The Perils of Scriptural Morality

I was cheered by a story I saw last week about about heroic activist groups working to end the barbaric custom of female “circumcision”, aka female genital mutilation, that’s practiced in parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. FGM isn’t unique to Christianity or to Islam, but is found across a range of traditional societies that fetishize female virginity and purity and view girls as unfit for marriage if they aren’t cut. The harm to women is immense: death from infection and blood loss, greater risk of death and complication in childbirth, greater risk of fistula, and of course, severe pain and suffering and loss of their ability to feel sexual pleasure.

As the article points out, past efforts at abolishing FGM, though well-intentioned, often failed miserably. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that top-down approaches, like passing an anti-FGM law in a developing country’s (often distant and disengaged) legislature and expecting far-flung rural communities to obey, are virtually useless.

Instead, activist groups like KMG-Ethiopia have found success with a method called community conversations, where trained facilitators come to a village and gather together with the people in traditional councils to talk things out. The facilitators help guide families and elders to the realization of how FGM harms women by providing accurate information without shaming or judgment. These grassroots, bottom-up efforts have often met with dramatic success: in some cases, social norms have flipped so completely that even parents who are still in favor of FGM choose not to do it to their daughters so as not to harm their marriage prospects.

But there was one part of this story that jumped out at me:

Where do these practices come from? the facilitators asked. The Bible and Koran, people said — but no one could point to where. In fact, they weren’t in any religious book, the facilitators said, and most of the world didn’t do them. This was news. “Till then women had taken their position in society as God-given and natural,” Gebre said. “Now we are telling them, ‘This is a man-made role. Men have put women’s position in that role, and we can come out again, because it is man-made.’”

It’s true that FGM is a tribal custom not mentioned in the Bible or the Qur’an. And in this specific case, I’m glad that pointing this out helped to stop a serious harm from being inflicted on girls.

But in spite of that, I think the facilitators are setting a dangerous precedent. They’ve implicitly accepted, and encouraged the people to believe, the premise that man-made rules can be changed, but that the Bible or the Qur’an (whichever is used locally) isn’t man-made but God-given and should be obeyed. So with that in mind, I have to ask: What happens when a traditional community wants to do something nasty to girls that is endorsed by a religious text?

What happens if a man in one of these villages wants to sell his daughter into slavery, or execute a girl because she wasn’t a virgin on her wedding night, or force her to marry an older man who raped her? What if they force girls to veil themselves in public, or believe that beating a disobedient wife is acceptable? What will this approach accomplish in communities that believe in polygamy or reject contraception on religious grounds?

By granting the moral authority of books that contain these misogynist norms, the facilitators are painting themselves into a corner. And it’s not just women who stand to suffer from this, either. What about children who are accused of witchcraft and ostracized and tortured, or mentally ill people who are chained and beaten to drive out the demons possessing them, or AIDS sufferers who believe in miraculous healing rather than medicine?

I realize that you can’t force people to give up their religious beliefs, just as you can’t simply force them to stop FGM by passing a law, and that progress usually has to happen in small steps. Still, rational people ought to be troubled by the destructive potential of religion in traditional societies. Moreover, they ought to recognize that this is the heart and soul of the New Atheist argument.

When you grant more-than-human authority to ancient books that enshrine brutal and superstitious moral norms, you’re planting seeds that may later bear bitter fruit. Regardless of what any religious text says, the only ethical standard for decision-making should be the happiness and well-being of all sentient creatures – period. The world where that principle is universally recognized is the one we should be striving to create. Bringing the arbitrary decrees of a god into the mix, even with the best of intentions, can never bring that distant world closer to reality; it will only cause it to recede still further out of reach.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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.

  • http://fractalheretic.blogspot.com/ Fractal Heretic

    When Christian missionaries teach the Bible in other countries, I wonder if they teach them how to properly cherry-pick from the Bible. Do they explain that certain parts of the Bible are permanently out of context and should be ignored? Or do they just teach that every verse of the Bible is God’s perfect word, and then leave after lighting that fuse?

  • koreypeters

    The missionaries don’t know they are cherry-picking, which is why it’s such a problem. They aren’t “believing some and ignoring some”, rather, they have “interpreted” ALL the verses correctly. It just so happens that some have been interpreted as “very important” while some have been interpreted as “allegorical” or “for another time”. You cannot win this argument with a Christian, for you are accusing them of a crime they do not believe they have committed.

  • Bdole

    the only ethical standard for decision-making should be the happiness and well-being of all sentient creatures

    Even this is fraught. Who do we privilege, the sentients of today or those of the future? What’s the right balance?
    If in certain scenarios happiness turns out to be a zero-sum game, like in trade, how do we allocate benefits?
    Who’s responsible for delivering this happiness? It’s not my fault there are starving people in Africa/Asia/Downthestreet. I have too much and they have too little. But, am I immoral for not making a personal effort to equalize the imbalance?
    As to the main point, it’s unfortunate that to accomplish this one, very important, ragmatic goal, the Koran and Bible were, in a way, validated. The people were shown that this practice is harmful, and guess what, their scripture agrees.
    Take home message by the people: We should follow this book a lot more closely in the future, it told us the truth right from the start about that FGM thing.

  • Leeloo Dallas Multipass

    I don’t think the Bible and Koran actually say anything about it? At least, what I took away from the article wasn’t “the Bible/Koran says not to do it” but “the Bible/Koran doesn’t say to do it”, so at most it’s neutral. As far as I know, the only religious text that specifically forbids FGM is the one Arnold Cunningham makes up on the spot in “Book of Mormon”.

  • Crimson

    You’ve gotta start somewhere… I agree with everything you’ve said but try and put this in some context. You can’t paint yourself into a corner when the floor is already smeared with paint. They just had an opportunity to take advantage of the one spot that happened to be clear. I sincerely doubt those people needed any encouraging that their fairy tales are magic, those comments were a drop in the ocean (imo) in that regard, and if anything helped make the message they were trying to convey relatable to their audience. You sincerely want them to get into philosophical discussions with those people about the validity of their fairy tales while human beings are being butchered next door? They picked the right fight as far as I’m concerned.

  • Kenneth Polit

    I thought it was Richie Cunningham. Oh never mind that was ‘happy days’ Love your screen name BTW

  • Bdole

    I have no idea about the Koran. There is a verse in Isaiah that could be used against FGM even though it’s in no way related.

    Leviticus 19:28
    27 “‘Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.
    28 “‘Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord.

    I can hear the missionaries (or whoever) preaching that FGM is a pagan ritual, therefore it makes Jesus cry, and THAT’s the reason it should be avoided.

    I get queasy even with American liberal Christians a little when they say things like “God loves everyone just the way they are” and so loving and accepting gay people is a Christian thing to do. I’m happy about the conclusion, but weirded out by the premises.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Who do we privilege, the sentients of today or those of the future? What’s the right balance? …If in certain scenarios happiness turns out to be a zero-sum game, like in trade, how do we allocate benefits? …Who’s responsible for delivering this happiness?

    Those are all good questions, to be sure. But if we begin with happiness as the standard of morality, at least we’re arguing about the right things.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Right, the Bible and the Qur’an don’t say anything specific about it either way. What alarmed me about the article (and I acknowledge that I don’t know if this is how the facilitators actually presented it) was that the anti-FGM argument was seemingly laid out in the following way: because FGM isn’t in the Bible, therefore it’s a man-made rule and can be changed. Any reasonably bright person in those societies could flip that chain of logic around and come to the disastrous conclusion that anything that is in the Bible can’t be changed.

  • Helix Luco

    i don’t see it that way, these activists are going in and asking “why are you doing this? no, that doesn’t hold water, what’s the real reason?” and by doing so they managed to break through the weak justification for this practice. bringing real scrutiny to bear on these issues where people stand a chance of getting hurt and approaching the supplied answers with scepticism is, to me, the key to breaking free of dogma.

  • Verbose Stoic

    Well, to you, anyway. There are a lot of moral codes that are candidates for being the right morality that treat overall happiness as a sidebar, noting that a good moral code will probably increase overall happiness but that that’s not what it means to be moral. And when the response to that from the happiness side is that everyone wants to be happy anyway, you can see how it’s reasonable to conclude that we need to do a lot more work on this.

  • RayRobertson

    Bogaletch Gebre of KMG-Ethiopa appears to be a remarkable woman who has helped many, many people in her home country:

    http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2807%2960964-7/fulltext#

    By comparison, Adam’s “dangerous precedent” argument just seems petty and ill-advised. If I were an atheist and somehow bought into the New Atheist approach, I would still consider this quote as appropriate for the circumstances in Ethiopia:

    “Today I bent the truth to be kind, and I have no regret, for I am far surer of what is kind than I am of what is true.” —Robert Brault, author

  • phantomreader42

    The way they’re using it is more “you idiots claim the bible says to mutilate baby girls. Where does it say that? It doesn’t. Quit doing this incredibly stupid shit, and quit lying about the reasons for it.”
    The problem is that there are a lot of horrible things that the bible actually DOES explicitly say that people should do, so pretending “it says so in the bible!!1″ is a good reason doesn’t lead to the best outcomes.

  • David Simon

    Try clicking on some of the links in Adam’s 3rd-to-last paragraph. Do you really want to argue that it is kindest to implicitly support those actions by granting moral authority to arbitrary religious texts?

  • David Simon

    But, am I immoral for not making a personal effort to equalize the imbalance?

    Well, the issue is not the imbalance but just the plain fact that people are suffering.

    But, overall, yes: we all have a moral duty to help out people who are suffering, to at least some degree. If you live in certain countries, then some of your taxes go to helping such people, but usually not all that much; I’d tend to say that Americans above the poverty line, for example, ought to also give a small percentage of their personal income directly to effective charities.

  • Azkyroth

    I’ve never seen one.

  • DavidMHart

    If system of morality A results in people being less happy than system B, by what possible criteria could you assert that A is better than B?

  • Verbose Stoic

    Morality.

    The underlying argument is this: is it possible to have a case where the overall happiness of people would be less and yet that that option would be the more moral option? And when we look at this, it seems that we intuitively think that there are at least some cases where that’s true. Now, intuition arguments are weak, but work well in this case because the view you and Adam promote gets most of its thrust from the fact that it does align nicely with at least some of our normal intuitions, and so if it gets its plausibility from intuition then we can use intuition to show it implausible.

    For example, take genocide. Under these sort of Utilitarian ideas, you can’t say that genocide is just wrong in and of itself (while deontological and virtue theories CAN). At best, you can say that they are wrong because they could never produce the most happiness. But if you turn to fiction, we find all sorts of potential cases where they can. Take, for example, the case in the revamped BSG series, where the humans — who have been targeted for extinction by the Cylons — come across a virus that will exterminate the Cylons, and decide to use it, and thus commit genocide to save the human race. Does this count as an example where that sort of genocide is justified by overall happiness?

    Or, take the case of Jasmine from the Angel TV series. She gives all humans a perfectly happy world, world peace, and pretty much paradise. And all you have to do is let her eat a few people now and then. Clearly, the overall happiness is better under that model, but most people side with Angel and decide that it was better to stop her.

    Now, these are fictional cases, but remember that the argument is over what it means to be moral, and that’s what your question asks as well: how can you have a better moral system and yet have it work out to have less happiness than another system that you deem less moral? And these examples show that that is possible, and that therefore it isn’t the case — or, at least, it is not obviously the case — that what it means to be more moral is to provide more happiness overall. And if that’s the case, then you need to consider those who use a different starting point for morality, and justify your view versus theirs … including those who say “What is moral is what God wants us to do”.

    (Note, since I’m sure I will be accused of it, that I don’t support that last view. I’m roughly Kantian and Stoic and think that what is moral is an epistemic question, about what the concept of morality entails.)

  • Verbose Stoic

    So … never heard of Kant? The Stoics? Most Virtue Ethical theories? I can only conclude, being charitable, that your comment here is based on an idea that no viable contender for morality could ignore happiness, and not that you are really that ignorant to have not come across all the counter-examples.

    (And don’t try to claim that, say, Kant is really about overall happiness. He calls out the Stoics for having a morality that focuses on overall happiness, and they have an idea of “happiness” that is so divorced from most Utilitarian-style moralities that when they talk about “happiness” they are clearly not talking about the same thing.)

  • MNb

    I can partly answer that one, as I live in Moengo Suriname. There are some American missionaries around and many of my pupils are christian indeed. None of them are aware of the nasty stuff.

  • MNb

    It seems that you ignore another point: believers endlessly discussing the fine points of how to interprete their holy books tend to leave us unbelievers alone. I think that’s a good reason to encourage such debates.

  • GCT

    Typical VS. In order to make an argument, he relies on fictional examples that can’t happen in real life. Apparently, as long as someone can dream up some magical scenario, he can do his masturbatory obfuscating. You’ve already tried this schtick on every single post that you respond to that has anything to do with morality (and some that don’t) and it hasn’t ever worked in the past. In fact, you’ve routinely disregarded the objections that have been brought up to your arguments in favor of repeating them ad nauseum. You are a troll. Go away.

  • Bdole

    That whooshing sound you hear overhead?

    You should pay attention to it.

  • DavidMHart

    These are all interesting hypotheticals – instances of scenarios that grate against our tendencies to look for the happiness-maximising option.

    But I would like you to answer my question in a far more literal-minded way:
    what possible criteria could you use to judge different answers to an ethical question, other than criteria that ultimately boil down to the criterion of the happiness (defined sufficiently broadly) of sentient beings like ourselves, and why?

  • RayRobertson

    Do you really want to argue that it is kindest to implicitly support those actions by granting moral authority to arbitrary religious texts?

    I’m arguing that in this case it was the kindest thing to do.

    Have atrocities been committed and sacred texts invoked as motivation? Most certainly. Have other cruel people done the same based on entirely secular writings which claim no moral authority? Yes.

    Bogaletch Gebre did a great thing which helped many people in the real world. Here, her actions are chastised because of the potential for an imaginary utopia where only rational thinkers exist. Good luck with creating that world—in Ethiopia or the U.S.

  • RayRobertson

    How original.

  • GCT

    Have other cruel people done the same based on entirely secular writings which claim no moral authority? Yes.

    If there are secular writings (which ones?) that lead to cruelty and evil, we denounce those as well. But, this defense of claiming that there are secular writings that are bad too is a terrible defense.

    Here, her actions are chastised because of the potential for an imaginary utopia where only rational thinkers exist. Good luck with creating that world—in Ethiopia or the U.S.

    Chastised is rather harsh. Adam is discussing strategy, not claiming that the end result is bad in itself. But, this defense of yours is also terrible. You’re admitting that belief in your sacred texts is irrational.

    It’s also playing on one of the damned if we do, damned if we don’t stereotypical arguments against atheists. We aren’t claiming any sort of utopia is going to happen if people act rationally, but we are claiming that eliminating an obvious source of irrationality that leads to strife would be helpful in diminishing strife.

  • Verbose Stoic

    You know, that first one word answer really was the answer: you can — and really, really should — answer what is ethical and derive your criteria for that from what it means to be moral … to be a moral choice, to be a moral action, and so on and so forth.

    For the non-hedonistic moralities, they all base their views on either a fundamental property of human beings as moral agents, or on a fundamental property of morality and of moral agents themselves. They’ve come up with multiple answers, but they ground it in the criterion of the moral, not in the criterion of happiness. And ultimately, you are going to have to do that as well.

    So, then, to turn the question around, why do you think that happiness is a criterion for MORALITY at all? Why isn’t happiness merely a pragmatic concern and not a moral concern? What is it about happiness that makes it not only relevant to moral questions, but in fact the criterion for and fundamental property of morality itself?

  • DavidMHart

    I’m sorry; I still don’t understand. You seem to be saying that your criterion for deciding whether something is moral is whether or not it is moral. You haven’t defined what morality means, or even could mean.

    A system of morality has to be for something to be of any use, and the only things it could meaningfully be for are sentient creatures that are capable of experiencing either suffering or wellbeing, dependent on the actions of other sentient creatures. If we either felt nothing at all, or we felt whatever we felt but nothing any of us could do could affect how we or anyone else felt, then our actions could not have any consequences for the wellbeing or suffering of ourselves or others, and therefore could not matter to anyone.

    Do you get what I’m saying here? Questions of right and wrong have to depend on there being someone to do right or wrong by – that’s what morality is, in the same sense that chemistry is concerned with the interactions of atoms and molecules, and that history is concerned with figuring out what people in the past did. If you think that history ought to be about what colour to paint your wall, or that chemistry ought to be about how to tie knots, you’re welcome to assert that, but we are no longer talking about the same thing. And if you think that morality is concerned with something other than what causes or prevents human and animal wellbeing or suffering, then you are not talking about whatever most of us are talking about when we talk of morality.

    Obviously there are trade-offs between short-term and long-term happiness, and there are some zero sum situations, but we are still talking about some form of human wellbeing.

    So, if you disagree that morality is properly understood as seeking to understand what will maximize X, where X is ‘human wellbeing’, you must argue for what other X you think morality is for, and argue for it.

  • Azkyroth

    I have heard of those, but your words were:

    There are a lot of moral codes that are candidates for being the right morality

    Sorry, them goalposts is stayin’ put.

    (Or do I need to drool another 3000 words on this comment before you’ll take it seriously?)

  • atheistguest

    Definitely agree with Ebonmuse’s (Adam’s) point about the dangers of using religious texts as authorities in persuading people to change harmful practices.

    Re the Qur’an, yes, it’s true that the Qur’an doesn’t contain anything specific about female genital “circumcision.” However, most of the specifics, the details, on practicing Islam come not from the Qur’an but the Hadith. The Qur’an does say follow Muhammad, that to obey Muhammad is to obey Allah, that Muhammad gives the laws and rules, and so on, and those details are provided in the Hadith. In the Hadith, Muhammad advises Muslims in their practice of female genital cutting, which is also described as one of the aspects of fitra. Consequently, in traditional Islamic law, female genital “circumcision” is regarded as either recommended (but not required) or required, depending on the school of Islamic law. Hence the danger of appealing to religious textual authority in this case.

    One could argue that anti-FGM activists could appeal to the writings of religious moderates who try to interpret the religious texts as arguing against any kind of cutting of the genitals, but ultimately this still puts one in the position of using religious text as authority, and burdens one with endorsing, in principle, all the other objectionable laws and practices in those same texts.

  • Azkyroth

    If the worst thing you can say about a practical, real-world moral code is that arbitrary, unrealistic thought experiments constructed deliberately to “break” it occasionally succeed, yer doin’ pretty damn well. GIGO isn’t just for computers.

  • Verbose Stoic

    Are you claiming that Kant and Virtue Theories AREN’T candidates for being the right morality? On what grounds do you rule them out, noting that the field dedicated to studying morality and determining which one is right — ie moral philosophy — would strongly disagree with you?

  • Verbose Stoic

    I’m sorry; I still don’t understand. You seem to be saying that your criterion for deciding whether something is moral is whether or not it is moral. You haven’t defined what morality means, or even could mean.

    Well, rather what I’m saying is that you have to determine what the starting point for moral principles and decisions is by looking at, in fact, what morality means, and not just assert it. Remember that my initial complaint was that Adam stated that the right place to start was with happiness as if that was uncontroversial, and my point was that it isn’t; there are a number of other starting points that might turn out to be the right ones. Which is why I haven’t defined it, since my whole claim is that while I don’t know what morality really means, neither do you. And all of those “could means” are, in fact, well-outlined and documented and argued over in moral philosophy … along with the flaws.

    So when you assert this:

    And if you think that morality is concerned with something other than what causes or prevents human and animal wellbeing or suffering, then you are not talking about whatever most of us are talking about when we talk of morality.

    This seems patently false. The whole point of the thought experiments that I listed is to show that most people tend to think that you can’t simply substitute “the well-being of sentient beings” for “morality”, because in those cases they clearly believe that the two meanings can come apart … that it is at least possible that an action might increase well-being and yet not be morally right. And, in fact, things like animal cruelty and vegetarianism also belie your claim that the two terms are equivalent, since for most people it is the harm to animals — the things that can suffer — that makes the moral difference here, despite the fact that most of them don’t really consider them sentient. So, right there, it seems that if YOU want to claim that morality IS about the well-being of sentient beings as if that’s just what the word means to most people, it would seem that it is YOU who is using the term in a way differently than everyone else, and so is not talking about the same thing.

    But that’s not true, because we don’t need to have our definition of morality align directly with that of other people, nor do we need to make the terms interchangeable in that way. We need to start from what morality means, sure, but we can derive our principles — like “maximize well-being” — FROM that instead of insisting that the terms must be directly interchangeable. Sure, we still need to argue for it, but again the field of moral philosophy has been doing that for thousands of years, and has come up with really strong arguments and counter-arguments — like the thought experiments I mentioned — and so we don’t need to start from scratch.

    So, if you disagree that morality is properly understood as seeking to understand what will maximize X, where X is ‘human wellbeing’, you must argue for what other X you think morality is for, and argue for it.

    There is no reason to push the burden of proof onto those who are simply questioning what you think morality is. What I did in my previous comments was point out that there are reasons to think that morality is not properly understood as maximizing well-being, given the problems it has as well as the other options that seem as well supported if not better supported. I agree that if I posit a specific one then I have to be able to argue for it, and I can … but I don’t need to posit a specific alternative to point out that your proposal doesn’t seem right, and to simply state it as uncontroversial ignores the state of moral philosophy.

    Now, briefly, onto your argument:

    A system of morality has to be for something to be of any use, and the only things it could meaningfully be for are sentient creatures that are capable of experiencing either suffering or wellbeing, dependent on the actions of other sentient creatures. If we either felt nothing at all, or we felt whatever we felt but nothing any of us could do could affect how we or anyone else felt, then our actions could not have any consequences for the wellbeing or suffering of ourselves or others, and therefore could not matter to anyone.

    This is an EXCEPTIONALLY bad argument to make to someone who is at least Stoic or even Kantian leaning, because it relies on a presumption — that the only thing that matters is based on what we feel — that those two views explicitly reject: it’s not what we feel that matters, and our biggest problem is that we confuse what we feel for being what really matters for what really matters. Additionally, you seem to conflate the reason to be moral — ie why you’d want to be moral — with what it means to be moral itself, which would be like saying that history is defined as the field that tells interesting stories because that’s what interests people in studying it. I think we can all agree that that’s wrong even if that was the only benefit of or reason to study history. There was a reason that I asked why well-being should be considered moral as opposed to simply pragmatic, since one of the main pushes of these sorts of moralities is that well-being is something that everyone cares about. True enough, but just because everyone can see a reason to act in their own well-being does not mean that that is what it means to be moral, nor does it mean that you can generalize that to actually caring about the well-being of others.

    As moral agents — beings with the capacity to make moral decisions — we ought to act in accordance with that nature. That should be enough to make being moral matter even if it doesn’t increase our well-being. People may indeed choose well-being over morality — if the two can come apart — but if they do so then they are not being moral people, and are indeed choosing their own interests over being moral. If they thus cannot see a reason to be moral, I fail to see why this would cause an issue for morality … although, I admit, a lot of people in moral philosophy do see it as a problem.

  • Azkyroth

    Are you claiming that Kant and Virtue Theories AREN’T candidates for being the right morality?

    *slow clap*

    On what grounds do you rule them out

    Question-begging, mainly; a combination of what the phrase has been torturedly used to mean and what it actually means on a straightforward reading….

    noting that the field dedicated to studying morality and determining which one is right — ie moral philosophy — would strongly disagree with you?

    …and the fact that their defenders immediately jump to arguing from authority.

    I have not, I admit, read Kant, and I imagine you’re going to hypocritically seize on this point and ignore the entire rest of my comment, but his universal imperative, as described by trustworthy and intelligent disinterested parties and as tacitly admitted by his defenders when backed into a corner, offers no coherent argument for why one can or cannot rationally will something be universal, requiring reference to some external standard – which, provided it isn’t simply the prejudices of the day (see below), can be appealed to directly without his formal structures (as a consequence, a fairly weak version of it, quite distinct from what he advocated, is useful in refining a basically utilitarian system). Additionally, using it, Kant explicitly arrived at conclusions such as that lying was never permissible even to save lives and that masturbation was unethical because it involves “using oneself as a means to an end.” These belong to the category of “extraordinary claims demanding extraordinary proof” and are almost incalculably more probably an example of “garbage in, garbage out” than a surprising moral revelation.

    Virtue ethics has the same problem; it cannot explain why certain actions are or are not virtuous without either appealing to “everyone knows” or to some other standard. In addition, by its nature a system of virtue ethics will tend to enshrine and endorse prejudices and presumptions of the culture which produced it, which leads at best to absurdity and at worst to atrocities.

  • Jack Mudge

    I have to say (and this is surprisingly rare on this blog) that I actually disagree with the conclusion here.

    The biggest issue is that, as far as I can tell, there is no endorsement of the Bible going on. The people already believe the Bible; it is being pointed out to them that FGM isn’t in it. In other words, they are taking these people’s ideas at face value and showing them that what they’re doing is wrong anyway.

    On a different note, as a matter of strategy, it seems that the argument from precedent setting is a fairly short-term problem. If anyone tries to turn the logic around (I don’t think it can be turned around — see previous paragraph), then we’d simply argue against the Bible being true, just like we do already.

  • RayRobertson

    A thoughtful, measured response worthy of some pondering.

  • Verbose Stoic

    …and the fact that their defenders immediately jump to arguing from authority.

    That argument is not an argument from authority, anymore than it would be an argument from authority to oppose someone who insists that the Copenhagen interpretation of QM is just clearly and obviously the right theory and that the others aren’t viable contenders — meaning that they can’t possibly be the right answer — by saying that quantum physics, the field that studies these things, accepts that the other theories may well be the correct one. You later talk about “extraordinary claims”, and I think it reasonable to say that if you think that one answer is completely obvious while the field whose entire job it is is to determine what answer is right doesn’t think it’s obvious then you are making an extraordinary claim and need to provide a strong defense of it. Which you finally get around to doing here. So I’ll address your specific comments first, but note that your biggest complaint — that they don’t provide a sufficient reason to think that their base principle is correct — also applies in spades to the “well-being/happiness” theory … and it is obviously invalid to say that if you can raise doubts about all of the other theories then your theory wins by default, especially when we can raise doubts about yours as well.

    So, Kant:

    … offers no coherent argument for why one can or cannot rationally will something be universal, requiring reference to some external standard – which, provided it isn’t simply the prejudices of the day (see below), can be appealed to directly without his formal structures (as a consequence, a fairly weak version of it, quite distinct from what he advocated, is useful in refining a basically utilitarian system).

    The categorical imperative, oddly enough, can actually be justified entirely, when you understand what it really says. It is usually interpreted as “You cannot will it because you wouldn’t like the world that results from it being a universal maxim”, at which point it does indeed look a lot like a Utilitarian viewpoint. However, that isn’t what Kant meant. Kant meant that it making it a universal maxim would be self-defeating, meaning that the reason to take the actions at all — and therefore, to make it a universal maxim — would no longer apply if you actually made it a universal maxim.

    So, we can demonstrate this with the case of lying. What is lying? Well, it is stating a falsehood in the hopes of having the hearer interpret it as a truth. But if you had a universal maxim to lie, then the hearer would know that as well, and so wouldn’t believe you. Therefore, you could not fulfill the purpose of lying; no one would ever take your falsehood as the truth. Thus, self-defeating, and those you cannot rationally will that it be a universal maxim. Now, we can look at the specific case as well. While Kant may or may not have allowed for exceptions, it is consistent with a broadly Kantian ethics to say that if you can universalize a specific exception — ie there is a case where lying can indeed be universalized even if in general it can’t — then you can indeed make that a universal maxim. So let’s try that for “lying to a murderer”. Again, the point of lying is to get the hearer to treat a falsehood as the truth, and thus if you assume that the murderer will know the rule then the same objection applies: they won’t believe you because they’ll know that in those cases you will lie. In terms of ethical analysis, adding in that there’s another alternative — say nothing at all — and it seems that the ban on lying through the categorical imperative isn’t, in fact, problematic at all, and is indeed a if not the rational option.

    For masturbation, Kant is following on from his principle “Treat people not only as means, but always as ends in themselves”. While I admit that the reasoning for this isn’t necessarily good, it seems about as obvious as anything the Utilitarians and “well-being/happiness” crowd can toss out in favour of their view. After all, is it not obvious that to be a truly moral person you aren’t allowed to simply use people, in the way as you’d use an object. So, at its base, it is insisting that you don’t treat people — even yourself — like an object, but as a person with beliefs, desires, agency, and so on. How is this not an obvious component of any kind of morality worth having? And then when we turn to masturbation we can look at it in two ways. The first is to question whether he’s right to think that masturbation is treating yourself as only a means to an end and not an end in itself. The Stoics, for example, would castigate him for giving an indifferent moral value; surely it isn’t wrong to seek pleasure as long as that doesn’t interfere with you seeking morality, and it isn’t clear that masturbation does that (Kant’s argument is a bit weak for that specific case). Alternatively, if his argument does work then that little clash with our intuitions is resolved as us simply not understanding what it means to be moral … and biting the bullet on giving up a bit of pleasure to be moral is more reasonable — since we all think that we might have to give up some pleasures to be moral — than a lot of the things that Utilitarians have to bite the bullet on.

    In addition, by its nature a system of virtue ethics will tend to
    enshrine and endorse prejudices and presumptions of the culture which
    produced it, which leads at best to absurdity and at worst to
    atrocities.

    The problem with this is that so do Utilitarian views, because they’re based on what makes people happy. If you base that entirely on what makes people happy, then you run into issues where if it makes someone happy enough to hurt others then that’s what they should do; it is always possible to have hurtful happiness overwhelm the unhappiness it will cause in certain cases. Most views try to work around this by introducing a quality component, and not judging all happiness to be equal. But that quality component tends to be what the society and culture think are higher qualities of happiness, which means that if you don’t like what everyone else likes you may get your happiness devalued … which may be for good reason, but need not be. And if you try to work around it by introducing empathy, you run straight into the issue that empathy fails when you are dealing with people with different beliefs and desires than you, leaving you right back where you started.

    In both cases, one can try to appeal to more objective standards … but, then, both views can do that.

    Now, you may at this point be saying that I’m missing the elephant in the room: why should we think that those virtues or those principles are right. And I will concede that none of the views have convincingly strong reasons for why either. But neither does Utilitarianism. All of the views give arguments for why you should think that what they advocate is what is really moral, but all of those arguments have major flaws in them. Utilitarianism is just as question-begging as Kantianism as Stoicism as Aristoleanism as, well, everything. Unless you have a knock-out argument for Utilitarianism that I haven’t heard, to me your view is just as much question-begging and contortion as anything else … especially since one of my main objections to it is that it seems to be motivated by self-interest more than by moral interest, since almost every argument I’ve had over it ends up boiling down to “You should care about the well-being of others because it is in your own well-being to do so”. That’s Egoism, not a Utilitarianism worthy of the name. It is easy to get people to accept that their own well-being has value, harder to get people to accept that the well-being of others has value, and a lot harder to demonstrate that well-being has moral value as opposed to simply pragmatic value.

    Thus, while I concede that the other options are not yet proven, neither is your option. Hence, that’s why it is controversial to insist that starting from happiness is the right place to start; no one knows what the right place to start for morality is yet.

  • Silas

    I think perhaps this is not only a small social step, it’s a big psychological step. The most successful group of people who have gone and still go to various societies with the attitude that “your culture and religion are wrong and inferior” has been the Christian churches, both by militant strategies and by missionaries (who use time-honed techniques for eating away at traditional cultures). Everyone else, whether for good or ill, has used smaller steps, that chipped away at the corners of mores, which made the rest less stable and open to question. In this case, we’re dealing with cultures already destroyed and recreated using these tactics by religious groups with built-in defenses against the same thing happening again. Christians and Muslims and Jews, oh my, don’t just have a religion to sell you, they insist you remain a loyal customer on purchase.

    Here, this group is making a positive change by finding a small crack in the armor. This is nonetheless an upheaval, a questioning. People who have suffered from it only to see it successfully questioned will not fail to wonder what else they might suffer from that should be questioned.

    I think in this case, Mr. Lee, you are missing the strategy due to impatience. If we hope to improve the lives of those suffering under religious tyranny, do we insist on “all or nothing”, or can we look toward the long term goal?


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