The Connection Between Religion and Slavery

Last year, I wrote about whether Christianity deserves the credit for abolishing slavery. I have some additional evidence on that topic I’d like to mention.

I just finished reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the autobiography of the great American abolitionist. Born a slave in antebellum Maryland, Douglass taught himself to read at a young age, in secret, and later escaped to the North and freedom. His account of his own life is an eloquent first-hand retelling of the cruelty, suffering and bigotry he saw and experienced in the world of slavery.

Douglass wasn’t an atheist. If anything, he was a Christian (though arguably only in the same sense that Thomas Jefferson was a Christian, i.e., praising a purely theoretical form of Christianity, while denouncing Christianity as it was actually practiced as corrupt and laden with hypocrisy and immorality). This makes his own personal testimony on the close connection between religion and slavery all the more compelling:

In August, 1832, my master attended a Methodist camp-meeting held in the Bay-side, Talbot county, and there experienced religion. I indulged a faint hope that his conversion would lead him to emancipate his slaves, and that, if he did not do this, it would, at any rate, make him more kind and humane. I was disappointed in both these respects. It neither made him to be humane to his slaves, nor to emancipate them. If it had any effect on his character, it made him more cruel and hateful in all his ways; for I believe him to have been a much worse man after his conversion than before. Prior to his conversion, he relied upon his own depravity to shield and sustain him in his savage barbarity; but after his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty. He made the greatest pretensions to piety. His house was the house of prayer. He prayed morning, noon, and night.

…I have said my master found religious sanction for his cruelty. As an example, I will state one of many facts going to prove the charge. I have seen him tie up a lame young woman, and whip her with a heavy cowskin upon her naked shoulders, causing the warm red blood to drip; and, in justification of the bloody deed, he would quote this passage of Scripture — “He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.”

When Douglass’ owner grew frustrated with his disobedience, he resolved to break his spirit by lending him out to another slaveholder renowned for his ability to terrify and torture slaves into obedience:

Master Thomas at length said he would stand it no longer. I had lived with him nine months, during which time he had given me a number of severe whippings, all to no good purpose. He resolved to put me out, as he said, to be broken; and, for this purpose, he let me for one year to a man named Edward Covey… Mr. Covey had acquired a very high reputation for breaking young slaves, and this reputation was of immense value to him. It enabled him to get his farm tilled with much less expense to himself than he could have had it done without such a reputation… Added to the natural good qualities of Mr. Covey, he was a professor of religion — a pious soul — a member and a class-leader in the Methodist church. All of this added weight to his reputation as a “nigger-breaker.”

Later in his autobiography, Douglass tells of yet another slaveholder, known for his cruelty, who was an actual Christian minister:

Mr. Hopkins could always find some excuse for whipping a slave. It would astonish one, unaccustomed to a slaveholding life, to see with what wonderful ease a slaveholder can find things, of which to make occasion to whip a slave. A mere look, word, or motion — a mistake, accident, or want of power — are all matters for which a slave may be whipped at any time. Does a slave look dissatisfied? It is said, he has the devil in him, and it must be whipped out. Does he speak loudly when spoken to by his master? Then he is getting high-minded, and should be taken down a button-hole lower. Does he forget to pull off his hat at the approach of a white person? Then he is wanting in reverence, and should be whipped for it…. Mr. Hopkins could always find something of this sort to justify the use of the lash, and he seldom failed to embrace such opportunities. There was not a man in the whole county, with whom the slaves who had the getting their own home, would not prefer to live, rather than with this Rev. Mr. Hopkins. And yet there was not a man any where round, who made higher professions of religion, or was more active in revivals — more attentive to the class, love-feast, prayer and preaching meetings, or more devotional in his family — that prayed earlier, later, louder, and longer — than this same reverend slave-driver, Rigby Hopkins.

Douglass sums up his experience as a slave as follows:

I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others.

It’s not that all the religious people he met while enslaved were evil. He speaks of one preacher in particular who urged slaveholders to set their slaves free. The point is that, far from making everyone better, religion made the slaveholders worse. As Frederick Douglass put it, it gave them “religious sanction and support” for their cruelty: it convinced them that they had the right to buy and sell human beings, that God approved of their conduct and granted them license to oppress, abuse, and even murder their slaves.

And biblically speaking, they were correct. The Bible explicitly does permit slavery, and even commands slaves to be meek and obedient. To overthrow this foul institution, we had to ignore the immoral commands of the Bible – and for the sake of Frederick Douglass and millions of others, it’s a good thing that we did.

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.

  • Valhar2000

    It’s been a while since I read this book. Was Edward Covey the guy whom Frederick Douglas nearly strangled to death with his own hands? As I recall, he did that to one these guys who had a reputation of being able to break slaves, and, since the reputation was so important, the slave holder did not dare to denounce Frederick’s attempted murder, and thus Frederick faced no punishment for it.

    You are right: it is every bit as good a book as you say. If not more so.

  • Scotlyn

    I’ll have to put this one on my list, Ebon, thanks.

    It strikes me that the slave mentality is not far from religion, yet. The Christian calls God, “Master,” and believes that arbitrary punishments for sins of thoughts, of attitude, and for insufficient reverence for the Master, are within His rights. If you cannot grant yourself your own birthright of freedom, vis-a-vis your “heavenly Master,” then how can you even see the need to grant freedom to others as their birthright?

  • Nathaniel

    But don’t you see, all those people weren’t true Christians. True Christians are good people who do good things, and untrue Christians are bad people who do bad things.

  • Andrew T.

    This of course dovetails with how the Confederate States were established as a Christian theocracy.

    @Nathaniel…I’ve heard that argument be said by apologists time before and time again, and it never makes a lick of sense. “True” and “fake” Christians hold reverence for the same scripture, take part in many of the same traditions, and call themselves the same name. Who am I to tell someone that they aren’t who they say they are; especially when there is a wealth of material in their annals of literature and doctrine to justify their objectively-irrational positions?

  • http://steve.mikexstudios.com themann1086

    Nathaniel and Andrew,

    That particular line drives me up a wall. One time I finally just snapped at someone who attempted to compliment me for “acting Christian” with a “well that’s mighty white of you to say!”

  • AnonaMiss

    I’m fairly sure Nathaniel is being sarcastic.

  • David D

    You can see why the bible wants slaves to be submissive of their master and be punished if necessary. Its clearly a metaphor for how God wants us to be.

  • paradoctor

    It seems to me that a person can be good only if they have some doubts about it.

  • Jim Baerg

    Re: comment #5 by themann1086

    Was the person you said that to dark skinned?

  • Andrew T.

    @AnonaMiss: I know. Just sharing frustrations…

  • bbk

    You can’t overlook the impact of Constantine on spreading this pro-slavery religion. He used Christianity as a tool of convenience for destroying the existing Roman military, turning it into a highly centralized organization that was subservient to himself alone. Early Christians must have been the teabaggers of their day. They were incompetent, power-hungry political opportunists who squandered whatever was left of Rome and set the stage for the Dark Ages.

  • http://steve.mikexstudios.com themann1086

    Jim,

    No, but they were a liberal long involved with fighting racial discrimination, so she picked up on what I meant right away. She tried to argue it was totally different because… uh… shutup, that’s why.

  • kennypo65

    Correct me if I’m wrong, and I probably am, but weren’t many of the abolitionists Quakers? The fact remains that one can use scripture to justify any cruelty or injustice, and many have. This is why the bibble has lasted so long.

  • http://republic-of-gilead.blogspot.com Ahab

    Scotlyn — You’re definitely on to something. It’s very telling that the Bible positions God as a master and humans as his servants/slaves, who occassionally need to be brutalized when they aren’t submissive enough. This is not just an Old Testament pattern — Jesus used parables of masters and slaves as metaphors for God and humans as well.

    I recommend SLAVERY IN EARLY CHRISTIANITY by Jennifer A. Glancy for anyone who wants to explore this topic deeper.

  • Jim Speiser

    The slavery issue is one I’ve had the most success with in gaining concessions (or at least dumb silence) from theists. In spite of the lack of Biblical proscription, humanity slowly realized that it was wrong to own another human being. And, my argument went, it didn’t just become wrong at that point, but it had always been wrong. Even when God was telling us how to treat our slaves, it was wrong to have slaves in the first place. As far as we know, God has sanctioned the owning of slaves, and has never reversed that position; it took human compassion, not religion, to come to our senses. Thus, we achieved a moral superiority to God. “Now I ask you,” went my summation, “how is it possible for the Created to develop a higher moral sense than the Creator?” The more intelligent theists I posed this to simply shut up at that point, but some would try the old canard of “Well, you have to realize that things were different then, and God was simply speaking in terms people of that time could relate to.” Of course I would parry with “WHAT?? MORAL RELATIVISM?? SITUATIONAL ETHICS??” and that would be the end of that. It was quite satisfying, as I felt that I might have broken through a couple of times.

  • bbk

    Kennypo65, the Quakers also believed that the best punishment for a crime was to keep someone in solitary confinement for a few years. Quakers were ardent Prohibitionists. These views were inspired by the Bible and they were completely wrong. Quaker views on pacifism always struck me as a self-serving double standard: they never seem to mind all that terribly if other people fight on their behalf. They’re very pragmatic in those little gray areas, just like the other religious groups who profess pacifism. But that’s just me. It really doesn’t take a genius teacher or profound scripture for a human being to realize that slavery is wrong. If anything, I find it quite offensive when people attribute acts of basic human dignity to a righteous religious teaching. More often than not, when you get your morals from a Bible you will get as many things wrong as you get right. Moreover, the Quaker views that led to abolition definitely not endorsed by the Bible. Clearly, something had caused Quakers to decide to ignore large swaths of their holy scripture. Basic human dignity, perhaps.

  • Domyan

    It’s funny how easy it could be argued that the atheists (and historically, heretics) are the ones who _truly_ understand the bible. No theist will say that the bible was wrong when it comes to slavery, woman’s rights, the position of the Earth in the universe, the origins of all the diversity of life… only that the people of the time were wrong in their interpretation (that was often too literal with not enough consideration for ‘The True Message’). To me it seems obvious and inevitable that the widespread religious bigotry against homosexuals will in a few decades gain the same status as the racism and man chauvinism (should)have today. A few more decades may pass but the religious teaching and the interpretation of the bible should eventually follow. It’s miraculous how we atheist should have access to this advanced, deeper interpretation of the bible that the believers of today don’t yet understand. It’s almost as if the god speaks through us :)

  • Wednesday

    Several have brought up the Quakers as evidence that not all forms of religion encourage slavery (or make slavers treat their slaves worse). But I’m thinking that for completeness we should also look and see what other organized social/cultural institutions encourage slavery or make it worse, and look at the features these institutions have in common with religion that lead to these awful outcomes.

    . No theist will say that the bible was wrong when it comes to slavery, woman’s rights, the position of the Earth in the universe, the origins of all the diversity of life… only that the people of the time were wrong in their interpretation (that was often too literal with not enough consideration for ‘The True Message’).

    Um, no, that’s not true. For starters, not all theists take the bible as their holy book, so many have no reason to defend it in that way. Heck, not all theists have even _heard_ of the bible. Secondly, I know liberal Christians and Jews who freely agree that the Bible or Torah is wrong on those issues, recognizing it as a book written by humans. (How they justify placing any significance on the Torah or Bible is another matter.)

  • Tom

    Even if the bible (or any other authoritarian religious text, for that matter) didn’t specifically endorse humans enslaving other humans even once, the vile notion that one sentient being may own another would still be there in the fundamental belief, which permeates pretty much the entire thing, that we are all god’s property to do with as he pleases.

  • Scotlyn

    On the subject of the Bible being capable of being interpreted in lots of ways, it it worth noting that while white slaveowners were being inspired by their Bibles in all the ways described above by Frederick Douglass, there was a rich seam of subversive Biblical imagery being mined by generations of black slaves for the creation of spiritual and gospel songs. These commonly riffed on themes taken from the Israelite exodus to the Promised Land and their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. It was subversive because the theme was freedom from slavery, and yet the masters could hardly complain about them singing Bible songs…

  • Domyan

    Secondly, I know liberal Christians and Jews who freely agree that the Bible or Torah is wrong on those issues, recognizing it as a book written by humans.

    Irrelevant. My point was that historically the secular humanist view on morality or the scientific view on the workings of the universe was more ‘theologically advanced’ than what was considered a ‘standard’ interpretation of the _insert_a_holy_book_name_ of that time. How good is your understanding of your sacred text should not be measured in how much of it you can recite but for how long your interpretation of it stays ‘correct’. If, in a 50 years almost all Christians interpret the Bible to say that the true message of Jesus was that we should love and respect the homosexuals the same as any other individual then who currently possesses better understanding of the Bible – mainstream Christians or atheists?

  • Wednesday

    Domayan, you made a false universal statement about theists, so I provided counter-examples to prove your statement was wrong. And given your clarifying comment, I still think they’re relevant. I would argue that the people I had in mind as counter-examples do in fact approach morality and workings of the physical universe from secular humanist and scientific perspectives.

    How they reconcile “much of the Bible/Torah was written by people with crappy morals and poor understanding of the universe” with “the Bible/Torah is a holy book” is of course still a problem. Is that maybe where you’re trying to go? Because I’ll certainly grant you that. :)

    How good is your understanding of your sacred text should not be measured in how much of it you can recite but for how long your interpretation of it stays ‘correct’.

    Correctness measured as matching the commonly accepted interpretation? Just taking a lit crit perspective, I can’t agree that is an appropriate measure of someone’s understanding of any text. Even under a “death of the author” approach, having your interpretation be popular isn’t a good measure of your understanding of the text. Popular interpretation is that Mary Magdaline, a character in the New Testament, was a prostitute, but I haven’t seen any indication of that in the text of the NT, and IIRC historians can trace the origin of that notion to a Pope’s complete invention invention some hundred year after the NT canon was settled.

  • Lion IRC

    I have seen and taken part in a lot of debates about whether the bible is opposed to slavery. Dueling verses. Exegesis. Sweeping generalizations.

    In my view, the bible can be summarized as being anti-slavery. Yes, it speaks of slavery as a practical reality. Yes, there are “harm minimization” type verses which advise slave owners not to beat their slaves too much and encourage slaves to behave (in their own self-interest).

    But these are not unlike the approach taken by some societies towards their drug users. They don’t “support” people using heroin just because they provide safe-injecting rooms in order to reduce deaths from overdoses and blood-filled syringes being found in kids playgrounds.

    At least Christians who oppose slavery however CAN quote scripture – and there is a lot of it – to show that God dislikes greed. And coveting slave ownership is a function of greed.

    Denying a person wages for their labor is declared WRONG by the bible. The yoke of slavery is a BAD thing. Being set free from the causes of slavery is a fundamental hope of Christianity and it arises solely FROM SCRIPTURE.

    Contrast this with what Atheism offers. As we repeatedly hear, atheism is nothing more than a lack of theism and says nothing about such things as UFO’s and slavery.
    There is no “atheist” argument AGAINST slavery. Just the opinions of individual atheists.

    Here’s one from a person who appears to oppose slavery as an idea.

    “These truths I hold to be self-evident: Every human being possesses inherent worth, and every human life is equally valuable. Each person has the right and the responsibility to steer their own course through life. Human beings possess fundamental rights and freedoms upon which no one may infringe. Among these are freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of association, the right to privacy, the right to an education, the right to live in peace and safety, and the right to seek happiness.

    Here’s another from someone who thinks power (might) has rights which cannot be suppressed. The intelligent person dominates the less intelligent as some law of nature.

    The free human intelligence is a thing of awesome power, and has the right to travel and explore wherever it desires to go. No reason can ever justify the censorship or suppression of ideas.

    Whereas here is a third person who asserts absolutism and power of the majority – mob rule.

    The only ethical form of government is democracy.

    Here is another atheist who cant make up their mind – which is it? A right or an obligation? Do we have the right to overthrow atheism and replace it with the “other system”

    Every society has both the right and the obligation to revolt against and overthrow any other system.

    Here is an atheist who advocates against mob rule and speaks on behalf of the meek.

    Any government that does not speak for all its citizens equally or that ignores the needs of its most needy members deserves to be removed from power at once.

    And finally, here is an atheist who we can really trust to guide us through the maze of economic scarcity and power dominance over the slaves of this world as a means to an end.

    Wealth and power can only be a means to an end and never an end in themselves.

    Wealth and power. Right! That sounds like real atheism to me.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    It’s pretty funny that you think that atheists must have a command structure, simply because that is what you yourself obey.

    How telling. Your psychology laid bare!

    The only thing that unites any atheist here is our abjuration of god(s). Everything else we’ll settle amongst ourselves once religion is sent down the river.

  • Lion IRC

    Yes I do have a command structure.
    Its not psychological – I take Jesus as a real person.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    So, all those rules about not murdering, not lying, not disrespecting your parents, and not keeping slaves means the Bible was anti-slavery. I didn’t realize that. Oh yeah, that’s because the not keeping slaves part isn’t actually in there.

  • Domyan

    @Wednesday
    It seems to me we are more or less in agreement. If your point was that not all atheists are secular humanists then point well taken though I would say that most certainly are. I, as an atheist, certainly don’t think there is a right or wrong way to interpret any religious sacred text (other than as a remnant of a morality of a more primitive culture). When I say that the atheist’s interpretation of the Bible is more advanced what I am saying is that the main-stream theologians will interpret the Bible in such a way that it’s moral teaching will coincide (but at some future date!) with that of an average atheist of today. The morality that is based on an interpretation of some holy text usually lags behind the one based on a purely humanistic world view. Theologians say that the changing interpretation of the Bible is a result of the advance in our understanding of that text. It seems to follow that the people how now advocate the morality that is more advanced (be that atheists or progressive religious people) have a better understanding of the Bible (if we use their terminology).
    How come people are no longer being stoned to death (in Christianity at least)? Because ‘Do Not Kill!’ is now interpret to take precedence.
    It’s irrelevant that the homosexuals are clearly condemned in the Bible. I am certain that one day the message of ‘Love’ will simply take precedence. Those of us who understand this now obviously better understand ‘The Will of God’.

  • Dan L.

    There is no “atheist” argument AGAINST slavery. Just the opinions of individual atheists.

    So?

    The fact remains that for hundreds of years, the Bible was considered the most important source of moral insight and for those same hundreds of years most Christians didn’t seem to have any moral or ethical problems with slavery.

    I don’t think anyone disagrees that if you read it loosely enough and only concentrate on those passages that support your position that you can use the Bible to make a case against slavery. That’s not the point. The point is that you can also use the Bible to make a case for slavery, or even worse, you can use the Bible to justify abhorrent behavior (like whipping slaves for no good reason) and leave your conscious clean (it’s no more than what God wants, right?).

    The following sums up the problem with using the Bible or any other collection of myths to guide one’s morals or ethics:

    “As long as people believe in absurdities they will continue to commit atrocities.” -Voltaire

  • Wednesday

    @Domayan,

    Oof. No, I wasn’t saying “not all atheists are secular humanists,” although I’m sure that’s also true. (I mean, all it takes is one atheist who isn’t a secular humanist.) My point was that not all _theists_ are in denial about the very morally flawed human origins of the bible – that is, there exist sectarian humanists (if that’s the right word), who rely on humanist principles first and the Bible or Torah second when it comes to morality and knowledge about the world.

    My other point was that there are theists who are not Abrahamic theists. Hinduism, Shintoism, Native American religions, and even old European polytheistic religions are all examples of theism independent of the Torah/Bible.

    I suspect that yes, we agree on essentials, but we seem to have trouble communicating when it comes to universal and existential statements.

  • Domyan

    It was never my intention to overgeneralise. I am fully aware that there are theists that are ‘ahead of their time’ with respect to the main stream religious teaching of the community they live in. What I am saying is that I believe that the purely humanistic morality most atheists hold today is basically the same morality the average theist will hold sometime in the future. In that respect it’s correct to say that atheists, on average, understand the Bible better then theists do, again, on average if we adopt the theists opinion of the Bible as a moral guide which they can in time learn to understand better. This is something that should seem paradoxical to theists and should require an explanation. I am not so much concerned here with the people that understand that the Bible is full of primitive human teachings that have nothing to do with the will of a god. This is meant to be a problem for the more orthodox believers that are more likely to dismiss atheists arguments on the grounds of their lack of true understanding of the Bible.

  • stag

    @ Jim Speiser, Sept 28th.

    I am interested in your post, Jim. I am a Christian, and I too can see the issue to which you refer. I believe the institution of slavery was wrong, is wrong, and always will be wrong – full stop. But I also think some more complex questions arise.

    For example: was every person who ever owned a slave ipso facto a wicked person? I cannot answer that in the affirmative. Is there, in every case, moral guilt (or sin) involved? Again, I would have to think no. “No good person could ever have owned a slave” is too simple an equation for me.

    I would also point out that the institution of slavery was not the result of deliberation and choice by the political elites. It arose in strict correlation to the economic conditions and constraints of the ancient world. To abolish slavery in the Roman Empire, say, was pretty much to abolish civilization. The destiny of bad and the good institutions, in determinate social conditions, are inextricably connected.

    I think the Biblical texts on slavery (and I speak about the New Testament here, since I am a Christian, and it is therefore the definitive revelation that interprets and judges all previous ones, ie the Old Testament) are more complex than you imply. To take St Paul, for example, or St Peter in his first epistle: they are engaged in outlining the duties of believers in the various states of life in which they may find themselves. They are communicating with people of all sorts of social status, and they wish to address them as such. Slaves were among the early believers, and as such are included among those to receive instruction suitable to their real position in society. “What, then, are we to do?” (Lk 3) seems to be the implied question behind this instruction: What should one do, AS a Christian slave, in relation to one’s master? Both authors say, Obey him cheerfully. Obedience and humility are the virtues highlighted by the sacred authors.

    Now, you might say, How is it virtuous to submit to illegitimate authority? It is not, I concede, automatically. But here we are dealing with a situation where, as I said, the master-slave relationship, unjust as it is in itself, is essential to the social and economic fabric. It can’t actually be eliminated in current conditions. So, unless we were to recommend outright war, a revolution of the kind instigated by Spartacus, would it not be better to counsel patience, acceptance, and obedience? Trying to be good at least in the imperfect situation in which one finds oneself? I can certainly see the sense in that.

    Furthermore, I would point out that even while Paul and Peter do not criticize slavery on the institutional level, their theological message revolutionizes the established understanding of the master-slave relationship. Aristotle, as we know, denied humanity to slaves. The Romans denied them, well into the Christian era, even the most basic of legal rights. But in Paul and in Peter, the slave is accepted first and foremost as a brother: a brother in humanity, a brother in Christ. The universality of Christian brotherhood – and the “brotherhood of man” which is its necessary corollary – relativized the master-slave relationship right at its very heart. Superiority and inferiority, while engrained into political structures of meaning, were dissolved at the level of truth. Christianity, of course, never gave the powers of this world the final word on truth. Thus Paul writes “There is no slave or free… for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. And he reminds Christian masters that they too will have to give an account to their REAL master. The real Master, for Paul, is Master of both the slave and the owner.

    Some commentators have suggested that the presence of categories of domination and subordination in Christian theological language betrays its complicity in and its perpetuation of slavery. Christ is seen as the “Master”, while Paul describes himself as the “slave” of Christ Jesus. But I think this is a case of misunderstanding of how theological language functions. It is first of all apophatic – that is, one must acknowledge the insufficiency of human language to speak about the divine. But it must also be cataphatic – it must use the categories and terms furnished by ordinary experience, if it is to say anything at all. This is what Paul does when he uses the categories of Master and Slave theologically. The positive terms used reveal that there is “something” in the relationship of God to his servants that resembles master-slave relationships (it is, to be precise, superiority of one party over the other, although here it is genuine; and the duty of the other party to obey); yet the adoption of these categories is always based on the apophatic moment, the realization that, in whatever way my relation to God resembles that of a slave to a Master, the dissimilarities are infinitely greater. Also, please note that master-slave is by no means the dominant interpretative motif in Christian theology or in the New Testament. Far more decisive is that of Father-Son (or daughter).

    I hope I am not asking too much of you with this in-depth response. But I think the subject merits it. Your objection was that, while Christian revelation seems to enshrine and bless slavery, human beings, on their own steam and by their own lights, came to a different and morally superior conclusion. I hope what I have said already enables me to credibly claim that Christian revelation (specifically the Bible) did not enshrine and bless slavery. The incriminating texts rather seem to be examples of instruction given to Christian believers from across a wide social spectrum, which, in that day, included slaves. At a deeper level, in fact, I think that the New Testament is the death-knell for slavery. The most important and profound things it has to say about slavery relate to the human and Christian dignity of the slave, equal in every respect to that of his master. In this way, the principle legitimation of slavery – inherent superiority – was unmasked, and fatally undermined. It is telling that, during those difficult years in 19th century America, while the Southern slave-owners were quoting the Bible to justify the status quo, Northern Abolitionists were quoting the Bible too – not isolated verses that seem to justify slavery, but key texts containing principles that go to the heart of the matter: the equality of all human beings before God.

    Finally, you might ask, why did the Bible not simply give a clear teaching that slavery is wrong? I would respond that, in terms of its aim, divine revelation is for the salvation of people (I speak as a Christian, obviously). It shows us the way (Christ), and it tells us what way not to go, too. Synthetically, an this is the point, the proper “material” for religious revelation is “faith and morals” (as the classic Catholic adage goes). If there are any personal moral acts, sins, that will directly block a person from their salvation, I would expect the Bible to speak of it. But beyond that, it operates in general principles that should guide us towards greater justice in our relationships and in our institutions. The Bible does not provide a social or political program. The Kingdom of God is “not of this world”: but this world can, if we hold ourselves to the principles of the Kingdom of God, become like God’s Kingdom. From this point of view, it is not surprising to me that the Bible does not say, “And, by the way, slavery is wrong”. As long as owning a slave does not ipso facto make you a wicked person (a “sinner”!) – I return to what I said right at the beginning – then it falls to humanity to discover the correct political application of the general principles of justice revealed by God (and also, incidentally, available to human reason in this case).

    There is plenty more to say on the subject, but I must stop now. I would be interested in considered, patient responses, but I am not interested in mindless name-calling, hastily-drawn caricatures, or sniping from the sidelines.

    Thankyou.

  • stag

    @ Domyan, 1 Oct, #27, #30

    Sorry, here goes for another – a quick one this time.

    I am also interested in your post, Domyan. You make an interesting point, one which you may or may not know is present in the Bible (St Paul says “love is the fulness of the law”). Saint Augustine of Hippo also had some interesting things to say about this. He argued – and has been backed up by almost all influential Christian thinkers – that love (caritas) is the overall hermenautical key of the Scriptures as a whole. Anyone who thinks he has understood a text in Scripture has not in fact understood it, he said, if what he understands goes against true charity. So in that sense, anyone who is convinced that “love is the fulness of the law” has indeed understood the Scriptures.

    The difficulty arises when we try to unpack that, because while you and I both subscribe to the same first principle – the supremacy of love – we arrive at (I presume) two sets of moral beliefs that differ on important points (take abortion or homosexual acts as an example). You reckon one thing expresses the supremacy of love, I think another. In your post, you attribute this discrepancy to my (as a theist) adherence to the text of the Bible as my supreme rule, which I wrongly take to be congruent in its entirety with the supremacy of love. But I deny the charges!

    Christian morality, certainly in my tradition, sees itself as more or less coextensive with the natural moral law. The Christian revolution, so to speak, is located in the power to actually keep to the moral law, to the supremacy of love in its ever-changing demands, and live by it. In my opinion, the discrepancy between my moral beliefs and yours is to be found in the extension and direction of our respective loves. While you are committed to love your fellow man (or woman), and I have no reason to believe any less firmly than I am, I am also committed to the love of God, which lends a “vertical” dimension, so to speak, to my love. God is love itself, and he is also (precisely for that reason) truth. So I love the Truth above all other things, and everything else in the truth. So the fact that I have a transcendent referent for my love guarantees me against abusing my neighbours even as I seek to love them by failing to love them in the truth. Even if you just say, “Well, what does not exist cannot be an effective guarantee – pretending it does exist provides an excuse for moral dictatorship”, nevertheless, I hope you can perceive the opposite danger: merely indulging the whims of one’s neighbour under the pretext of love, but without any surer guide than the very whim itself.

    If I decide, I want to do good to others, who must decide what the good to be done actually is? Should the “others” themselves decide… but then I am at risk of simply becoming their instrument – and who can tell if they will use my willingness to help for genuinely good purposes? So I myself must have a say in what is good for them… but then, who am I to judge? What if I get it wrong? Neither the opinion of the subject nor that of the adressees regarding the “good to be enacted” can provide a sure basis for responsible moral action. This can only be provided by something that transcends or includes both of them. The transcendent source would be God; the “inclusive” source would be human nature. Take your pick. I go with both. Human nature, because that is the proper province of human reason; God, because without him there is no reason to suppose that human nature has a morally significant meaning.

    Thank you.

  • Lion IRC

    So, all those rules about not murdering, not lying, not disrespecting your parents, and not keeping slaves means the Bible was anti-slavery. I didn’t realize that. Oh yeah, that’s because the not keeping slaves part isn’t actually in there.

    Hi OMGF,
    You missed one!
    Thou shalt not steal!
    Slavery is stealing the labor of someone and not PAYING.
    Lion (IRC)

  • Domyan

    @stag First, I would like to thank you for taking the time to write such an eloquent reply, though I must say that I disagree with your line of argument completely. As has been said many times, when you look at the history of religious morality there is clear evidence of change over time – you would probably say of the progress in the understanding of the Bible. With time people certainly put more weight on some verses than the others but this process in not random – it very slowly converges on humanistic morality (because it’s always eventually seen as morally superior) though it constantly lags behind.

    I find the following quite disturbing: “I hope you can perceive the opposite danger: merely indulging the whims of one’s neighbour under the pretext of love, but without any surer guide than the very whim itself.”

    Do do honestly see no objective difference between your neighbour being homosexual and your neighbour stealing cars, raping small children or torturing cats? Do you really believe that there is no purely rational (non theistic) argumentation that would allow us to differentiate between these ‘whims’? That our insistence that there is nothing wrong with gays and lesbians and at the same time firmly condemning paedophilia is completely arbitrary and that we are likely to change our mind in the future in some new, random direction?
    When you want to build a universal, objective and firmly rooted moral system you start with the most basic things that you know are true and you know are universal, namely human preference of happiness to pain (physical and emotional). You then explore what kinds of moral laws lead to maximal human happiness as opposed to suffering. The huge advantage of this approach is that it is (as is science) expressed in an ‘common language’ of objective reason, logic and experimental reality.
    Take homosexuals as an example. I am a happily married straight man. I find the though of kissing (not to mention having sex with!) another man totally repulsive! I feel sick just thinking about it and yet at the same time I can use my reason to conclude that there is absolutely nothing wrong with gay man. That’s the power of reason – it’s allows us to ignore our personal preferences. We can be objective. My dislike of other man is the same as my dislike of certain foods and to prosecute people who are gay makes as much sense as prosecuting people who like crunchy-fries insects (or snails, snakes, rotten eggs… take your pick). What does reason tell me ? Homosexuals can’t be ‘normal’ in evolutionary sense because the genes for homosexuality would strongly be selected against. They will always be a minority. There is no way we could get a run-away process of slowly converting world population to homosexuality. There is therefore no reason to be afraid for the future of mankind. At the same time, the earth is vastly overpopulated. Each couple that decides not to have children is currently helping the humanity survive more than the couple that ‘goes forth and multiplies’. Each couple that is willing to adopt children is definitely doing a good thing. I can find no objective reason why would a homosexual couple reduce a net happiness in the world and every reason why treating such a couple the same as we would treat a heterosexual couple would increase the net happiness. You can’t get a more straightforward example than this.
    This has nothing to do with Love or Forgiveness or Charity. It’s got to do with realisation that these is no ‘sin’ to forgive as there is no one hurt and that you don’t have to Love their lifestyle to insist on the morality that will treat them as your equals.

    People who steal, rape and murder decrease the happiness of their victims. A society that does not have laws against such things is a society of extremely insecure, scared and generally unhappy people that will spend most of their time just trying not the get killed. Education would plummet as would our technological and cultural development. The civilisation would collapse. We do not need a divine revelation to understand this. Reason and logic is much more reliable! To prosecute homosexuals in the name of love and charity is just mind-bogglingly immoral and appalling! It’s a good reminder that faith can make you feel good doing just about anything. Even terrorists probably think they are acting in the name of Love. Words and ideas simply become detached from and rationality.

    In contrast, religious morality is based on an arbitrary interpretation of the holy texts and is not universal nor constant in time nor in respect to different cultures and religions. When there is a conflict of two religious teachings, there can be no common language that would allow an objective resolution of the conflict. It always boils down to a pissing match of who is closer and on a ‘more friendly’ terms with the One True God. That is the problem with each and every non-scientific theory. You can discuss it, argue, plead and threaten for thousands of years and you will not be any smarter at the end of it.

  • Scotlyn

    Saw a good T-shirt the other day -

    GOD (H)RATES FAGS

    A change of a single letter, a change of heart. Why not?

  • Scotlyn

    Domyan

    When you want to build a universal, objective and firmly rooted moral system you start with the most basic things that you know are true and you know are universal, namely human preference of happiness to pain (physical and emotional). You then explore what kinds of moral laws lead to maximal human happiness as opposed to suffering. The huge advantage of this approach is that it is (as is science) expressed in an ‘common language’ of objective reason, logic and experimental reality.

    I couldn’t agree more.
    Also, your ability to disregard your personal feelings in favour of a more universal and rational code of fairness in the matter of homosexuality is exactly what I’m talking about in my post about separatism. Well done.

  • Domyan

    @Scotlyn
    What I find amazing is that I should be ‘congratulated’ on thinking rationally. To me this seems so evident that I don’t understand how someone who is intelligent enough to survive in the modern society can at the same time rationalize what is nothing else but primitive bigotry in every respect on par with racism or male chauvinism. I don’t understand how can you even have a meaningful debate on the issue. There is little doubt that the history will judge homophobes the same as racists. The only question is how long will we have to wait. Our moral progress is not random. It’s not at all hard to guess the direction and extrapolate.

  • Scotlyn

    Well, not so much thinking rationally, as acting rationally. Which, as you point out, should be no big deal. But it is. So, when I congratulate you, it is an expression of a hope that your type of rational action might be contagious. We could do with an epidemic of it.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Lion,

    Thou shalt not steal!
    Slavery is stealing the labor of someone and not PAYING.

    Which is why god set up rules for stealing/slavery, right? Slaves were considered the property of their owners, thus any labor was also rightly owned by the owner, hence it is not stealing. Is one stealing from one’s computer when one has the computer do some task for it? You’re not paying the computer for its labor, are you? Bottom line, this is a rather weak argument you are using. The Bible not only doesn’t condemn slavery, it sets up rules for holding and keeping slaves. This is tacit approval.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    stag,

    I hope what I have said already enables me to credibly claim that Christian revelation (specifically the Bible) did not enshrine and bless slavery. The incriminating texts rather seem to be examples of instruction given to Christian believers from across a wide social spectrum, which, in that day, included slaves.

    Except it’s worse than that, isn’t it? Not only does the Bible not condemn slavery, but it codifies it and therefore gives sanction.

    At a deeper level, in fact, I think that the New Testament is the death-knell for slavery.

    Which is why it took how many years for that to happen? This is especially hard to believe considering that with most of our moral advances it is the Xians who are pointing to the Bible and kicking and screaming about how immoral it is, with slavery being no exception.

    If I decide, I want to do good to others, who must decide what the good to be done actually is? … but then, who am I to judge?

    You judge all the time. Even if you think you get your morals from reading the Bible, you read an ambiguous (obviously or else we wouldn’t be having this discussion) text and claim this or that is moral, but in order to do that you are making judgements. Who are you to judge, you ask? Well, if you really feel that you can’t make judgements about morality, how do you glean from the Bible what is and is not moral since that is a judgement in itself?

    Neither the opinion of the subject nor that of the adressees regarding the “good to be enacted” can provide a sure basis for responsible moral action. This can only be provided by something that transcends or includes both of them.

    So, is murder wrong because god commands it is wrong, or is god just the messenger of what is right/wrong?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Thou shalt not steal!
    Slavery is stealing the labor of someone and not PAYING.

    It sure is odd that the authors of the Bible overlooked that when they wrote this passage explicitly permitting slavery:

    As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are round about you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you, to inherit as a possession for ever; you may make slaves of them…

    —Leviticus 25:44-46

  • Lion IRC

    There seems to be some lag in the posting.
    Unless it was deleted.

    I have a post pending which states….

    In my view, the bible can be summarized as being anti-slavery. Yes, it speaks of slavery as a practical reality. Yes, there are “harm minimization” type verses which advise slave owners not to beat their slaves too much and encourage slaves to behave (in their own self-interest).

    But these are not unlike the approach taken by some societies towards their drug users. They don’t “support” people using heroin just because they provide safe-injecting rooms in order to reduce deaths from overdoses and blood-filled syringes being found in kids playgrounds.

    At least Christians who oppose slavery however CAN quote scripture – and there is a lot of it – to show that God dislikes greed. And coveting slave ownership is a function of greed.

    ….wait!

    Silly me. It is already posted and there for everyone to read…(if they want)

  • Lion IRC

    Here’s your choice as a prospective slave back then.

    A) Be used as free labor by the powers that be and live a while longer

    B) Make sure your side wins the war so you can be the slave owner instead of the slave.

    Isnt it telling that the bible even has rules? If it approved of slavery there would be NO rules on how to treat slaves – just like every where else slavery was found

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Lion, as to your first point, you ignore the fact that to a morally-developed nation, there is a third route for the treatment of PoWs: detention, followed by repatriation at the end of hostilities. What does it say of your bible that it can be used as a both a justification for slavery, and a condemnation of the practice? (And I’m being generous to you: there is no clear, unqualified condemnation of slavery in the Bible.)

    If the Bible disapproved of slavery, why does it lack any rule forbidding it?

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Lion,
    Since you asked…

    In my view, the bible can be summarized as being anti-slavery.

    Only because you are using your modern morality and imparting it back upon the Bible and looking for any ad hoc way of defending your preconceptions. As Thump points out, there is no condemnation of slavery in the Bible.

    Yes, it speaks of slavery as a practical reality. Yes, there are “harm minimization” type verses which advise slave owners not to beat their slaves too much and encourage slaves to behave (in their own self-interest).

    As long as the slaves don’t die right away then the owners can beat them as much as they want. Is that what you call not beating their slaves “too much” and “harm minimization?” But, I have to wonder why a god that supposedly abhors slavery would regulate it instead of abolishing it. He abolished murder, theft, and some other nefarious practices such as eating shellfish and pork. Perhaps slavery wasn’t as high a priority as making sure the Jews didn’t dig on no swine?

    At least Christians who oppose slavery however CAN quote scripture – and there is a lot of it – to show that God dislikes greed. And coveting slave ownership is a function of greed.

    This is reaching even worse than when you tried to claim that the prohibition on stealing was a denunciation of slavery. Owning a slave is not the same as “coveting slave ownership” and besides, the sin there is coveting not owning. Sorry, but your ever more desperate attempts are pretty transparent.

    Here’s your choice as a prospective slave back then.

    A) Be used as free labor by the powers that be and live a while longer

    B) Make sure your side wins the war so you can be the slave owner instead of the slave.

    god would not have been held to this false dichotomy. Sorry, but this is not a valid argument.

    Isnt it telling that the bible even has rules? If it approved of slavery there would be NO rules on how to treat slaves – just like every where else slavery was found

    I didn’t think you could reach any worse than with the greed attempt, but you’ve succeeded in making an even worse argument. It is telling that the Bible has rules. It shows that the Bible writers didn’t outright condemn slavery, as you are claiming. If god didn’t want slavery to exist, he would have said, “Thou shall not.” Instead, god says, here’s what you can do to have slaves, here’s how to do it, etc. Having rules in the Bible is counter to your argument.

  • stag

    Replying to Domyan #34:

    Many thanks for your detailed reply. I’m a wee tad disappointed that it homed in so forcefully on the issue of homosexuality (albeit as an example of “scientific” morality…), bacause that opens a whole new can of worms. But anyway, I shall begin with your more general point.

    You ask: “Do do honestly see no objective difference between your neighbour being homosexual and your neighbour stealing cars, raping small children or torturing cats? Do you really believe that there is no purely rational (non theistic) argumentation that would allow us to differentiate between these ‘whims’?”

    I answer: In my post, I argued that human nature gives us a solid foundation upon which to base our moral reasonings. So yes, it should be obvious that I believe I can differentiate between whims without calling on God to back me up. But I do not believe that the “maximum pleasure – minimum pain” maxim constitutes the most important morally relevant fact about human nature. If it does, then – since pleasure and pain are entirely subjective realities – what is morally good will vary according to the one who experiences pleasure or pain. Furthermore, since human beings, in comparison to the other organisms evolution has churned out, are particularly complex from a psychological point of view, we cannot assume that the “natural” pleasure will necessarily correspond to what the subject experiences as pleasurable. This might have some tricky moral consequences. We would have to call it “good”, or at least totally unobjectionable from a moral standpoint, to perform all sorts of extreme physical tortures on people who find it sexually “pleasurable”. In fact, there was a very interesting legal case in England dealing with a case of exactly this nature, which established the principle that “consent is no defence”: those who had consensually seriously abused each other were sentenced in a criminal court. But with your moral system, how could you criticise them (perhaps you don’t…)? If you want to take the part of the English courts, you could tie yourself up in the knots that JS Mill, that great moral contortionist, entangled himself in before you: comparing the relative “weight” of differing types of pleasure (physical and sexual, pscychological and intellectual), and – even more knotty – devising a scale against which generically entirely different pleasures and pains may be measured and weighed in the first place. (For what justification could we present for the scale we adopt, using ONLY the pleasure-pain maxim as our guide?)

    The only really stable moral principle such a system can arrive at is the liberal principle, formulated by the same JS Mill: that we should be free to do as we wish, so long as we are not harming other people.

    Now, while that might provide you with a good basis for a legal system – since law is properly concerned with harm done to others – it doesn’t give you much to go on concerning what is actually good, does it, what one should actually pursue? OK, whatever I am doing, I shouldn’t harm others… but what should I be doing in the first place? What goods are really worth pursuing, and what goods are to be relativised in relation to these better goods?

    Because I look to human nature to provide an answer to this question, I can give an objective answer. But your answer, despite claiming to be objective, falls back into subjectivism (pleasure and pain are subjective) because it fails to consider – if I may state it in Aristotelian terms – “the good for man qua man”. This approach does not give the individual, as subject of pleasurable or painful experiences, the final word on what is good for him. Through our reason, we can figure out how the goods we can and do pursue are ordered in relation to each other, and this rudimentary “teleology of man” gives us a basis upon which to act with real moral responsibility. So the person who above all takes pleasure in money and the things it can buy, is not a good man: he has made an objective mistake in identifying the good. This is the same as to say, he has radically misunderstood HIMSELF as such.

    I don’t know how far you would go with me up to this point. But I think that from here, it is only a small step to that saying which alarmed you: “I hope you can perceive the opposite danger: merely indulging the whims of one’s neighbour under the pretext of love, but without any surer guide than the very whim itself.” For, if my neighbour has radically misidentified his own good (naturally, pursuing it seems pleasurable to him), then acting to promote his good AS HE SEES IT is a real danger, absolutely.

    As you can see, I have not had recourse to divine revelation at all here. This is purely an issue about how we understand human beings. It is from that point of view that I would also feel confident in criticising abortion and homosexuality from a moral viewpoint.

    A word on homosexuality before I finish. Firstly, I don’t think they should be prosecuted – who in the West is saying that these days? Secondly, I clearly see the difference between rape, robbery and so on on the one hand and homosexual acts on the other. (It is important to say “homosexual acts” – for it is the acts that are morally wrong, not the psychological condition itself. This, as you rightly said, is “wrong” in a purely natural, analogical sense). The most obvious difference is the presence of consent (but we have seen that this is “no defence”); the next is the absence of any apparent harm. But this assumes the sufficiency of the liberal principle, that the “absence of harm” is the only morally relevant factor. However, I do not grant this. I think there is a perfectly coherent rational interpretation of the phenomenon “man” that precludes such actions from its picture of the “good life”.

    Enough for now. Would be interested in what you think.

  • Scotlyn

    Stag:

    Because I look to human nature to provide an answer to this question, I can give an objective answer. But your answer, despite claiming to be objective, falls back into subjectivism (pleasure and pain are subjective) because it fails to consider – if I may state it in Aristotelian terms – “the good for man qua man”.

    this is pure sleight-of-hand. You have stopped talking about real, flesh-and-blood people, and inserted some fetished, reified “qua-MAN” instead.

    This approach does not give the individual, as subject of pleasurable or painful experiences, the final word on what is good for him.

    So who, exactly, DOES it give the final word to? You?

    Through our reason, we can figure out how the goods we can and do pursue are ordered in relation to each other, and this rudimentary “teleology of man” gives us a basis upon which to act with real moral responsibility.

    Your “teleology of man” is another fetish, which bears no resemblance to real people. There is no “natural order” to “goods,” (apart from whereever in your toybox you keep the paper cut-outs of your qua-MEN), what there are are real people making real trade-offs all the time, in ever-changing situations, and taking account of ever-changing sensibilities, relationships, benefits and costs.

    So the person who above all takes pleasure in money and the things it can buy, is not a good man: he has made an objective mistake in identifying the good. This is the same as to say, he has radically misunderstood HIMSELF as such.

    Says you? And who, exactly, are you to tell him he has misunderstood HIMSELF? He is a real person, complicated, messy, and unaccountably unwilling to remake himself in your image, just to make you comfortable.

    This is purely an issue about how we understand human beings.

    Exactly. People are not MAN, with a capital “M”, a notion in your head. People are people – small “p.” They have the right to define themselves, and strangely, no obligation to do it in a way that makes you comfortable.

  • stag

    Thanks, Scotlyn, for your contribution to this discussion. (Unlike your comment on the pope “scandal”, I can respect your point here while disagreeing with it).

    How have I stopped talking about real people? I hear this kind of thing a lot. But I think it is YOU who have stopped talking about real people. Why? Because, like it or not, we are not free to “define ourselves”. No real person is. We have a nature, we share a common way of (human) being that is unique to this species, and which we did not create by ourselves. Are you free to “define yourself” as an angel? No, you are not, because you are a human being of flesh and blood. It is evidently not an issue of what makes you or I or anyone else “comfortable”.

    So EVERY real flesh-and-blood human being, be they ever so complex and multifaceted and psychologically profound, does in fact share some things with every other human being. On the basis of this, and only on this basis, can we figure out moral principles that do not change according to circumstances and actors. If you think the question of the good is simply and solely about “real people making real trade-offs all the time, in ever-changing situations, and taking account of ever-changing sensibilities, relationships, benefits and costs” then you have missed the essence of morality entirely, in my view. Indeed, what meaning does it have to speak about a morality which does not JUDGE the way in which I carry out these calculations and trade-offs? And how can it judge unless it is impartial? And how can it be impartial if it pays no heed to a universal standard? The particular is the enemy of fair judgment. Of course, the very nature of people – complex, different… – means that the universality of morality will often leave room for some kind of “equity” principle in order to give due weight to particular circumstances, etc. But this is in order to give better expression, in the particular case, to the values expressed by the universal principle, not to abolish the universal as such!

    Have you read Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment? If so, how would you describe the the double murder commited by the protagonist? Is it not, as he himself alleges, a case of “real people making real trade-offs all the time, in ever-changing situations, and taking account of ever-changing sensibilities, relationships, benefits and costs”? His whole, torturous self-justification revolved around the triumph of the particular over the universal, the man of great genius over the snivelling mass of humanity. Now, you would not want to have individuals “define themselves” in this way, I assume. But, I wonder, how do you guard against it, if we are REALLY free to define ourselves in relation to others and to the good?

  • Scotlyn

    Stag

    So EVERY real flesh-and-blood human being, be they ever so complex and multifaceted and psychologically profound, does in fact share some things with every other human being. On the basis of this, and only on this basis, can we figure out moral principles that do not change according to circumstances and actors.

    Actually I (mostly) agree with this particular statement as you have phrased it. But I don’t see how this supports the rest of your argument.

    Empathy is the only bridge which leads us to an understanding of the the things that we share with other human beings, and empathy is the natural basis of the moral code often named the “Golden Rule” or – do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you. Pretty much all of a morality that builds on the shared characteristics of human beings is already contained in that “Rule.”

    Indeed, what meaning does it have to speak about a morality which does not JUDGE the way in which I carry out these calculations and trade-offs?

    Indeed, to JUDGE is human and human judgment, one’s own and that of others, is the only test of the morality of our actions.

    And how can it judge unless it is impartial?

    To be impartial does not come easy to humans. (But we usually go ahead and judge anyway, so it is not a necessary precondition of judging). Impartiality may not be easy to achieve, but the natural starting point in that direction is an understanding of the self, and the natural bridge from that understanding to the understanding of the actions of the judged and their consequences for others, is empathy.

    And how can it be impartial if it pays no heed to a universal standard?

    And here you have made just one jump too far. We’ve agreed (at least I’ve agreed with your prior statement) that our standard is “that which we share with other human beings.” Which is neither universal nor eternal, since human beings are also neither universal nor eternal. But this human standard is fully sufficient for our purposes of judging the actions and decisions of humans.

    The particular is the enemy of fair judgment.

    No, I utterly disagree. It is in the particular that we judge and that we learn.

    I haven’t read Dostoyevski, so I cannot comment on that. But living on a day to day basis and making trade-offs, as we go, which is about the size of what humans do, we do often do wrong as well as right. (Such as the trade-off that is the subject of the other thread, the trade off between protecting the Church from scandal vs protecting children from harm). The thing is, in the real world, it is harder to tell who the bad guys are, because they don’t sit around signalling their bad-guy-ness by stroking white cats while consigning Bond to the shark tank. People who commit evil acts in the real world often think, and justify to others, that they are acting “for the best.”

    It is because it is never just a case of deciding on one action in isolation. That action comes in the course of a whole life, a whole web of relationships and is seen by the actor in the context of lots of other factors and choices. Just for example: A priest hears a complaint that another priest has raised a child. What should he do? He, hopefully, thinks about the good of the child, but he also thinks about the institution. He may even believe that if the institution is weakened, that many souls will be lost, and compares those many to this one in front of him. By signing the child up to a vow of secrecy, and by permitting the accused to continue gaining access to other children, he has done an evil act. But in his own mind, what he has done is to weigh up two potential “goods” and choose the one that seemed best to him. If we apply Aristotelian “the good of MAN qua man,” he may even be able to justify to himself that in protecting the Church rather than the child, he has done what is best for this fetishised “MAN”.

    But anyone applying Matthew 25, or the Golden Rule, or simple human empathy, will judge the priest and say he chose wrongly, because the real human child was caused to feel real human pain, and the “good of the church” preserved only a fiction. That is why our standard must remain human-sized and human-shaped. Introducing “universalities” (which are always fictions) allows people to think they do good, while harming real flesh-and-blood people – and that is the most evil of all.

    I think your rebuttal of my “self-definition” point is bad faith arguing. You know I was referring to the man who takes pleasure in money and what money can buy. He gets to do that (so long as he harms no one) and you don’t get to tell him he misunderstands himself.

  • Scotlyn

    Sorry for typo above – too late to correct. We did also have a case of a priest who had “raised” a child, which raised its own problems, but this should have read “another priest has raped a child.”

  • stag

    Could you tell me how to blockquote, Scotlyn?

    Glad we (mostly) agreed on the thing about shared humanity. Let me try to clarify my position on judgment and empathy. I do not agree that “empathy is the only bridge which leads us to an understanding of the the things that we share with other human beings”, since reason, too, is competent to this task. Indeed, for a reliable foundation for our moral action I think reason and empathy have to work in tandem: empathy providing the pre-rational impetus to care for the other and reason discovering the things in which that care should consist, discerning the way to implement the golden rule so that, adopting it as my motivation, I can not only intend but actually effect the good of my neighbour.

    In order to ensure that this is the case – that I don’t just intend the good but actually bring it about – I have to understand who and what my neighbour’s good is. I should not necessarily just take his word for it, since it is possible that he might be mistaken. If you think this is impossible, think of how we treat children: we act for their good often against their explicit wishes (“I want another ice cream!” / “You are not getting one!”), and we do so because we think we understand what is really good for them better than they do themselves. How can you automatically assume – as it seems to me you are – that every adult really understands what is truly good for him or her? I actually don’t find that very plausible at all. (At least, one should not immediately reject the question as flawed and irremediably paternalistic.)

    So, you wonder in your post, are you, Stag, going to assume the role of daddy and judge for them? I was going to say no, but in a way, I have to say yes: because I do think that I understand what is good for people better than some of them do themselves. If I didn’t say that, what sense would there be having any definite moral beliefs, while disagreeing with others’? I don’t claim to make up the rules myself: no, I claim they are immanent to our human nature, and can be discovered, in principle, by reason, although this task is a difficult one; as Aristotle said, one small mistake at the beginning can lead to big errors further down the line.

    This is nothing but the theory of “natural law”. If we can apply simple, instinctive empathy to the case of the abused child, we can also apply natural law: the priest who put the “good” of the Church above the good of the child was also acting irrationally, because he chose institutional, particularized self-interest above the disinterested universality of moral duty and love, a false good above a real good: and surely reason, in its practical function, is good for nothing if not to lead us to discover real goods and adhere to them through choice? His deliberations and conflicts of interest, while real, are beside the point. Of the two proposed courses, one is good, in all circumstances, and one – allowing a child to be exploited – is bad.

    But there might be other cases in which empathy alone will not guide you safely. These are cases where what the person wants or says he wants is not actually good. An empathetic response, provided no harm is seen to be caused to others, might overflow into uncritical permissiveness; whereas, if we add to our empathy a judgment based, not on my desire or his desire, but on human nature and its proper good, then this danger will be averted. I will say to him, Act as you wish, but do not ask me to approve, because I do not. If you deny any objective ordering of human beings towards some goods rather than others, are you not renouncing your right to say this to him?

    I sometimes find myself in a position where I have to say things like this to people. I find, more often than not, that they actually respect my saying so. They appreciate the honesty and perhaps courage it takes to hold oneself to standards of moral truth that don’t give way to personal whim because that is not what they are based on.

    I know you think the idea of a “good” that has a claim on individual subjects independently of whether they subscribe to it or not is controlling and illegitimate. But surely this is the only alternative to anarchical “self-definition”, which, while attempting to respect diversity destroys morality itself, or large swathes of it (those not covered by harm to others)? Please note, re. your second-last post, that your statement “They have the right to define themselves” (second line from bottom) was not, in context, limited to the example I gave about the rich man. It is this kind of hermeneutical anarchy that I consider insidious to moral behaviour (which is to say, the good) and can only be countered by having some understanding of my and your good independent of our act of choosing it or desiring it.

  • Steve Bowen

    Not as erudite as Scotlyn but can offer some html.
    Blockquotes type &lt quote goes here&gt that should do it :)

  • Steve Bowen

    Apparently I can’t. Blech!
    OK format is [Blockquote] Quote goes here [/Blockquote] but substitute square brackets for less than/greater than symbols

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Good to see you again, Steve!

  • Scotlyn

    Erudite! *blushes*

  • Scotlyn

    Stag, I do thank you for your lengthy reply, but a lot of it is repetition of your assertion that there is some higher good, some other morality other than the Golden Rule. I simply don’t agree.

    You use the standard Catholic definitions of “natural law” and “reason” which actually mean “Catholic-defined ‘natural law’” and “Catholic-defined ‘reason’” which bear little resemblance to reality. They are fictions, pure and simple, and amount to nothing more than some high-falutin, medieval, scholastic argument to rationalise and legitimise the exercise of control over others.

    And I don’t and won’t buy it.

    Meanwhile you are trying to push my moral position down some “slippery slope” and mis-represent it with words such as “unsafe” “uncritical permissiveness” and “whimsical.” There is nothing as robust, reliable and (humanly) universal as the Golden Rule. And I cannot think of any area of morality that is not covered by it.

    Also, there is no way to understand the motivations and actions of others apart from extrapolation from one’s own inner experiences, and THEN cross-checking one’s extrapolations with the person concerned (if available) or, in speculation, with others, as we are doing here. What is your “reason” (in this context) only making stuff up in your own head?

  • Domyan

    @stag Thanks for the well argued reply! As a non-native speaker I am afraid I can’t match your eloquence. I am also aware that your reply requires much more consideration than I currently have time, for which I apologize (hope I will be able to come back to it some other time).
    I have chosen the subject of homosexuality because I think it is an excellent test case where the humanistic morality completely differs from the morality of the most theists. It’s also an good case because, from humanistic point of view this issue should not be in the least controversial. If it is immoral, what deeper human moral law is at work here? I agree, it’s in the human nature to be hostile and afraid of things they personally don’t understand or don’t share but is this really the part of human nature that we should encourage? War (fighting in general, often for no good reason) is also in human nature. The human nature is full of both impulses that are welcome in a modern society, but also impulses that are incompatible with it. Both can be explained from the evolutionary point of view.
    The science has in the last few centuries clearly shown that what the humans call ‘common sense’ is not the best guide when it comes to discovering the workings of the universe. The most wonderful ‘discovery’ that the science has given us is the realisation that we can fight against our common sense and actually win! It is the same with the morality. There is absolutely nothing sacred or infallible about our moral ‘common sense’. We had to learn how to think rationally about the physical world and in the process we have learned just how unnatural that is for us. We had to devise the scientific method to compensate for our extremely imperfect thinking skils that are hopelessly influenced by our desires, fears and preconceptions. Now we have to do the same with our morality. Just because protesting against homosexuals, fighting with the fans of some other team, or making religious death treats may feel right of feel in perfect harmony with our nature does not mean that it’s the best course of action. Reason should be a better guide and as much as you try to confuse the issue, it can still, more often than not, produce objective rulings.
    I don’t think you can deny that homosexuals hurt no one and so I see absolutely no reason why we should prevent then from finding happiness. You simply can’t replace homosexuality with ‘any whim’ and thus show that the reasoning is without any rational foundation. The ‘whim’ of rape will always be moraly wrong though as much as I my find it puzzling, a couple that enjoys roleplaying rape should not be judged the same as the real rapists (not by a long shot!). Of course there will be cases where it is difficult to decide weather something is moral or not but writing down a long list of absolute and unchanging rules at some random point in time just so we can have a quick answer for every situation, forever, is not the answer!

  • stag

    Scotlyn,

    thanks for patiently reading my post, which did indeed repeat some of what I had said already. I was trying to find ways to make it more digestible to you, without getting into the nitty-gritty of what the rationally discovered law looks like and how we can uncover it. This really would take far too long, and I actually don’t think you would agree with it even if I did.

    I also tried to offer some invitations to self-criticism, especially regarding the sufficiency of the consensus of acting subjects to effectively establish and determine the real good. I’m not sure you have seriously engaged with these, but I don’t blame you for that since there was a lot of material in my posts.

    Let me just point out, before calling this discussion with you a day (since I do not think I can convince you in the time I have available, and even if I had all the time in the world doubt it very much), that I am not knocking the golden rule. It is part of my own religious tradition, and part of almost every other one on the planet (although absent, I would argue, from orthodox Islam, or at least strongly compromised); it is rooted both in empathy and in reason; and it is a sure basis for harmonious human coexistence. I do think there are areas of morality it does not cover – but more crucially, I believe that you leave yourself open to the classical subjectivist objections in your understanding of it: what I would wish to have done to me might not be really in my best interests (like in the English criminal law case I mentioned)…. But then we get back to the same arguments, and you have already said “I don’t buy it”.

    Good quality debate, Scotlyn: respect for that. It is indeed a rarity on the web, although not so rare on this site, I must say.

  • Scotlyn

    Stag:

    the sufficiency of the consensus of acting subjects to effectively establish and determine the real good

    Well you have put my position well, concisely, and fairly, thanks, and this is pretty much it. I do think the consensus of acting subjects is sufficient to establish and determine the real good (although, of course, sometimes it doesn’t – but that doesn’t mean there is any other alternative, because there isn’t. Imperfect as it is, that’s what we’ve got). So, I don’t read in it an invitation to self-criticism in this instance, (although I am far from immune to same in general terms), because here I can find no fault with the position as you have uttered it.

    The “golden rule” is pretty universal in various related forms – (in your religious tradition the phrasing would be “love your neighbour as yourself,” a phrasing I find a bit unfortunate in a religious tradition which is also known for discouraging the faithful from developing much self-love).

    It is pretty universal (in human terms) because it is deeply rooted in the human experience and does not need to reach outside of that experience to invoke some made-up abstraction for support. It is therefore just about the right size and shape for humans – a pretty good fit.

    In view of what we have been discussing in other threads, I would say that my personal version does have a couple more lines.

    1) Do unto others as you would have them do unto you (sorry, can’t seem to wean myself off that King James-ian phrasing)
    2) Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.
    3) Help others who do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
    4) Hinder others who do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.
    5) All of these rules apply to everyone, even if you do not find them agreeable or congenial.
    6) Do not imagine you know what is good for someone better than they do. Ask.

  • Scotlyn

    5) (cont’d) or even if you DO find them agreeable or congenial.

  • stag

    Thanks, Domyan.

    Let me quote you at some length:
    [Blockquote] We had to devise the scientific method to compensate for our extremely imperfect thinking skils that are hopelessly influenced by our desires, fears and preconceptions. Now we have to do the same with our morality. Just because protesting against homosexuals, fighting with the fans of some other team, or making religious death treats may feel right of feel in perfect harmony with our nature does not mean that it’s the best course of action. Reason should be a better guide and as much as you try to confuse the issue, it can still, more often than not, produce objective rulings. [/Blockquote]

    (If this works, many thanks to Steve Bowen.) (As the whole world can now see, it didn’t work. What did I do wrong?) This makes me wonder, Did you really get what I was trying to say? Did I express myself lucidly? Did I give the impression that I think reason should not be the judge in moral questions, but rather desires, fears and preconceptions? I really don’t think I said that, Domyan.
    I indicated that it is on the basis of reason that I think homosexual acts are morally wrong.

    Why? Well, to accept the conclusion, one has to accept some other premises, which in their turn would have to be properly justified. For example, this assumption immediately separates me from most atheists: I reject the materialistic interpretation of man (again, through reason as well as faith). I could not embark on a justification for that belief and keep this post within reasonable limits. But without it, there is no reason at all to think that homosexual acts might be wrong.

    Let’s see if I can state the case. The end of the sexual urge, in natural terms, is procreation. The urge to eat and drink is for the preservation of the individual, and the sexual urge seems to be for the preservation of the species. (Evolution is my friend here.) Hence, the strictly natural end of an act that is an expression of the sexual drive is procreation. This tells us something about the nature of sexual acts as such: they have something to do with new life. A sexual act that, of its very nature cannot have any truck with new life, is disordered, from the strictly natural point of view. You recognized this, in fact, when you told me that, from the evolutionary point of view, homosexuality must be an aberration.

    Now I have to move from the natural order to the moral order, to show that we are dealing not only with a natural aberration, but, if it is acted upon by a human being, a moral aberration. For animals too sometimes act homosexually. For them, the aberration is natural, for us moral as well. Why so? Because of the connection between new life and interpersonal love.

    Nature has provided that, for more higher organisms, especially mammals, sexual intercourse leads to or creates a certain “affective” bond between the participants,
    in view of being able to rear their young. The link between ‘babies and bonding’, as one Catholic popularist has put it, does seem to be part of the picture in the animal kingdom at large. We are part of that kingdom – but we also transcend it (this is where the Soul comes in… let’s assume it exists, or something like it, for the purposes of argument). The bonding between a human mother and a human father is qualitatively superior to animal bonding – it is real, personal love, a choice and a commitment to the other: not pure natural instinct alone (assuming there is a spiritual principle within us), but choice of the other in their inherent value as a person. And this, too, is relevant to being able to rear their young – to educate their children and provide them with a loving environment in which they can flourish, not only as animals but spiritually too. New life, in human beings, is intrinsically connected to personal love: personal love of two people, yes – but that in view of the benefits accruing to a third person, and a fourth: the children of a mother and father.

    Now, I said earlier that the sexual urge of necessity has to do with new life. Now I can say that in human beings it also necessarily has to do with personal love, a love which, precisely because of its intrinsic connection to new life, does not simply stop with the two lovers, but provides also for the third and fourth party. It is this intrinsic openness to the third and fourth parties that makes this kind of love RESPONSIBLE in its very structure: the love that binds a man and woman together, through its openness to third parties, gives security against arbitrariness and selfish pursuit of gratification. It is not just about “me and you”. It can’t simply be a “friendship of utiliy” or of pleasure. (The fact that it sometimes IS this in practice doesn’t alter the meanings inscribed in the relationships themselves.)

    This objective structure of responsibility, discerned in the openness to children and the union of new life and personal love, is lacking in a homosexual relationship. I am not necessarily saying love is lacking – but the objective structure, inscribed in the relationship itself, which promotes and protects love, is absent. But this, on its own, only means that gay people are exposed to a risk. And anyway, straight people often don;t love each other, whatever we might say about “objective structures of responsibility”. In order to say “homosexual acts are sinful”, I need to show that each and every sexual or pseudo-sexual act that does not open itself to new life is wrong.

    Basically, it is wrong because it is not about love/life but about pleasure. I say this not because pleasure is sinful, but because homosexual acts are only about pleasuring the other person. They are not about life, and so they are not about the bond of love between people, which welcomes and nourishes life, either. This is the only way that love finds its place in the phenomenon of human sexuality, IMO (going also by analogical phenomena in the animal kingdom): as the theatre of life, as that which welcomes life.

    I realize that gay people may think they are “making love”, and they might experience some of the concomitant emotional fulfillment that comes from sexual intimacy with someone one loves. But this is due to a malfunctioning sexual urge, which, while it is not divorced from its essential connection to personal love psychologically speaking, is totally disconnected from its proper object objectively speaking. What they are REALLY doing is, if not in intention then certainly in fact, pleasuring each other, and nothing more. The pleasure stands alone when we analyse the finality of the act itself. It is not concomitant pleasure from pursuing a real good. It is pleasure as the good to be pursued.

    I think this is a betrayal of the objective sense of human sexuality, and this betrayal is morally relevant because the objective sense is love and life. These acts, analyzed carefully, are not about love, but “friendship” of utility or pleasure. In the words of someone, I can’t remember who, Losing hold of the meaning of sex is tantamount to losing hold of the meaning of life. If sex is about love, then that sits OK with me.

    Well, I have gone on too long, and am not satisfied with the conclusion. But try to read sympathetically and to get inside my way of thinking, if only better to be able to refute it. If you get this far without having given up, well done and thank you!

  • stag

    I read my post, and I want to acknowledge – before anyone else does it for me – that the fourth paragraph from the bottom is weak. I think I arrived at the point I was trying to make in the next paragraph, more or less.

    It occurred to me in the meantime that sex, on my “phenomenological” reading of it, is about self-giving, not taking. Homosexual acts, on the other hand, while the participant might through his emotional response deceive himself into thinking he is really giving of himself, is IN FACT only engaged in commerce of pleasure: using the other to get pleasure, and giving himself as an object of pleasure to the other.

    He is not giving of himself truly because the “self” he has to give is not – objectively speaking, not psychologically – truly ordered to this form of sexual self-expression. This means I would oppose the fashionable trends in contemporary thought that understand sexual difference purely in psychological and sociological terms.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    The end of the sexual urge, in natural terms, is procreation. The urge to eat and drink is for the preservation of the individual, and the sexual urge seems to be for the preservation of the species. (Evolution is my friend here.) Hence, the strictly natural end of an act that is an expression of the sexual drive is procreation.

    Actually, if that’s the standard you want to use, the evidence suggests that evolution “intended” human beings to have sex often purely for pleasure: human bodies and reproductive organs are designed such that the majority of sex acts will take place at times when fertilization will not result. Note that this is not the case with most other species of mammals.

  • Alex Weaver

    Jesus Mythical Christ, what have I walked into here? O.O

  • stag

    Yup, knew that, Ebonmuse, but your conclusion seems unwarranted: “often purely for pleasure”. For what matters is that sex is the kind of act that, when performed in certain conditions, will produce new life. It is always that kind of act: the fact that it reaches its full potential in some cases (conception) enables me to understand it, as an act, in all cases, even when the conditions are absent and its potential is not realized.

    I am entitled to say this because the human activity of having sexual intercourse is not specifically different from itself when the woman is not in her fertile period. There is not even the possibility for new life to result: but the act the participants perform is the same. Sex remains that human act by which new life is created. Whether it is or not in each instance does not belong to the sphere of free human action, but rather to physical processes outwith the person’s power of self-determination, and hence is quite irrelevant to the kind of analysis I am attempting.

  • stag

    Good question Alex. Have been thinking the same thing for a while… apart from the Mythical bit ;-)

  • Alex Weaver

    1) If your experience is consistent with the claim that sex is always an act that has some reasonable chance of conception, or that it’s always the same act, then your life is truly impoverished.

    2) Reading this sort of sophisturbation is painful. Can someone with more fortitude than me scroll up and tell me whether he’s arguing that sex needs some further justification than being fun?

  • stag

    1) Eh?

    2) I’ll tell you myself. Yes that is part of what I am saying .

  • Sarah Braasch

    Ok stag,

    I thought you were a limited govt teabagger.

    It takes a lot of government to police people’s bedrooms and genitals and morals.

    Also, I don’t think you want to be arguing that evolution is on your side. We are breeding ourselves to death.

    We are on the verge of extinction as a species due to massive overpopulation and limited resources on a failing planet.

    If anything, we should be ENCOURAGING sexual activity that doesn’t result in procreation.

    Homosexuality might save humanity.

    There is no worse basis for legislation than morality. Fails every time.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Yup, knew that, Ebonmuse, but your conclusion seems unwarranted: “often purely for pleasure”. For what matters is that sex is the kind of act that, when performed in certain conditions, will produce new life.

    Yes, “when performed in certain conditions”. That’s just what I said: even without using contraception, it’s possible for two human beings to have sex when they know beyond any doubt that no pregnancy will result. If sex was meant to be used only for procreation, why is this possible? The human species could have been designed so that women are only sexually receptive when they’re ovulating – which is exactly the case with most other mammals. That this isn’t true of us suggests that human beings are “meant”, insofar as we can use such a slippery and troublesome term, to have sex for purposes beyond mere reproduction.

    Let me try this from a different angle: Bonobos have been observed engaging in oral sex, masturbation, and homosexual behavior – as a means of greeting, of conflict resolution, social currency, reconciliation, and apparently simply for pleasure. Are they violating “natural law”? Is there a different natural law for them than there is for humans?

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    I was enjoying watching the theists twist and turn themselves into knots trying to defend slavery, but now this thread has turned into the homophobic and bigoted opinions of the Catholic church?

    I could point out stag’s special pleading (sex is for A, except when people don’t do A, but that doesn’t count), unreasonable argument that reason suggests homosexuality is wrong while also claiming that we need to hold onto his unreasonable religious demands and superstitions that were not derived from reason, personal biases, and misrepresentations of evolution, but it’s like shooting fish in a barrel, only stag tries to win by deluging his opponents with words (which is quite a statement coming from someone that writes as much as I do).

  • Scotlyn

    Stag:

    (If this works, many thanks to Steve Bowen.) (As the whole world can now see, it didn’t work. What did I do wrong?)

    Stag, I think Steve had explained that you need to substitute “greater than” and “less than” symbols (they are triangular shaped and, on my keyboard, they live in the “upper case” part of the two keys to the right of the “m”) for the [ ] square brackets in his example. If you do this it will work (but also will fail to show the format, which is why Steve used square brackets in his example to you.

    …to accept the conclusion, one has to accept some other premises, which in their turn would have to be properly justified… But without [these other premises], there is no reason at all to think that homosexual acts might be wrong.

    Exactly. Faulty premises, faulty conclusions. And that they are faulty is shown by how much they have to be jury-rigged to be made to stand up at all. They fall over very quickly in the slightest breeze of honest criticism.

  • Domyan

    @stag
    Sorry for a late reply. Others have already addressed some problems with your reasoning so there is not much left to add.
    As I understand, you are arguing that the evolutionary purpose of sex is procreation and to enjoy sex with no intention of procreating is immoral because it goes against it’s true purpose and thus our very nature? It seems to me you are on a very slippery slope here. The same reasoning could be used to make most altruism immoral as it’s biological purpose is to assure a better chance of survival of your own genes (in you and in your family). Otherwise you are acting simply for your own pleasure. Being good to strangers makes no biological and evolutionary sense – it’s a disorder. Letting children with known genetical defects live and even possibly procreate also goes against the very nature of things if we accept your overly simplified view on what is natural. Healing disease goes so much against nature that it’s actually slowly destroying our genetic make-up by not allowing the natural selection to weed out the defects. Why do we still do it? I am sure a lot more examples could be given.
    The whole point is that we can use our reason to go against our nature if it needs be to ensure a better society. If the human history has shown us anything it’s that the more we think about the larger consequences of our actions and the less we act from our instinct and our nature, the better society we will have. It was never a purpose of morality to simply extend the ‘natural law’ to human societies, otherwise we would be living according to the worst social darwinism.
    We can no longer talk about love/life to mean we should do everything we can to bring new life to this world and to hell with everything else. The survival of our species should be more valuable than the survival of our personal set of genes and for some time now these two goals have been in conflict. As Sarah has said and as I have said here a few times, homosexuality should actually be encouraged as a humane way of population control. It could even be argued that deciding not to have children is the ultimate act of love and altruism. Homosexuals can adopt children and so give them a happier life. I have seen no indication that homosexuals make worse parents than heterosexuals and see no reason to believe that live they feel for their (or adopted) children is any less real or sincere.
    Any way you look at it, it seems to me your argument has no rational legs to stand on. You have you bring in some other ‘lawgiver’ that does not require our understanding and there I simply can’t go.

  • Scotlyn

    Stag. You are a “bait and switch” artist. Your argument requires “someone” other than us mere human someones, to have a “Purpose” for sex (one that over-rides our own purposes). Since, on this blog, we would hardly accept God as this purposive agent, do you see how you have tried to switch over to a notion of “evolution’s purpose.” Evolution has no purpose. Evolutionary innovations that have one use are often co-opted for other uses. Humans love sex – and we co-opt it for lots of purposes. So long as these are not the causing of pain or the over-powering of another’s will, the only relevant purpose is that of the people concerned. (Apart from anything else, staying in for it is a very cheap alternative to going out in these here recession times.)

    You keep trying to substitute huge, fictitious abstractions for real, specific life. There is no Sex, there is only sex. There is no Purpose. There are only purposes.

  • stag

    Hi all,

    well, at least I gave it a go…

    Let me address a couple of selected points.

    Sarah: You assert “It takes a lot of government to police people’s bedrooms and genitals and morals”. Well, I won’t argue with that one. But Seriously – what has government got to do with this? Does government have to enforce every good act and ban every bad one? Clearly not.
    You go on to say, “Also, I don’t think you want to be arguing that evolution is on your side. We are breeding ourselves to death.”
    Oh, are we now? As far as I can make out, that is nothing but a leftist myth, a form of secular apocalyptic. Here in Europe, I tend to think it is failure to breed that is endangering our future, both in economic terms and in terms of simple survival. We are way below replacement levels. Population is aging fast…

    Ebonmuse: you wonder, “If sex was meant to be used only for procreation, why is this (ie, that conception does not always result) possible?”
    Well, please re-read the sentence after the one you block-quoted – and indeed the whole post. I think I answered this question already. However, I am not saying that people are “never meant to have sex beyond the purposes of mere reproduction”, end of story. There are clearly other goods involved in it. I even named some of the most significant ones in my so-long-as-to-be-unwieldy post, such as deepening the bond of unity between the participants, and pleasure (which, however, if we stick to the analysis of the act, is concomitant: it is not the end of the act, even if it is sometimes – immorally, I argue – adopted as the end of the actors). These other goods that can be attained, however, don’t eliminate the “defining” one of procreation. If you have any doubts, ask a biologist what function human reproductive organs serve. The clue is in the name.
    As for your final point about Bonobos (whatever they are), there is a patent difference between us and them: we are rational and can understand things, whereas they cannot. Natural law, therefore, can only apply to them analogously. Sure, one might say that there is a “law” regulating their nature and their behaviour just like one can characterize any regularity in nature as a “law”. But we, as well as having this kind of “law”, are able to understand the things that constitute us as the beings we are, and thus regulate our own behaviour through choice, in order that it might correspond to the full truth of that. “Natural law”, for human beings, thus indicates both “what we are”, and our intelligent apprehension of what we are. It’s only because of the second part that it can be called law in the full sense, since only there does the possibility of free obedience arise. (Aside: I wonder what you will make of the phrase “free obedience”…)

    Domyan: You make the following point:

    It seems to me you are on a very slippery slope here. The same reasoning could be used to make most altruism immoral as it’s biological purpose is to assure a better chance of survival of your own genes (in you and in your family). Otherwise you are acting simply for your own pleasure. Being good to strangers makes no biological and evolutionary sense – it’s a disorder.

    (Hurrah! thanks, Scotlyn, for the clarification.) That is a serious point, and I respect that. The same reasoning could indeed be used – but only if I grant you that human beings are ONLY to be explained through biological evolution. If, however, a transcendent dimension of human existence is admitted, then this particular ‘reductio ad absurdum’ is stripped of its efficacy. If this dimension does exist, then it too will need to be incorporated into the natural law. For the same reason, I do not approve of the “natural” eugenics of which you speak, since each person is much more that simply matter, collected together by aeons of cosmic dice-rolling into a functioning, self-regulating system.
    But let me turn the tables on you: what philosophically sound justification can you bring forward – based only upon your own materialist, atheist premises – for excluding, absolutely and in every case, the elimination of the weak (or the darwinian ‘unfit’)? How can you do it, except through affirming the absolute value and dignity of the human person? But how can you affirm that, if we are just matter in movement – as ‘objectively’ insignificant as a blast of super-heated energy from a dying star somewhere in the unknown recesses of the universe?

    Finally, Scotlyn. The following sounds familiar: “You keep trying to substitute huge, fictitious abstractions for real, specific life. There is no Sex, there is only sex. There is no Purpose. There are only purposes.”
    We have been over this ground. But explain to me, if you would, how I can understand homosexual intercourse as sexual intercourse. Tell me (if I may ask you) how it can be equivalent, as an act, to heterosexual intercourse, when even the most cursory glance tells me that the act, in its INTRINSIC finality, is totally different.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    The vast majority of times that people have sex, they do not wish to procreate, which makes your claims of the “INTRINSIC (sic) finality” ridiculous, especially coupled with your attempted defense of the difference between us a bonobos. Which is it, are we governed by evolution making sex simply an act of reproduction, or do we exercise choice that seems to transcend evolution? It’s special pleading and contradictoy. Please let us know which it is before you go further.

    Also, do you really think that one needs a god and a belief in a soul to not go on eugenics-type sprees? Are you wholly ignorant of evolution and don’t understand that it operates without needing us to artificially input to it by discarding the weak? There’s a huge difference between evolution and social Darwinism, and you’d do well to understand that before you start trying to paint with such broad brush strokes.

    Do you have anything beyond, “My religion says homos are icky, so therefore it’s morally wrong?”

  • Scotlyn

    Stag:

    But explain to me, if you would, how I can understand homosexual intercourse as sexual intercourse. Tell me (if I may ask you) how it can be equivalent, as an act, to heterosexual intercourse, when even the most cursory glance tells me that the act, in its INTRINSIC finality, is totally different.

    This is a joke, right? Or does this statement simply speak to the limits of your imagination.(Perhaps “a cursory glance” describes the actual extent of your experience to date?) I said “sex” not “intercourse”. In case you haven’t noticed, sex is a bigger category than intercourse. The primary human “sexual organ” turns out to be our minds. We’re all fully equipped on that score, even people who have lost some neurological communication with their own “nethers”, as for example, through spinal column damage. Also, it turns out, all human orgasms (the INTRINSIC finality of sex, as far as most of us are concerned) physiologically work in a pretty similar manner, although women are able have orgasms without perpetrating a procreative act, while for men this is a bit more difficult.

    So, to make human sex happen, take any random pair of partners, each with a desire to gift the other with an orgasm, let them adopt an imaginative and inventive willingness to explore one another from top to toe with fingers, lips, whatever else is in reach – that’s it. Inclusion of randomly selected ingredients from the kitchen and/or decorative drapings out of the closet are optional. Acting out a script or being spontaneous; building up to it slowly or taking a “quickie” – it’s all good. Sex is sex – and how wonderful it is!

    Sex involves the whole body and the whole mind, not just the bits we like to cover up at the beach. It’s not a case of add up the wobbly bits and divide by two. (Note the answer is an imaginary number). Sex is good in and of itself, and it is also good as the more or less sticky glue that keeps relationships together.

    PS. Bonobos are a species closely related both to ourselves and to chimpanzees. (It was formerly thought that bonobos and chimpanzees were one species, but that misunderstanding has been corrected). Unlike us, and unlike chimpanzees, they tend to be more egalitarian in their gender relations, partly because they have more of a tradition of female-female bonding which protects females from overbearing males. They also epitomise the 1960′s slogan “make love not war.” When faced with conflict a bonobo will almost always seek to soothe any ruffled feathers through sex. I could think of worse ways.

  • Domyan

    @stag Thank you for the quick reply! It’s always nice to have an intelligent discussion where both parties keep a level head (so rare on the net these days).

    The same reasoning could indeed be used – but only if I grant you that human beings are ONLY to be explained through biological evolution.

    So, in other words, you can’t explain your view on homosexuality using the same language of rationality that the atheists (or possibly theists of some other faith) can understand? You can’t say that your reasoning is based purely on objective rationality and then continue that we have to accept that we have been created by some superior intelligence for some precise purpose for the argument to make sense. I mean, try to look at it from our perspective. The problem with the ‘other dimension’ is that different religions (or even individuals in the same religion) don’t exactly agree what effect that would have on our morality.

    But let me turn the tables on you: what philosophically sound justification can you bring forward – based only upon your own materialist, atheist premises – for excluding, absolutely and in every case, the elimination of the weak (or the darwinian ‘unfit’)? How can you do it, except through affirming the absolute value and dignity of the human person? But how can you affirm that, if we are just matter in movement – as ‘objectively’ insignificant as a blast of super-heated energy from a dying star somewhere in the unknown recesses of the universe?

    A hypothetical situation: There exists a cult that believe that the only thing that keeps the universe from completely disappearing along with everything in it is their non-stop meditation. From their perspective, the universe exists because of them. They are the only ones in the entire universe who can say to have any purpose. They don’t understand why the rest of humanity wouldn’t just kill themselves as it would not make the slightest difference. To them all the other beliefs would seem petty, meaningless and depressing. Would an existence of such a belief in the world make your life less meaningful to you?
    I simply don’t understand why my life and the life of other people around me couldn’t have meaning in a completely materialistic world view. Let me illustrate it with a comic that quite well describes my feelings on this subject: Nihilism. :)
    Things that you find depressing I actually find wonderful and uplifting! That we are made from stardust and even though our composition is the same as the rest of the universe, this stuff got organized in mindbogglingly wonderful way to produce us. And we can actually understand how this happened, for the first time since the creation of our planet! Maybe we will even discover how and why our universe got started. The real answer this time :)
    I remember a story a famous astronomer Niel deGrasse Tyson once told. Don’t remember it correctly but I think this was a gist of it: he has just finished one of his lectures about the huge scales of the universe (how big is just our solar system, how distant is the nearest star, how huge is our galaxy and what uncountable number of galaxies our universe contains – with a nice visualisation in a planetarium). A psychologist who has attended the lecture has approached him and started a conversation. He said that he specialized in things that make people feel insignificant, crushing their ego and that he has never in his whole life seen a presentation that would be more effective in that respect. Tyson replied that it can only mean that their (and his) ego was far to large to begin with if they would find this depressing! :) Most people found it wonderful!

    As for your question, a society in which the genetically ‘imperfect’ individuals were actively discriminated against would, on a whole, be a less happy society with much more suffering. Therefore it would be immoral. It’s as simple as that. It is quite certain that we’ll perfect the genetic engineering sooner then our disregard of natural selection has the chance to endanger our species. Our science and technology allows us to be moral where we would otherwise not have that luxury.

  • stag

    The vast majority of times that people have sex, they do not wish to procreate, which makes your claims of the “INTRINSIC (sic) finality” ridiculous

    Which is it, are we governed by evolution making sex simply an act of reproduction, or do we exercise choice that seems to transcend evolution? It’s special pleading and contradictory

    I fail to see the alleged contradiction. Sorry. In fact, I don’t even know what you are trying to say here.

    Also, do you really think that one needs a god and a belief in a soul to not go on eugenics-type sprees? Are you wholly ignorant of evolution and don’t understand that it operates without needing us to artificially input to it by discarding the weak?

    You are twisting my words. I never said, If you don’t have God/soul, Then you will go on eugenic sprees (which, by logical equivalence, IS how you express my view). I said, I don’t know how you can rigorously justify an absolute prohibition of the same from a materialist and atheist point of view.

    Do you have anything beyond, “My religion says homos are icky, so therefore it’s morally wrong?”

    Have I said that? When, on this page, have I mentioned my religion in that connection? (Anyway, for your information, my religion does not say that. According to Catholic teaching, sin is the truest form of ugliness: therefore, a more accurate reflection of the Church’s position would be “homo-sex is morally wrong, so therefore it is icky”.)

  • stag

    Hi Scotlyn,

    I said “sex” not “intercourse”. In case you haven’t noticed, sex is a bigger category than intercourse. The primary human “sexual organ” turns out to be our minds.

    …Et Cetera. Well, here is what “sex” means according to my faithful Chambers Study Dictionary:
    1) Either of the two classes, male or female, into which animals and plants are divided according to their role in reproduction.
    2) Membership of one of these classes
    3) Sexual intercourse, or the activities and feelings associated with it.

    Then it goes on to define the adjective. Which is irrelevant, since I used it as a noun. Senses 1 and 2 are also irrelevant, since they define an abstract notion and an ongoing state respectively. So we are left with definition 3. The feelings are irrelevant here, since I was talking about an act. So the only other meaning of “sex” – other than intercourse – is “activity/ies associated” with sexual intercourse. So does that entitle you to triumph? No – because these activities are defined by their relation to the activity with which the word is used in the primary and proper sense: intercourse. Oral sex is called sex in exactly this secondary way. So is gay sex.
    The use of the same word alone does not permit us to assume equivalence of meaning. What you (basely) describe as sex – “take any random pair of partners, each with a desire to gift the other with an orgasm, let them adopt an imaginative and inventive willingness to explore one another from top to toe with fingers, lips, whatever else is in reach” – is symptomatic of this extension of the term to cover a whole raft of related meanings. But, as I said, the related meanings are only intelligible in relation to intercourse. For you say, “each with a desire to gift the other with an orgasm”: my question then becomes, and what is an orgasm, according to its natural finality? From a strictly biological point of view? You can’t make sense of it, in the complex phenomena of homo sapiens, without the male and female reproductive systems. (This is motivated by frankness and clarity, not crudeness) – It does not make any sense if we replace the vagina and fallopian tubes with the anus and colon.

  • Scotlyn

    I said, I don’t know how you can rigorously justify an absolute prohibition of the same from a materialist and atheist point of view.

    What do you mean by “materialist,” please?

    You ask for a “rigourous justification” of an “absolute prohibition,” something that, once again appeals to the universal and the abstract. Darwinian “fitness” has little bearing on the decisions human beings make about one another. Fitness, as determined by natural selection, is revealed slowly, over the course of generations. This is so even for other animals, who do not purposively cull their own weaker members, they simply compete with one another for available resources.

    Fortunately, humans are too messy and subversive in their sexual behaviours to succumb for too long to “artificial selection” (ie the “elimination of the weak” from the breeding pool). In fact it is a mark of both human and pre-human societies, from about the time (if you hold to Richard Wrangham’s hypothesis that we started cooking and sharing our food around 2 million years ago) that we do care for disabled, sick and wounded individuals and feed them with food they have neither hunted nor gathered nor cooked for themselves. The “INTRINSIC evolutionary purpose” of such caring tendencies in humans is probably to enable the prolonged childhood our young now require, but caring for others who are not our children is one of those incidental evolutionary side-effects – just like using sex for plain, wicked old fun.

    I don’t see any concrete evidence that humans are particularly prone to “eliminating the weak” (except perhaps under the influence of a sustained propaganda assault such as that employed by the Nazis), so why does anyone need a justification for not doing what we don’t, in fact, do?

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Not at all. In fact, you have made a logical mistake. It is possible to argue that intrinsic finality is ridiculous in itself, but not simply because other types of finality exist.

    IOW, it’s more special pleading. You’re arguing natural law dictates X even if that is not the use that anyone else has for it. And, when that’s pointed out, you claim the exceptions don’t count (see below). I’m also failing to see you prove that there’s an INTRINSIC anything in regards to anything.

    I fail to see the alleged contradiction. Sorry. In fact, I don’t even know what you are trying to say here.

    In order to avoid the charge that you’re just injecting your religious beliefs where they don’t belong (which you are doing anyway) you’ve tried to tie your idea of natural moral law to evolution. We are bound to heterosexual penile-vaginal intercourse only and only for procreation because that’s how evolution works, etc. We have no choice, because it’s natural law from evolution, right? Yet, when it’s pointed out to you that this is not the case, you switch gears to it being binding upon us because we somehow have a choice to do or do not as evolution would have us do. So, which is it? Are we held to natural moral law because we are tied to evolution or because we have the choice to transcend it?

    You are twisting my words. I never said, If you don’t have God/soul, Then you will go on eugenic sprees (which, by logical equivalence, IS how you express my view). I said, I don’t know how you can rigorously justify an absolute prohibition of the same from a materialist and atheist point of view.

    Which is basically the same thing. You’re contending that an atheist has no reason to act morally and not be a social Darwinist. This has been pointed out as fallacious. And, yet, I bet you’d have a tough time answering questions about the morality that you think comes from god in a coherent way.

    Oh yeah, and I object to your equivocation where you seem to be arguing that atheism = materialism = nihilsm. These are not the same concepts and you can’t simply paint all with the same brush.

    Have I said that?

    Pretty much, yes. You’ve dressed it up in more flowerly language, but it’s the basic sentiment that you are using. My religion says so, therefore it is so. Why else would we have to accept your irrational and unevidenced claim of the soul, for instance?

  • Scotlyn

    So does that entitle you to triumph?

    Yes, yes, yes, it does… all the way to the realisation of my “base” desires!

    How is it that all these years I’ve never once managed to have sex “from a strictly biological view.” And me the mother of two children, too.

    Now, I must say, though, Stag, you’ve got me thinking… a dictionary as a sex aid – hmmm, it’s got possibilities…

    And now, Ebon, I must apologise, not only for helping your thread to go wildly off-track, but for x-rating it slightly, too.

    Weren’t we talking about slavery? And about how, so called “universal” religious moral codes aren’t so “universal” after all?

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    my question then becomes, and what is an orgasm, according to its natural finality?

    Men don’t actually need to orgasm to impregnate, nor do women need an orgasm to become pregnant. So, what “natural finality” do you think exists there? This is the is/ought fallacy writ large (to go along with all the other fallacies you’ve got going on).

  • http://politicalgames.posterous.com themann1086

    Heh, natural moral law. How quaint…

    And the orgasm is, to paraphrase a few biologists, “a happy accident/byproduct”. Hooray!

  • Scotlyn

    “Natural” Moral Law:
    Intercourse = Procreation.
    Male Orgasm = Happy Byproduct.
    Female Orgasm = Unnecessary, naturally.

    Human Moral Law:
    Orgasm = fun, relationship, bonding, creativity, communion, fun, sharing, fun.
    Procreation = Happy Occasional Byproduct.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    It is this intrinsic openness to the third and fourth parties that makes this kind of love RESPONSIBLE in its very structure: the love that binds a man and woman together, through its openness to third parties, gives security against arbitrariness and selfish pursuit of gratification.

    I would suggest that what prevents love from becoming “selfish pursuit of gratification” is concern for the pleasure and happiness of your partner. If that concern is absent, then openness to procreation is meaningless. As many survivors of domestic violence will tell you, raping and forcibly impregnating a woman is a common tool of abusers – it makes it much more difficult for them to leave violent relationships if they also have the well-being of a child to worry about. Conversely, if that concern is present, then sex will be a mutually pleasurable and beneficial experience, regardless of whether or not there’s a possibility for children to result.

    EDIT: And as the children of dysfunctional and emotionally abusive homes can tell you, even in non-violent relationships, it’s entirely possible to desire children for completely selfish and arbitrary reasons.

  • Alex Weaver

    It is this intrinsic openness to the third and fourth parties that makes this kind of love RESPONSIBLE in its very structure: the love that binds a man and woman together, through its openness to third parties, gives security against arbitrariness and selfish pursuit of gratification.

    I didn’t realize polyamory was an official doctrine of the Catholic Church.

    my question then becomes, and what is an orgasm, according to its natural finality?

    ….I know all these words and I still can’t parse this. What is “natural finality” and why do we care?

  • Alex Weaver

    …Et Cetera. Well, here is what “sex” means according to my faithful Chambers Study Dictionary:
    1) Either of the two classes, male or female, into which animals and plants are divided according to their role in reproduction.
    2) Membership of one of these classes
    3) Sexual intercourse, or the activities and feelings associated with it.

    Then it goes on to define the adjective. Which is irrelevant, since I used it as a noun. Senses 1 and 2 are also irrelevant, since they define an abstract notion and an ongoing state respectively. So we are left with definition 3. The feelings are irrelevant here, since I was talking about an act. So the only other meaning of “sex” – other than intercourse – is “activity/ies associated” with sexual intercourse. So does that entitle you to triumph? No – because these activities are defined by their relation to the activity with which the word is used in the primary and proper sense: intercourse. Oral sex is called sex in exactly this secondary way. So is gay sex.
    The use of the same word alone does not permit us to assume equivalence of meaning. What you (basely) describe as sex – “take any random pair of partners, each with a desire to gift the other with an orgasm, let them adopt an imaginative and inventive willingness to explore one another from top to toe with fingers, lips, whatever else is in reach” – is symptomatic of this extension of the term to cover a whole raft of related meanings. But, as I said, the related meanings are only intelligible in relation to intercourse. For you say, “each with a desire to gift the other with an orgasm”: my question then becomes, and what is an orgasm, according to its natural finality? From a strictly biological point of view? You can’t make sense of it, in the complex phenomena of homo sapiens, without the male and female reproductive systems. (This is motivated by frankness and clarity, not crudeness) – It does not make any sense if we replace the vagina and fallopian tubes with the anus and colon.

    What?

  • Alex Weaver

    Tell me, stag, do you consider it inappropriate to describe a person prone to depression as “melancholy?”

  • stag

    Replying to Ebonmuse, Comment #87:

    Good point: an important thing to bear in mind, certainly. I would not want to dispute anything of what you said. I never wanted to deny that pleasure is an important factor. Just that it is not, and can never be, the only one.

  • stag

    Alex, comment #90:

    why do you ask?

  • Alex Weaver

    Because the word “melancholy” is an Anglicization of a Greek word that refers to having an excess of “black bile.” But black bile (despite early folk science theories) has nothing to do with depression. Therefore, obviously the word “melancholy” cannot be an appropriate way of characterizing it and has no relationship to depression.

    That’s basically the logic you’re using with “sex” and “gay sex” above.

    Just that it is not, and can never be, the only one.

    I’m still not clear on why.

  • Michael

    What makes this worse is if you read the autobiography of Frederick Douglass, he speculates that his master was his father. Either that or it was one of the other white men-so an overseer. Think of how much that increases the horror of slavery, when your tormentor is responsible for your very existence as well. You wouldn’t even be in that hell without their action.

  • Nathanael

    Having heard the same No True Scotsman fallacy Nathaniel (note different spelling) describes, I’m always tempted to replay “The only *true* Christians I’ve ever met, by behavior, were atheists.” But it just perplexes them.

  • soul

    So how did Frederick Douglass sustain his religion?


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