The 39th Humanist Symposium

Welcome to the 39th edition of the Humanist Symposium! This is a blog carnival for atheists and agnostics with a mission: not considering yet more arguments for or against the existence of God, but taking that as settled, to demonstrate how nonbelievers find happiness and meaning in life, and how a rational perspective informs our view of moral issues. All of today’s entries do a marvelous job of advancing that goal, so without further ado, let’s get to them:

First up, it’s Chris Hallquist of the Uncredible Hallq, who muses on Can Beliefs Change the World?: Thoughts on Self-Confidence. Although being confident gives us no magical powers to shape the world to our desire, a realistic, clear-headed optimism does make us more willing to overcome doubts and more likely to succeed where others might have failed.

Next, it’s Jen of Blag Hag, who writes about her experience wearing an atheist T-shirt in an airport. In her case, this social experiment was a resounding success! This just goes to show that being out of the closet and proud is a vital way of advancing the atheist cause.

Michael Fridman of a Nadder! writes about the famous Milgram experiment as it relates to rape. By acknowledging that every person has a potential to act violently, and that the social setting is often the determining factor, we can learn how to construct a culture that discourages these acts from ever coming to pass.

Brent of An Honest Journey Through Mormonism to Intellectual Integrity (now there’s a mouthful!) discusses an experience in Ireland meeting several former Catholics, who credited their deconversion to the Internet and the vast amounts of information available there. The truth shall set you free indeed!

vjack of Atheist Revolution answers the rhetorical question, “If you don’t believe in an afterlife, why be moral?” Human empathy and reciprocity offer a more than sufficient reason to be good without needing reward or punishment.

On a related note, Cubik’s Rube asks: What if you only had a trillion years? It’s a clever and original thought: would an almost unimaginably long, but not infinite, afterlife suffice for you to lead a meaningful existence? If in all that vast time you couldn’t find ways to make your life worthwhile, then infinity would hardly seem to help – and if you could, then the same argument shows that this life can be meaningful as well, even if it’s finite!

C.L. Hanson of Letters from a Broad tackles the old aerodynamic chestnut about bumblebees not being able to fly. When we see something that violates our expectations about how the world works, a humanist should take it as a golden opportunity to learn something new.

Waiting For The Singularity discusses Ice Cream and the Freedom of Dessert. When the arguments over which is the best flavor seem interminable, it’s not the role of the state to tell anyone how to satisfy their sweet tooth.

Our next two posts take opposite perspectives on the same issue, showing that there’s no creed of beliefs to which all humanists subscribe. She Who Chatters gives her perspective on Ethical Cornerstones, arguing that morality is by nature a subjective construct, while Open Parachute, as part of a series on morality, writes that morality, like mathematics, has an objective basis. Both authors make good arguments; which one do you find more convincing?

Viktor Nagornyy of the Rochester Atheism Examiner writes about the upcoming book 50 Voices of Disbelief, a collection of inspirational stories on why the contributors are atheists.

Russell Blackford of Metamagician and the Hellfire Club analyzes a new law proposed in France: Should we ban the burka? Does living in a pluralistic society require us to respect others’ choices, even when those choices are rooted in a tradition of religious oppression?

And last but not least, Rose of the Jewmanist wraps up the carnival with a wonderful post on beauty and purpose. The knowledge that we are all products of evolution gives us good reason to respect the grandeur and diversity of nature, and gives our life true purpose and an almost spiritual sense of connection to all living things.

That concludes this edition of the Humanist Symposium. Our next edition will appear in three weeks at The Evolving Mind, so if you like what you’ve read here today and want to do your part to advance the humanist cause, please consider hosting or contributing! New authors offering their perspective on the humanist cause are always welcome. You can find guidelines and further information on the carnival homepage.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Scotlyn

    Ebon,

    She Who Chatters gives her perspective on Ethical Cornerstones, arguing that morality is by nature a subjective construct, while Open Parachute, as part of a series on morality, writes that morality, like mathematics, has an objective basis. Both authors make good arguments; which one do you find more convincing?

    turned out to be an excellent question.

    My internal jury is still out, but here are a few random thoughts…
    1. somehow, I find myself capable of saying that killing one’s child is wrong, even if it is a God who commands it – eg. Abraham/Isaac. How?
    2. some scientific outcomes demonstrate a human capacity for evil (Milgram, plus others), others demonstrate the capacity for altruism, fairness, and various other components of a moral system, in other species. Clearly both to sin and to do good are human.
    3. a child’s instinctive abhorence of anything that is “unfair” seems to me to be pretty ingrained (it is well attested in other primates). “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – seems to nicely balance our natural selfishness with an extension of that primal urge for fairness.

    In any case, lacking fear of heavens or hells, I nevertheless find myself striving to do good, in my small corner of the world, in so far as I am able – why?

    On balance, I think I’d be interested in what the next batch of scientific offerings have to say on this question (Open Parachute’s inclination). Philosophy (She who Chatters’ choice) is far too full of long words that mean whatever you want them to mean, for my taste.

  • Scotlyn

    Meant to say: “that seem to mean whatever you want them to mean.” The fact that I find it difficult to get my head around philosophy probably says as much about me as about philosophy…

  • Pingback: Carnival Kudos | the evolving mind

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com/ D

    Scotlyn,
    Thanks for speaking up! I actually have some responses to some of your questions, and I’d like to know what your reactions are. Also, it’s perfectly all right to have the jury still out – “what is right” has perplexed us mortals for millennia, and it’s unlikely that the question will be “finally settled” (whatever that would even mean) any time soon.

    1. Let’s take a step back and say something that I don’t think anyone would dispute: you are deeply opposed to infanticide. Whether you would take it farther than that, we’ll leave aside for the moment. Now: why are you opposed to it? Did you spend time thinking about infanticide, and what makes a good person, or what our duties are, or what the consequences would be, and then arrive at the conclusion that you should oppose it? Or, what I think is more likely, did you simply experience disgust the first time you seriously contemplated what it is to kill one’s child, endorse opposition to such an action, and then term it morally wrong? This sort of deep disgust is, in many people, probably identical to moral outrage; but I think it may be explained perfectly well by the processes that brought our modern minds into being, without reference to or consideration of any external moral facts (whether or not those exist at all).

    I could also say that something is right or wrong until the sun goes out, but that doesn’t affect whatever moral facts there may be – if theists can speak of gods without need for a referent, why should other words like “good” and “evil” be any different? Yet these gods are very real to theists, just as good and evil are very real to a great many people. This analysis of ethics is known as emotivism, and may be summarized as the idea that moral propositions are “code” for emotional reactions, not principled analyses based on objective facts. That which we abhor, we term “evil,” and that which we endorse, we term “good.” Irrespective of its truth value, emotivism goes a long way toward modeling common-sense views of morality.

    2. Yes, we all have the capacity to do great harm to others, and we all have the capacity to act in the interest of others as well. But simply classifying the breadth of human actions on a continuum of good and evil does nothing to establish whether there are external, objective moral facts or not. My argument was that these classifications exist entirely in our heads, and though they may be informed or changed by deliberative processes, it is still facts about us that primarily drive our moral thinking, not facts about the world. In order to make the world a better place (i.e. “more to our liking”), we should embrace this fact and shape the world in our own image, rather than bemoan the fact that the Universe has no intrinsic morality to it.

    3. This will be an elaboration of 1, but I think that demonstrating the instinctive nature of our “moral sense” is detrimental to the cause of establishing external moral facts. We can demonstrate that ideas of fairness are of value both to social individuals and to the genes perpetuating themselves through group populations – this is the case, again, whether or not any objective moral facts exist and whether or not there is any moral substance in the world. So ask yourself, which is more likely: that we behave in ways beneficial to the genes inside of us and that there are these elusive moral facts that we just can’t seem to pin down to any widespread agreement, or that we behave in ways beneficial to the genes inside of us and these moral facts are purely imaginary?

    As for your point on wanting to make the world a better place, ask yourself – ask hard – which came first? Your desire for the world to be a certain way, or your thought that the world being such a way would be “good?” In other words, are your values chronologically primary, or the value judgments? For my own part, I must say from much introspection that my values inform my value judgments, not the other way around – my thought processes proceed along the lines of, “I endorse this, therefore I shall call it good,” not, “This is good, therefore I shall endorse it.” In some cases, such as a reforming racist practicing at tolerance, things may go the other way ’round. That’s OK, too – our moral intuitions are mutable, as are our habits. This point isn’t for argumentative value, but rather to show just how varied our moral thought processes can be.

    I happen to be a very morally lucky individual, in that the things I like and the things that come out “good” on my own principled analyses happen to agree in almost every case. There are those whose values do not agree with their analyses (theists who can’t stop sinning and feel awful about it are the easiest, but not the only, example), and these people are morally unlucky. I endorse ambition, but abhor greed; I value inclusion and am disgusted by bigotry; I vote “yay” for tolerance and vote “boo” for meddlesome bullshit. And as it happens, my moral intuitions almost perfectly match up with a principled and long-term hedonistic utilitarian ethics (much like Ebonmuse’s universal utilitarianism), and objections to this system on a moral basis almost always necessitate an appeal to a magical moral substance to gain any ground. But – wait a minute – I encountered this moral system and then endorsed it, I did not perform any moral analysis and then decide what moral system to adhere to and what values to hold.

    How about you?
    – - -
    As for Open Parachute, it appears to me that his argument is that we can base our moral facts on objective, external facts. This is unambiguously true, but which facts ought to be used is an open question. It’s not a bad tack to take, but we’re still inventing morality rather than discovering it. I personally have no problems with this. Our arguments simply aren’t opposed to each other – one may base one’s ethics on objective facts and then analyze how a thing or event fits into that system, but that does not mean that the system itself is objective. This may sound confusing, so let me make an analogy to taxonomy: we see animals out in the world, and we notice that some groups of them share many traits in common. We take these traits and then form a taxonomic system around those objective facts about animals – in this way, taxonomy is based on objective, external, empirically demonstrable facts about the world (about animals in particular). But the categories themselves, and the criteria we use to create them, are imaginary and arbitrary, respectively. Similarly, though we may base our moral judgments on fixed criteria and objective facts about the world, our moral categories and criteria may still be imaginary and arbitrary (again, respectively).

    TL;DR version: Extant species came to be through bottom-up processes, not top-down processes. I maintain that our moral intuitions evolved through bottom-up processes as well, and are not influenced in a top-down fashion by moral facts external to our own brains. This removes any need for such external moral facts, and so we ought to reject them as ontologically superfluous.

  • Scotlyn

    D. This is an awfully big chunk of argy-bargy for my poor brain, so I’ll take one wee bitesize piece and see what happens. You said:

    2.Yes, we all have the capacity to do great harm to others, and we all have the capacity to act in the interest of others as well. But simply classifying the breadth of human actions on a continuum of good and evil does nothing to establish whether there are external, objective moral facts or not. My argument was that these classifications exist entirely in our heads, and though they may be informed or changed by deliberative processes, it is still facts about us that primarily drive our moral thinking, not facts about the world. In order to make the world a better place (i.e. “more to our liking”), we should embrace this fact and shape the world in our own image, rather than bemoan the fact that the Universe has no intrinsic morality to it.

    Personally, I don’t bemoan the fact that “the Universe has no intrinsic morality to it”. I don’t even see how it could. I agree with you that if that is where you want to go looking for moral facts, you are destined to be very disappointed.

    I absolutely agree that any moral facts there are must “exist entirely in our heads…[and that] it is still facts about us that drive our moral thinking, not facts about the world.”

    I agree, but also feel the need for some hair-splitting.
    Firstly, I do not think such things come to exist in our heads alone, but in our heads together. In other words, it is by virtue of the interaction we have with one other, and a product of that interaction, whether by invention, assimilation, or opposition and re-invention, that we begin to develop any such moral facts, or classifications or value judgments. (and not just recently, but over time, for as long as we have been interacting, in whatever pre-human species that began to happen in.)

    Secondly, I agree that it is human facts that drive our moral thinking, but I also see human facts as being part of, not opposed to, the world.

    Thirdly, I’m not at all certain that I would agree that “making the world a better place” = “making the world more to our liking.”

    And lastly, I think we have already “shaped the world in our own image”, and that this may lead the world, of which we are a part, to quickly become a worse, not a better, place. (As a matter of interest, I personally read Genesis as an allegory of the moment when humans, having invented the FARM/CITY complex, an entity which uses up increasing amounts of non-renewable resources and utterly transforms the natural world, realised what they had done, and began to regret their lost “Eden”, symbolising a time when people did not see themselves as separate from nature and the world – possibly didn’t even have the words or concepts for it. New “knowledge” of good and evil (and other such distinctions) certainly seems to be associated with this.

    Your initial comment on the association between disgust and moral opposition is very interesting. I would note that a couple of recent studies (don’t ask me where) tested this, and were able to induce moral opposition to neutral behaviours by associating them with disgusting odours or similar. Also we often use the word “dirty” to talk about things that we consider to be “bad”. One interesting anecdote that emerged from the KoKo (Hand-signing gorilla communications) experiment, was that when Koko got angry with someone one day, she immediately signed the word “dirty” at them in order to convey her opprobrium. It may be that it will prove impossible to change people’s moral opposition to things they happen to find disgusting.

  • Jim Toth

    Great website! I’m a former atheist, now a Christian. I have a question. Without God, how do you account for your understanding of the concepts of good and evil?

    Thanks, in advance, for your response.

    Jim Toth

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    Hi Jim,

    Glad to help out. Many atheists have written extensively about good and evil and the groundings of these concepts. I can point you to some essays I’ve written on the topic:

    Ebon Musings: The Ineffable Carrot and the Infinite Stick

    Daylight Atheism: The Roots of Morality

    Daylight Atheism: The Basis for an Atheist’s Morality

    You might also read the quite good discussion unfolding in this very thread, in the comments above yours.

  • Scotlyn

    Jim,
    I would add to Ebon’s links, the note that it is possible for human’s to judge God himself (according to the acts attributed to him by his followers and in his scriptures) as committing evil acts. For example, as a human being I judge that killing your child is wrong. Nevertheless, I can read that God reputedly instructed Abraham to do that very thing. In so doing God, in my eyes, committed an evil act. Abraham, reputedly, was prepared to do so, holding obedience to God as more important than preserving and defending the life of his child. In so doing, Abraham, by choosing obedience to God’s evil command, committed an evil act.

    So to answer your question with a question – if I can only obtain my ideas of good and evil from God how is it that I can find a strong enough sense of good and evil within my own self to judge God [within the context of the scripture], and his faithful servant [ditto], to have done evil?

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    Scotlyn,
    You said that, “…I do not think such things come to exist in our heads alone, but in our heads together.” Excellent point! This idea of “in our heads together” is known as intersubjectivity. In a nutshell, it’s the same way that language has meaning: though language’s meaning is subjective to each individual person, and it is objectively true that words do not have some magical intrinsic meaning, the use of language by a linguistic community gives it intersubjective meaning. Similarly, one could look at groups of humans as moral communities, and say that even though we have no moral substance to point to, our moral language still has intersubjective meaning (though in what cases, or according to what criteria, is a subject that could be debated until the Sun goes out).

    Bearing that in mind, now think about the relationship between “making the world a better place” and “making the world more to our liking.” When you think about how you would go about making the world a better place, would that not also make it more to your liking? I’ll grant that a great many people would disagree intensely over what constitutes “better,” but these groups of people would also differ on how they would like the world to be, and I think it’s pretty probable that these areas of disagreement (what they think is better and what they’d like to see) have a substantial amount of overlap. So how to move forward? Well, if everyone would like to see the world be better, but can’t agree on what “better” means, then we can use ideas like the veil of ignorance to try to find ways that would be better for everyone, i.e. more suitable to all people, no matter who they are. And I would argue that the most effective way to go about this is to be more permissive, more inclusive, more accommodating of difference; to live and let live, in other words.

    To go on a tiny bit of a rant (for the purposes of pointing to a real-world example, of course), the passage of Proposition 8 in California is more or less a perfect example of how not to do this. The evidence is in, and states that have legalized same-sex marriages are proof positive that allowing people to marry whomever they wish will not cause the sky to fall down, the world to end, or civilization to collapse. And yet some very determined people fought tooth and nail to take away a privilege that most everyone takes for granted, causing a whole lot of undue misery to a bunch of people for no good reason. Was Proposition 8 an “objectively bad” thing to do? Well… no, not really, unless we commit ourselves to identifying a moral substance we can point at and say , “There! There’s the bad-ness! That’s it!” But was it intersubjectively evil? Well, we supposedly value freedom (it’s a common value we can use as a starting point), and passing Prop 8 made the world a quantifiably less free place, so I would answer with an unqualified and resounding “Yes!”
    – - -
    Jim,
    You asked, “Without God, how do you account for your understanding of the concepts of good and evil?” (Emphasis added.) In the first place, Ebonmuse’s linked essays are great reads and can answer that question in as much depth as you’d like. For my own part, I think that a question well-asked is half-answered, and whether by chance or design, the particular phrasing of your question lends itself to an answer that essentially boils down to “psychology and enculturation.”

    Let’s first ask, without God, how does anyone come to an understanding of any concepts (not just moral ones)? Well, we are shown (or told about) something, we are given words to use to refer to that thing, and we are taught further details which may be particular to our culture. As an absurd but clear example, how does a sailor come to an understanding of the concept of a ship? Well, he’s shown the ropes by others, who were themselves shown by still more before them, and depending on the time and place the sailor lives, he may come under the impression that a ship is like a woman (or ought to be given a woman’s name, or be addressed as a woman, or what-have-you). Yet if you look at sailors all around the globe and throughout history, even though they come from wildly varying backgrounds, they will hold a great deal of “shared understanding” of what a ship is. This shared understanding constitutes the intersubjective meaning that the word “ship” has between languages.

    Similarly, “good” and “evil” are taught to us as concepts, and through the process of enculturation (and in the context of our individual psychological makeups) we come to understand these concepts in a certain way. Whether or not they have real-world referents or an objective basis is frankly beside the point; the fact of the matter is that we do come to understand these concepts somehow, whether or not there is a god or an objective moral fact in the world. And as I stated at the start of my own entry, I don’t think that believing in God gives anyone a more solid grounding for their ethics than disbelief.

    Does that answer your question, or did you mean something different?

  • Scotlyn

    D

    “When you think about how you would go about making the world a better place, would that not also make it more to your liking?

    Ok, if I tried to make the world a better place (according to my lights), yes, that would probably also make it more to my liking.

    However the reverse is not necessarily true – making the world strictly and unlimitedly to my liking (if I could), would not necessarily make it a better place all round. “My liking” is a subjective and short term measure, and, possibly, one that uses the meanest and most selfish and idiosyncratic tendencies I have as its yardstick. “A better place” implies a wider, broader, longer view, and probably a more objective one, certainly one that is far more inclusive of others.

    In any case, the aim of making things more “to my liking” is, according to the best folklore, deeply flawed. Not for nothing are we warned “beware what you wish for.” (Note: this warning is not aimed at those who fail to get what they wish for, but at those who succeed!!)

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    Scotlyn,
    That bit about the reverse is a very good point! I guess I kind of defined my way to victory by saying that better equals better for all, and better for all is defined as more in line with some sort of libertarian consequentialist framework. I need to be more on the lookout for that sort of thing. Moral luck comes into play here, as well – I certainly have at points in the past known of mis-matches between “better” and “more to my liking,” but in recent years, these have both been refined into more or less exactly the same thing. The things I like best are those that come out best under my most principled ethical evaluations – but it took me a long time and a lot of hard work to get there, and it’s definitely not the case that all of humanity is like that.

    At any rate, I believe the original point of contention was as to whether “the good” is something that’s just in our heads or whether it’s out in the world. If it’s only in our heads, then the scientists could have some trouble tracking it down outside of anthropology, psychology, history, and other anthropocentric sciences; but if it’s out in the world, then none of those will be useful, and ethics could become its very own branch of hard science as soon as we pin down that pesky referent! So: does “good” have a referent in the same way that chairs, ducks, and the Suez Canal do? If we disagree about the properties of a duck, we can go look at ducks in the world and settle our disagreements empirically. Not so with ethics, and it’s not just that we don’t agree on what we pick as a referent; I think that, judging by the way we have historically used moral language, the thing we mean can’t have a referent in the world. And if we have no referent, no “thing in the world” which we can examine to empirically settle disagreements, then I say that means our idea exists entirely in our heads.

    The way we use moral language indicates that “the good” carries with it some manner of moral force, an “ought” that supposedly compels us to act in some manner or other. Something being “the right thing to do” is supposed to be able to motivate you all on its own; the question as to whether or not you want to be a good person is taken for granted. You “ought” to do what is good, and “the good” is what you ought to do – they’re a part of each other. How? Why? Well, that depends on who you ask. In human cultures throughout history, things “ought” to be done according to tradition, or the commands of a ruler or deity, or the customs of one’s forebears, or whatever. According to legend, following these things (traditions, leaders, gods, and ancestors) would safeguard one against error and punishment. Goodness, so defined, is rewarded, and evil is punished. There is no need to invoke a morally compelling force, aside from one’s own perfectly rational self-interest, to keep one on the straight & narrow: if you are self-interested, then you will be interested in doing what is good, because it will get you whatever you ultimately want (good harvests, good hunts, Heaven, and so on). If you’re not self-interested, then you’re a villain, insane, or an idiot. The pattern I see in the evolution of ethical discourse is that people keep thinking that something about that protoethical setup is True, with a capital T. Whether or not there’s anything to that pattern, I can’t really say, but it sure looks like ethicists keep acting as if they thought that at least one element of that system just has to be true.

    Look at any system of ethics, and you’ll see one of those protoethical elements is focused on, and though the rest of the system may be elegantly derived from there, that starting point is never explained. Virtue ethics focuses on the traditions, consequentialism focuses on the rewards & punishments (from reality, not a god), deontology focuses on the commands. As long as some element of the protoethical system strikes you as compelling, one of those metaethical frameworks ought to appeal to your sensibilities. But suppose that instead of asking how ethics could be done correctly, you instead asked whether it was all bunk in the first place? And if it is, how could you tell?

    There’s another bit of ethics that just about anyone holds to be true, and that’s the idea that the good is independent of culture, subject to no authority, and does not reliably coincide with your own selfish concerns. As soon as it was established that the world won’t end just because Steve fucked up the singing circle, we were free to question the source of all this normativity – and if there really is this “goodness” out in the world, then of course it doesn’t depend on the say-so of a god or a king, of course we can improve upon our traditions, and of course it doesn’t always turn out that following the rules will get you what you want. Facts about ducks don’t work that way, so why should facts about goodness work that way? So ethicists have removed the underpinning of the whole protoethical setup, but continued to smuggle it into their ethics!

    So at the end of the day, to look at the way things have come, it appears to me that the good is just as culturally dependent as our traditions, just as subject to taste as our pleasures, and just as legendary as our gods. The good is more like etiquette than it is like a duck. I hope I’ve stirred up some ethical skepticism down in the cockles of your heart, and if I haven’t – or, even more interesting, if you think I’m way off my rocker – then I’m very curious to find out what you think is the source of normativity, the referent for “the good.” Anyway, happy thinking!

  • Scotlyn

    D –

    At any rate, I believe the original point of contention was as to whether “the good” is something that’s just in our heads or whether it’s out in the world. If it’s only in our heads, then the scientists could have some trouble tracking it down outside of anthropology, psychology, history, and other anthropocentric sciences; but if it’s out in the world, then none of those will be useful

    (By the way, I have to confess that I’m a little lost as to what the big argument here is, I really don’t follow philosophy very well, but hair-splitting is fun, so I’ll just carry on, shall I?)

    See, there is a science you didn’t mention in your list of how we find out stuff about what goes on in our heads – and that is biology. And I really don’t grasp the distinction between what is in our heads and what is out in the world. We are biological creatures, made of world-stuff. What goes on in our heads is an emergent property of that world-stuff processing itself in the part of the world that occupies our heads. Because it is our heads, it happens to be particularly vivid to us, but I do not see this great gulf between the inside of our heads and “the world.” As far as I can see anything that is in our heads is in the world – where else can it be? So what am I missing here? And what the hell are we talking about?

    I have to say, this particular thread is challenging, because its a bit like trying to explain a Chinese joke to a German (never do that, especially if you’re drunk!).

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    Scotlyn,
    You said, “We are biological creatures, made of world-stuff. What goes on in our heads is an emergent property of that world-stuff processing itself in the part of the world that occupies our heads. Because it is our heads, it happens to be particularly vivid to us, but I do not see this great gulf between the inside of our heads and ‘the world.’” The fact that you’re able to articulate this idea, with which I definitely agree, convinces that the fault here is mine. I blame my long-windedness.

    Short and sweet it is:
    God exists only in my head. I made him up entirely. Does that mean he exists out in the world? Or is there a substantial difference between “me having an idea of a thing” and “that thing itself existing?”

    Slightly more rigorous:
    By “God,” I mean “an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving supernatural critter which exists and created the whole Universe and has the power to send you to Heaven or Hell.” I have a clear idea in my head of what this God character is supposed to be like. If there is no distinction between what is in our heads and what is in the world, then I have imagined something into existence – just like God did when he created the Universe! And if that doesn’t convince you, then I’ve got an idea of a million dollars in my head, which you can have for just three easy payments of $99.99 (payment not accepted in ideas).

    OK, I really don’t want to be patronizing here, but I think that sometimes the most absurd examples can lend the most clarity. Also, don’t feel bad about getting lost – a lot of what I said above was in response to your “random thoughts” because I felt like pontificating, so I totally got off on a tangent at points for sure. Also also, you’re right (in a way) that an idea in my head is still “in the world,” because my head is itself in the world.

    Even more rigor, plus excessive emphasis for super-clarity:
    However, there’s a difference between an idea existing in the world and the thing which an idea is supposed to represent existing in the world (see God, above). The idea of a duck is in our heads, of course, and there will always be a gap between “my idea of a duck” and any particular duck in the world. What’s more, my idea of a duck is only in my head – the idea of a duck does not walk around the pond out back, nor does it quack and eat bread crumbs. But actual ducks are out in the world (there are no actual ducks in my head) and can be studied. So long as we can point at a thing and agree that it is a duck, we can settle any duck-related disagreements by way of science. Similarly, the idea of rudeness is definitely in our heads, and it’s therefore a real idea, but you’d be hard-pressed to find actual rudeness out in the world, because “what is rude” is a matter of etiquette and can vary wildly between cultures – there is no “substance of rudeness” to examine for the purpose of settling disputes, there is only the cultural construct of etiquette which drags any dispute down into subjective table-pounding. My whole “thing,” in fifty words or less… here I go… is:

    Ethics, like etiquette, is a social construct that can only be studied in relation to the ideas of a particular person, community, or culture. Ethics is not like a duck, which may be studied independent of any particular person, community, or culture.

    Does that help clear things up? I hope so, because my summarizing glands are wearing out (not your fault, I’m just naturally long-winded :) ).

  • Scotlyn

    Hi, D. Hope you’ve rested your summarising glands a bit. This is interesting, and reminds me of the all-night passionate discussions it seemed so vital to have when I was 18 or 19.

    I do understand that some of the things in our heads relate to things that can be independently verified outside ourselves and others don’t – god meme, fairy meme, justice meme, truth meme, good meme, fashion-sense meme, nerd meme, beauty meme, etc. Nevertheless these memes are part of the human world in which we exist as the ducks in the pond, perhaps more so, and to me that makes them real, for a certain value of real. Everyone I’ve ever met talks and acts as if at least some subset of these memes are real, so they certainly have power over us, and it’s too simplistic to say that they only have the power we give them.

    The only academic training I have is a long-ago BA in anthropology, and I remember a time when this

    it appears to me that the good is just as culturally dependent as our traditions, just as subject to taste as our pleasures, and just as legendary as our gods. The good is more like etiquette than it is like a duck.

    would have made perfect sense to me. I could have made that argument myself, word for word. I’m older now, and have spend 28 years in the university that is life, and I no longer agree.

    Here are some relevant insights that come from biology. We are capable of feeling pain (and seek to avoid it) and of feeling pleasure (and seek to prolong/repeat it). Because it is us, we’re quite certain what pain and pleasure are like. It is not certain that other creatures feel as we do, but it is quite certain that every type of creature that is alive exhibits seeking and avoidance behaviours in the face of different stimulation. Whether they feel what we feel, is immaterial. If they are alive, they demonstrate the same strong urges to seek certain things or avoid certain things. Inasmuch as the duck is in the pond, then, some version of pleasure and pain exists in the world for anything that is alive. Pleasure and pain are a necessary, but not sufficient, starting point for our human ethics.

    Many social creatures other than humans, certainly all of our primate cousins, have a theory of mind – that is to say, they watch one another in order to see, or at least guess, what others may be thinking, hiding, lying about, interested in. A theory of mind, which we possess as part of our primate heritage, is also a necessary, but not sufficient starting point for human ethics.

    And this theory of mind is best nurtured when we are infants and toddlers, by being able to develop strong one-on-one attachments to others (which usually happens in families – note small “f”). Some interesting research carried out in Romanian orphanages shows that the acquisition of this theory of mind (ie that others have minds similar to my own) can be severely disrupted by early institutionalisation. It may be argued (although I claim no expertise here) that some types of crimes, especially violent ones, are easily carried out by people whose personal development went astray at some crucial stage, so that they lack this sense of others having minds of their own, pleasure and pain of their own.

    Ethics, in its simplest formulation – do unto others as you would have them do unto you – relies on an appreciation of the things likely to lead to pain and pleasure, and an appreciation of the fact that others have minds similar to ours and a similar capacity to feel pain and pleasure. By itself, this simple formulation provides a way to determine “the good,” in most situations we are likely to encounter (unless we find ourselves on a hypothetical train with a curious ethicist) – and in fact children do not find it difficult to grasp, although, like all humans, can run into trouble in the execution. The effect of culture, though, tends to worsen matters, in my experience. Firstly cultures can strongly inculcate a dividing line between an “us” and a “them.” Once this has been sufficiently absorbed, what happens in the minds of “them,” doesn’t, for any practical purpose, exist. So, for example, Sarah, the guest poster who put up the recent prostitution post, described elsewhere her experiences in Morocco, where as a woman she was a “them” to all the men she met. While they had no appreciation of her as a person with feelings, or a capacity for pain or pleasure, if she pretended to be engaged, they could easily imagine and empathise with the imagined wronged male who would take offense at anyone messing with his woman. This cultural capacity to dismiss our empathy, our theory of mind, when it comes to those we classify as “them” by whatever means, is one path to evil.

    The second thing that culture, and particularly religion can do, is mess with our natural reactions to pleasure and pain. There are religions, and cultures, that persuade people that it is more virtuous to seek pain and avoid pleasure (this is usually accomplished by the promise of a future reward in an afterlife, and/or a stongly instilled sense of guilt and shame). Unfortunately, once you believe that pleasure avoidance is a virtue, it becomes extremely difficult to tolerate the pleasure-seeking of others. Likewise, when pain and suffering become a virtue, it is easy to seek the punishment of others (for their own good).

    (There is a modern, secular sphere in which this phenomenon can be observed. Our modern society has made a virtue of denying ourselves food, particularly the kind of food we like to eat when we’re celebrating, or feeling good. We have also come to believe that we can easily spot the “sinners” by the way they look (not scientifically credible, as it happens, but it’s hard to argue with religious belief especially when it appears to be scienterrifically backed up by endless epidemiological studies). In this, our current secular crusade against the obese we routinely shame those who are fat into that peculiar form of self-denial known as dieting, or worse, into mortifying their very flesh with gastric surgery. In any case, we complain loudly if we are forced to witness such a sinner seeking pleasure in delicious foods.)

    So, in my view, the good comes from a theory of mind (which we share with other primates, among other animals) applied to an understanding of pleasure and pain (which behaviourally we share with everything living) – when it hasn’t been messed up by cultural conditioning. It is not difficult to judge that the ethics of many cultures have been messed up, and result in inexcusable pain being inflicted on some. It is not hard to see that my personal sense of pleasure and pain is not sufficient for an ethical system, I have to be able to apply it to others. It may give me immense pleasure to blast Nina Simone at full volume – my neighbours may find it painful. Being a properly brought up human (ie having been brought up in a family) makes me care what they feel. Being a thoughtful human that has questioned some of my cultural training, I extend the right to seek pleasure and avoid pain to all humans, and do all in my power to maximise the pleasure of myself and others, while minimising the pain of myself and others.

    Sorry not to have used any words like “normativity,” but I hope you’re comfortable with the argument I’ve made.

    Take good care…

  • Scotlyn

    Phew! I’m getting a bit long-winded here myself, D, but since there’s only the two of us, I don’t feel like too much of a hog… anyway, a further thought to amplify this:

    Nevertheless these memes are part of the human world in which we exist as the ducks in the pond, perhaps more so, and to me that makes them real, for a certain value of real.

    (should say, “these memes are as much a part….) which is a partial answer to your:

    God exists only in my head. I made him up entirely. Does that mean he exists out in the world? Or is there a substantial difference between “me having an idea of a thing” and “that thing itself existing?”

    and that is that even if god doesn’t exist in my head, he exists, along with a lot of other powerful memes (or archetypes, if you prefer Jungian idiom) in the heads of lots of people who inhabit my world. This gives such memes a real existence in my world, in that they powerfully shape people’s behaviours and attitudes, and the behaviours and attitudes of those around me are the environment in which I live and breathe. In other words, they have a stronger existence than something “I made up entirely” (and anyway, I didn’t), but a less strong existence than measurable, detectable things like light and matter, which I presume is what you mean by things “existing out in the world.” There is this in-between place, which arises from the space between humans, where unreal things become humanly real, and much larger than any one human’s imagination. And that is where “the good, the bad and the ugly,” live, move and have their being – and where, detectably, measurably they can move people.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com/ D

    Scotlyn,
    First off, there’s no need to apologize for your vocabulary. I use big, fancy words as part of my philosophical training: a large portion of everyday language is vague and/or ambiguous, and may also have technical meaning to those who have formally studied philosophy. If you talk plainly but take the time to make your meaning clear (as you’ve done with your examples and elaborations), then there’s no problem; for my part, I prefer to use more technical language when talking about technical points, which generally means big words (and small but difficult words). At the end of the day, as long as we’re still communicating, I say that vocabulary just doesn’t matter one way or the other.

    I also want to make it abundantly clear here that I like your ethics, as you have described it (don’t engage in Othering behaviors, live and let live, enshrine empathy and fairness, don’t be a meddlesome hater, etc.). I think it’s friggin’ sweet, and it’s more well-reasoned than the ethics of a great many people, and lends itself well to my fondest dreams of civilization. Under my own ethics, your ethics comes out “damn fine” (this is on a scale from one to awesome, just so you know). But it’s still arbitrary, for all that. An important part of my argument is also that this arbitration is not a “bad thing,” it’s a necessary fact of the Universe that we have to deal with, a “system constraint.” Insisting that there is some objective moral high ground, in any way at all, clouds the issue because it can’t be backed up and opens an easy door for all manner of unsupported assertions based on bullshit and lies, pretending they’re on equal footing.

    Your ethics also exhibits one particularly interesting characteristic which I value very highly, and that is the fact that it is humanistic. Basing one’s ethics on holy books, or Superman comics, or Chumbawamba lyrics may yield a consistent system based on objective facts, but these systems lose hard because they’re based on facts that, in some very important cases, have nothing to do with us. Superman doesn’t kill, and in a very important way he has no reason to, and plenty of reason not to: on Earth, his enemies are mostly Earthlings who mainly cause each other grief (criminals). Should he get fed up with it, Superman can simply place himself out of our reach. He’s fucking Superman and we can’t really touch him. However, by not killing, he avoids a whole bunch of drama from people who would want to prosecute him for murder, and that way he can “help us” (which he wants to do) without getting too fed up with us. Arbitrary value (wanting to help) plus objective facts (about him and us) equals behavioral prescription, AKA hypothetical imperative. This puts him in a dramatically different situation from Jimmy Olsen, though, who does need to worry about criminals on the street because they can harm him. Superman’s ethics simply do not apply to us. Dawkins argues that the ethics of a cosmic creator would be equally inapplicable to our lives, explicitly because of the fact that we are not cosmic creators. Sucking up to a deity or a hero, real or imagined, is just sycophancy, which I don’t think either of us would say is a good thing (under our own ethics, of course).

    Anyway, enough namby-pamby agreement! I’ve composed a response that addresses some of your claims and it was helluva long, so I just put it on my own blog. I have specific responses to specific things you say, as well as an overarching argument that stands in disagreement with your own. If you’re still interested, fire away and we’ll keep going!

    Happy thinking!

  • Scotlyn

    D: I’ll be back… give me a day or two to look after some family business…


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