners and non-practitioners. I’m saying that, in my opinion, a societal view that sees ethics as a social construct is not capable, in the long run, of maintaining a stable society with the type of universal human rights that we hold as vital. I could be wrong on that, but I guess we’ll see over time.
I think, btw, that one can make a completely non-religious case for transcendent, objective ethics, and I think many great philosophers in different cultures have in fact done so. That’s not something there is time or space to argue here, though.
MH, I don’t actually hold a social utility view and I despise Strauss and his disciples. What I was saying (poorly) was that even if you dismiss transcendental ethics, it’s hard for me to see how ethics as a social construct is any better, and that it’s probably much worse. As far as secular theories go, I’d much prefer yours–as you’ve said elsewhere, it gets into the concept that math applies universally and may tie us into the structure of the cosmos. The problem is that I’m not sure that this would work for most people. Once again, I may be cynical about human nature, but I think too many of us would be like Gyges, given the chance.



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sigaliris

posted July 20, 2010 at 12:44 pm


Larry and TTT, perhaps an even better analogy to exposure of unwanted infants in Pagan times would be the shipping of infants off to “wet nurses” or to foundling hospitals–widely practiced by Christians throughout Europe. Between fifty and ninety percent of these infants died. And, as John Boswell pointed out in The Kindness of Strangers, by no means all of the infants abandoned in Roman pagan society died. There’s some controversy over whether Boswell was too optimistic about the survival rate–but it is undeniable that many of those exposed infants were rescued and raised, either as slaves or as foster children. So the differences between Christian and Pagan cultures are not nearly as clear-cut, or as black and white, as Larry might like them to be.
Nor did Romans who became Christians immediately stop the practice of abandoning children. Boswell has unearthed some interesting discussions on this subject among Christians. There were Christian teachers who argued that it was not really very wrong for a father to expose an infant, or sell a child into slavery in times of famine, because after all, he had authority over his family, and what’s a man to do when he can’t afford to feed all of his offspring? The main objection seemed to be based not on the welfare of the child as such, but on concerns about 1) whether the child would receive a Christian upbringing if adopted, and 2) whether the child might inadvertently have sex with a close relative after growing up anonymously.
As for your story about the love potion–fiddle dee dee. I’m pretty sure the average Pagan was not eating dried liver of little boy, any more than the average Christian is out beating his children to death like the devotees of Michael and Debi Pearl. If we’re going to start posting atrocity stories as evidence, there are plenty of them on the Christian side, are there not?
(And thanks, Franklin, but perhaps I’ll just keep the ale for myself and let the keystrokes fall where they may! “Malt does more than Milton can/To justify God’s ways to man,” as A.E. Housman put it.)



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Franklin Evans

posted July 20, 2010 at 12:58 pm


The problem with “natural” arguments — and I respectfully point out that none of you participating in it here have mentioned this — is that humans are unique amongst all of Nature: We can ignore or supercede Nature. We can affect it well out of proportion to our numbers and place on the food chain.
And, since Sig had the temerity to quote Housman, this thread is in deep doo-doo now. Time to panic (panikon deima) now. ;-)



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sigaliris

posted July 20, 2010 at 1:43 pm


Turmarion, I’m so sorry to have caused you frustration! I do understand the distinction you’re trying to make, and I appreciate the care and precision you’ve invested in your arguments. I think this would be a productive discussion to have if we could take it offline, perhaps with some of that ale that Franklin might be persuaded to share with you.
Pardon my careless conflation of yours with other arguments. However, I’m not sure that, in the end, it makes much difference whether the transcendent source is considered to be religious or philosophical. Both are equally vulnerable to your fears that “a societal view that sees ethics as a social construct is not capable, in the long run, of maintaining a stable society with the type of universal human rights that we hold as vital.” I think such a view is an inevitable development, as cultures are forced into close proximity and pluralistic societies become common. It’s no longer possible to see one POV as uniquely valid. People compare, and in so doing, they become capable of standing outside their own tradition and viewing it as one among many. Thus tradition becomes something that you have to choose, rather than something that is simply inevitable. Once you know choice, you can’t un-know it. You can only pretend it doesn’t exist, and then a note of falsity creeps in and undermines your certainties.
True, a society that has learned to take a meta-view of its own mythos is vulnerable to disintegration. On the other hand, a society that can’t examine itself is vulnerable too. It will not be able to manage change. And change is the one Permanent Thing. Perhaps we would be better off examining how morality arises from our being in this world, rather than searching for an eternal sanction that will never again be universally accepted–if indeed it ever was.



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Broken Yogi

posted July 20, 2010 at 3:31 pm


Turmarion,
I’m very much of the viewpoint that the transcendental exists and is central to existence, but I still don’t grasp this argument that secular humanism has no basis for its values and morals. Nor do I see that religious morality is necessarily better than secular morality.
Morality is always a dubious and conditional proposition dependent on all kinds of circumstantial issues, and whether one claims a transcendental source for one’s morality, I see little evidence even among the religious that their moral standards actual come from some transcendental source. Rather, there is merely a believer’s assertion that they do, but I don’t see the evidence to support this claim. So from where I stand, I see morality as always being a human invention, and not a Divine edict. The value of religious morality is that by claiming to found one’s morality in Divine edicts, it’s easier to get people to obey them, and hence one is able to establish a stable society. But the same stability can be achieved without Divine edicts, by merely finding other ways of persuasion.
Morality is a human invention, perhaps influenced in the case of some by some transcendental intuition, but the actual details are of human origin and evolve in the same way as secular moral edicts evolve. So I really don’t see a problem with secular morals on some existential basis, as if they cannot justify their moral order unless they can point to a transcendental source of that order. People obviously choose the moral order that is advantageous to them, and through the arts of persuasion and necessity. Religions create moral orders that are advantageous to them as well, and to their adherents, regardless of what God really wants. If they need a particular moral order to survive and prosper, they will simply institute it and claim that God blessed or inspired them. Secularists can do the same thing and just leave out the God part.
In the end, moral orders are widely adopted because they work, and new moral orders come into being to fix things that didn’t work in the old order, either because the original solution was not a very good one, or because conditions have changed and it doesn’t work anymore.
And there’s also the matter of the cultural evolutionary process, beginning with the simple morality of child-rearing, which is where the real basis for so much morality comes from and the slow but steady progress in accounts for so much of the actual improvements in human society over the centuries. Religion has at times helped to move that process along towards a more loving attitude towards children, but at times it’s been an impediment. A secularist who loves and cares for their children is contributing just a much to the betterment of humanity as a religious person who does. And the morality of the adults is very much a function of how they were raised – not what they were taught so much as how they were treated. And secular morality is fully capable of raising children through love, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof. And religious people are fully capable of being loveless or destructive parents, despite their beliefs in God, or even because of them, if that belief reinforces destructive child-raising practices.



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Turmarion

posted July 20, 2010 at 6:24 pm


Broken Yogi, as I’ve said till I’m blue in the face, I’m not talking about religious ethics, but transcedent, objective ethics. The two overlap, but are not identical; and transcendent, objective ethics can indeed be secular.
People obviously choose the moral order that is advantageous to them….
Well, the Nazis’ ethic was advantageous to them, the Chinese ethic of oppressing Tibetans and Uighurs is advantageous to them, the antebellum slaveholders’ ethic was advantageous to them, and on and on. See the problem? If ethics is solely a “human invention”, then on what basis do we argue for and maintain a humanistic ethic of universal human rights?
In the end, moral orders are widely adopted because they work….
But work for whom? Ethical systems always work for the dominant element in society, but not so much for oppressed classes throughout most human history.
As to your last paragraph, once more, I am not contrasting secularists with religious. I keep saying that and nobody believes me!
Let me challenge you–take some time and read up on Classical ethical philosophy–Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Zeno, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Lucretius, and if you want some Eastern philosophy in there, the Analects of Confucius, the Mencius, and the Tao Teh Ching, and the Dhammapada. You will find that although these differ on many points, they all agree that the basis of ethics is transcendent; none of them are theistic in the way we usually think of, if at all; certainly none of them are “religious”; and their ethical prescriptions are remarkably consistent. I would make this challenge to anyone else, for that matter. If nothing else, it would give one a broader perspective.



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Franklin Evans

posted July 20, 2010 at 8:18 pm


In case Larry should look in again:
I do try to avoid using Wikipedia, but in this case the entry has non-Wiki references that can give you a start on verifying the references.
The best-documented ban on human sacrifice came from the Roman Senate in 97-96 BC. There are less-well documented references for 196 (end of the Second Macedonian War).



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MH

posted July 20, 2010 at 9:46 pm


Turmarion, as the grand master of Ecky Thump says “Not a single one of us can defeat you, so we’ll have to gang up on you.” Translation, those who oppress the weak often come to a bad end at the hands of an angry mob, ask Nicolae Ceau?escu.
Also I don’t think you need to explain game theory to people and have them rationally evaluate situations. Game theory is an abstraction of rules that are wired into our heads as instinctive feelings. The Ultimatum game is a really good example of this in action.
The people who are really dangerous are people who can do evil and not experience feelings of guilt, remorse, and regret. They’ve stepped out of the game and are playing by different rules than the rest of us.



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Karl G

posted July 21, 2010 at 11:06 am


“Well, the Nazis’ ethic was advantageous to them, the Chinese ethic of oppressing Tibetans and Uighurs is advantageous to them, the antebellum slaveholders’ ethic was advantageous to them, and on and on. See the problem?”
No- because you’re taking a very narrow view and pretending that the only perspective that matters is that of the elites. How does China’s prosperity and stability compare to a similar state that is not similarly oppressive. How stable will it be in the long run if it continues such policies? How did things turn out in the long run for the oppressive systems in the South? How did their growth and overall prosperity compare to that of the North?
Simply creating some prosperity and working in the short term or for a small subset of people isn’t sufficient to validate and particular social theory; it’s how it turns out in the long term that matters and what the aggregate benefit is.
It doesn’t take any appeal to a universal moral sense to see that China is hobbling its economy by treating its citizens poorly- that it would be many, many times larger if it allowed them all to prosper, just simple common sense.



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Broken Yogi

posted July 21, 2010 at 1:37 pm


Turmarion,
“as I’ve said till I’m blue in the face, I’m not talking about religious ethics, but transcedent, objective ethics. The two overlap, but are not identical; and transcendent, objective ethics can indeed be secular.”
This is just semantics. I think we should be able to agree that any form of transcendentalism is religious, or spiritual, in nature, whether or not it is deistic or sectarian. It believes in natural metaphysical order to things. So what we are talking about is the notion that one can found a humanistic morality without resort to a transcendental metaphysical moral order, but merely from the natural, physical world and its character and qualities. There certainly are many historical examples of transcendental metaphysical moral orders that are not deistic or even secularly religious. In fact, I’m probably a representative of that group. But such people are indeed religious/spiritual, regardless of their affiliation with any particular religion or dogma. I should know.
“Well, the Nazis’ ethic was advantageous to them”
They certainly thought so, and we can see how well that worked out for them. The point being that I am not arguing that competing moral orders don’t exist, and that people would never pursue some moral order that would go against humanitarian civil rights because they thought it was in their interests to do so. It’s that it’s entirely possible to construct and promote a humanistic, secular, non-transcendentalist moral order that believes in human rights, and then compete with other moral orders such as the Nazis, and win, as indeed happened. The US and Soviet armies were not exactly religious orders, and they didn’t follow Jesus’ model of turning the other cheek. And yet, they triumphed over the Nazis.
Likewise, it’s possible to construct a secular humanist moral order and compete and even win against religious/transcendentalist moral orders, as seems to be happening in Europe say, or even in this country. In fact, there’s plenty of transcendentalists, religious or otherwise, who are actually in favor of a secular humanist moral order in the public sphere, and root for its victory over the religious types who want to dominate the public sphere. I’m one of them.
There’s nothing inherently contradictory about any of this. I count many atheists and secularists as my allies in this respect, even if I differ from them on transcendentalist matters. I see nothing wrong with them constructing a moral order based on the basic facts of material human existence, and coming to the intelligent conclusion that a just moral system based on human rights and cooperative enterprises and tolerant acceptance of one another is actually the best way to order our world, and that the narrow pursuit of self interest, as in Nazis and Chinese occupiers of Tibet, is actually counter-productive to their own interests in the bigger picture. Germany has certainly learned that it gains greater prosperity, peace, and happiness by renouncing militaristic expansion and fascist government policies, and there’s many signs that the Chinese have learned some lessons from the days of Mao, even if they still have a ways to go. This doesn’t mean that narrow self-interest doesn’t still have much energy behind it, but overall it would appear that the secular humanists have the advantage and seem to be winning most of the battles in the long run. I’m certainly rooting for them.
As for your claim that much of traditional ethics did, indeed, feel that moral orders need to be based on some transcendental source, that’s certainly correct as a matter of cultural history, but it doesn’t actually make it true. All these people also believed that the sun revolved around the earth, and they were wrong about that also. In those days, everything was attributed to religion, to the Gods, to some metaphysical reality beyond this world, including morality and ethics. But we’ve been finding out that most of their views about the natural world were wrong, and much of what they assumed to be the case for the origins of morality were also wrong. Read your Nietzsche. Moral orders are about worldly power, not about transcendent edicts from the great beyond. People make claims that their moral order comes from God in order to make it more powerful and persuasive, and to make up for its defects by claims of Divine origin and infallibility. God just laughs, in my view.



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