Can We Have Government Without Faith?

(I posted this a couple days ago, but it was accidentally deleted, so I wanted to put it back up.)

It’s from a theist who had a question he wanted to pose to readers. He seems sincere about wanted answers so I don’t mind putting it up here.

I have a question to pose to the community of those with an atheist perspective for which I’m eager to get an answer.

To give a brief background, I am a theist. Although some might instantly view that as being one in the same with narrow mindedness, I like to think I am open to any truth. With an intellectual interest I have read a decent amount of atheist literature including Letter to a Christian Nation and The God Delusion, and believe I have done so with an open mind.

The question I would like to pose is this: How is it possible to have a government without faith? Before anyone responds, please indulge a brief background to this question. I think it is difficult to separate faith from government without being intellectually dishonest.

I think that there are at least two ways of being intellectually dishonest.

1) Starting with a conclusion, and picking evidence to support your case. I think Creationists who claim the universe is around 6,000 years old fall into this category when they use scientists to support their claim. Instead of evaluating all astronomical data and current understanding of physical laws to draw a conclusion, they start with a conclusion and try to find as many scientific concepts that will support it.

2) Ignoring a legitimate observation or question. For example, often times literal biblical scholars when confronted with a question about how the bible can be internally contradictory and yet infallible often shrug their shoulders then pretend the question were never asked. Similarly, many theists do the same when asked questions about how God can be all good, all just, all powerful, and yet still let innocent people suffer.

I realize the first two infractions are committed by theists on a daily basis. Such substance is the fodder of many essays and books criticizing theism and its negative impact on reason.

What I would like to point out is my observation that similar intellectually
dishonesty occurs among people with atheist viewpoints, which at the same time are often believed to be truer to reason.

The main example where I see this occur is in the generation of ethical
principles from an atheist perspective. I think it is a logical conclusion
that without theism or faith, there can be no absolute ethics. Now before
anyone misinterprets this, I am the first to say that the most ethical people I know are of atheist viewpoints, people with whom I would trust my or my family’s lives. I am in no way insinuating that people with atheist viewpoints are less ethical than theist. What I am stating is that I do not see how one can argue absolute ethical principles without theism or faith.

For example. Lets say congress passes legislation on universal health care, and a politician suggests that a certain group be left out of coverage, let’s say people with Downs Syndrome.

Now, most people would be appalled at this suggestion. The argument against it would be that everyone is equal, and deserves equal treatment under the law.

But how do you prove this? In fact, science tells us that we are not all
equal. Some of us are taller, stronger, faster, and have higher IQ’s. The
idea that we are all equal is in contradiction of what science concludes. A person might then argue that we all deserve equal treatment, even if we aren’t equal. But how do you prove this? In fact, science tells us that many species survive by letting the weak or sick die instead of depleting resources for them when they can’t add survival value to the community.

So, if a person has a true atheist perspective, they should be willing to give ideas, such as that we don’t all deserve equal treatment, reasonable
consideration. But, I have yet to meet a person who will.

So far, everyone I have met from an atheist perspective believes in certain principles, such as equal worth of all humans, equal treatment of all humans, and autonomy. In fact, people will stand behind these principles like they will the laws of physics.

From an atheist perspective, I see two main choices:

1) Admit that equal worth, equal treatment, and autonomy aren’t absolute truths, or the only way our society must be.

2) Stand behind these principles, but admit that this involves faith, since
they can’t be proven.

I will use Richard Dawkins distinction between science and faith as put forth in The God Delusion, where he states: “Religion turns untested belief into unshakable truth, where as science is a process of reason, skepticism, and questioning to draw conclusions.”

Using that definition, it seems the belief in equal worth, equal treatment, and autonomy are more faith based than science. So given that we want these principles in government, is it not necessary to have faith inside government? For people reading this who identify themselves as atheist yet believe in these principles, how is that not faith?

Getting back to my original examples of intellectual dishonesty, before someone answers this I would like the two intellectually dishonest approaches to be avoided:

1) Starting with a conclusion. I think it is tempting to start with the
conclusion, that we all deserve equal treatment, and try to find scientific
support for this. If you believe it first, then prove it second it is the same
dishonest logic that creationists use.

2) Ignoring the question, which is actually my biggest worry as I am really be interested in a response to this.

Thanks to all who respond,

-The Theist



[tags]atheist, atheism, government, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins[/tags]

  • http://t3knomanser.livejournal.com t3knomanser

    1) Admit that equal worth, equal treatment, and autonomy aren’t absolute truths, or the only way our society must be.

    He says this like it’s a problem. Let’s get this out of the way: “Equal worth, equal treatment, and autonomy are not absolute truths. They are not the only way that society must be.”

    Of course, I can use this in many ways: “Newtonian physics is not an absolute truth. It is not the only way particles must behave.” “Quantum mechanics is not an absolute truth. It is not the only way to describe the behavior of sub-atomic particles.”

    We have precious few “absolute” truths- in fact, I can’t seem to think of any. Human beings might not have a pipeline to “absolute truth”, but we do have the ability to apprehend the world around us, to interrogate it, investigate it, and draw conclusions from it. When it comes to organizing a society, we have tried so many different things. We’ve experimented, even if we weren’t conscious of it. In all the experiments, we’ve found that equal worth, equal treatment and autonomy are extremely beneficial to individuals and society as a whole.

    Societies that promote free and open exchanges of ideas see incredible scientific and economic progress. Societies without oppressed minorities are more stable. As a group, it’s in our best interests to hold these values, not because some divine decree forces us into it, but because they work. Other organizing principles haven’t worked as well.

    Personally, and this is a controversial view, I don’t feel that people have equal worth. I think prizing someone merely because they have the good fortune to be genetically similar to myself is a perilous mistake. But, I also admit imperfect knowledge. There is, as of yet, no way to honestly determine, practically and fairly, the absolute worth of an individual. When measuring the relative worth, we must limit our scope- I can identify the more worthy chess player, but that doesn’t tell me anything about the person’s worth to society. I don’t hold that equal worth is an absolute truth, but I accept it as a practical one- there’s really no way to evaluate someone’s worth.

  • Miko

    Short answer: yes. For one prominent example, consider the United States, which recently celebrated its 230th birthday despite being founded without faith.

    I think it is a logical conclusion
    that without theism or faith, there can be no absolute ethics.

    If you really mean ‘ethics,’ then yes. Ethics is a set of rules that society abides by without considering their moral content. Without god, there is no source of absolute ethics. But if you mean ‘morals,’ then you’ve got it backwards: theism encourages absolute obeisance to the whim of an unknowable deity, so absolute morals are only possible when people reject the idea of divine authority.

    Using that definition, it seems the belief in equal worth, equal treatment, and autonomy are more faith based than science.

    They’re based on neither faith nor science. They’re based on a social contract established by collective agreement.

  • Jen

    I’ll take a stab at this.

    There is no “scientific” way to prove that all people are equal. I think that in order for all people to receive equal benefits from an atheist government, they would have to rely on compassion. Compassion is not scientifically based. In fact, I think we agree that in societies with fewer resources, it makes the most sense to use those resources on who has the best chance of survival- and that’s what many societies have done, and far be it from me to judge them.

    Using that definition, it seems the belief in equal worth, equal treatment, and autonomy are more faith based than science. So given that we want these principles in government, is it not necessary to have faith inside government? For people reading this who identify themselves as atheist yet believe in these principles, how is that not faith?

    I think its compassion, not faith, at least not faith in a religious way. In a society where there is the ability to care for all the people, it seems better to err on the side of caring for more people.

    So, if a person has a true atheist perspective, they should be willing to give ideas, such as that we don’t all deserve equal treatment, reasonable consideration.

    I might be missing something here, but I don’t see why atheists have to give all ideas reasonable consideration. That has nothing to do with atheism. Atheism is, in my opinion, about considering the world from a naturalistic perspective. There is no supernatural; only the natural.

    I am going to go think about this some more.

  • http://theplainestguygmail.com theplainestguy

    First time commenting… Let me try and take a crack at this one.

    I think the argument went awry when it tries to claim either the ethical principles of religion or the ethical principles of secularists are absolute in the first place. As an atheist, I take it that the principles of, say, “equality for all human beings” is not so much a matter of faith as it is a consensus of the community in which I live and the zeitgeist. Morality to an atheist is a thing which shifts and changes. It is affected by philosophy, journalism, legal precedence, political action, and other forces coming from the institutions which constitutes civilized society.

    I think the fundamental mistake which the author of the letter is making is by attaching the idea of the “absolute” to morality. I contend that the ethics from religion is not absolute but changes over time (You may not agree, but I will be happy to pull the evidence for that if you want). The ethics for secular atheists living in Western democracies is the product of public discourse and tentatively, it’s working out well enough. You need to look no further than the changes in the views of race to witness what I’m saying.

    Once again, the fundamental error is to associate the belief of the absolute to secular morality and ethics. Religious morality may come with that flavor, but don’t make the mistake of claiming that it is true for everything else.

  • Mike

    I am not sure faith is the word to describe why I think human rights, equal worth of all humans, equal treatment, and autonomy are good things. For starters, there is some experimental data, such as the Greek democracy, the Roman Republic/Empire, the USSR, the USA, Nazi Germany and Germany today. We can look at these, and see what value they placed on those principals, and how well each society did and how well individuals in those societies fared. But I don’t think that is entirely your point. I follow those principals, not because they are backed up by science nor because I have faith that they are good principals (though I suppose I do). I follow them, because I want to be treated in a certain way, and I don’t think it is my place to tell others that they don’t deserve the very treatment I demand. In essence, I follow the golden rule, because I think it is a good Idea, and by my though process (aided by many great thinkers in history) these principals are the conclusion. Again, I fear I’ve fallen short of your criteria, but you have certainly sparked my thoughts on this topic. My last thought for now: I “believe” that social justice is invariant under the transformation from one person to the next. I call this principle The Relativity of Social Justice.

  • Miko

    Personally, and this is a controversial view, I don’t feel that people have equal worth.

    Not really controversial. I’ve yet to see a society that acted on the assumption that they do. All merit-based awards, for example, are testimony to the fact that we don’t.

  • http://t3knomanser.livejournal.com t3knomanser

    @Miko:

    All merit-based awards, for example, are testimony to the fact that we don’t.

    Well, I’m not sure merit-based awards really represent a social recognition of global inequality. We’re looking at relative merit within a very narrow field. There’s no “Best Person Alive” award. Nobody “fires” you from living if you don’t meet your quarterly goal (certain exceptions apply).

  • Tammy

    Thanks, Theist for asking for the atheist perspective. I guess I would begin to answer by saying that we should distinguish between blind faith and reasonable faith. Blind faith allows us to believe in things without any evidence whatsoever and is seen by many religionists as a virtue. Reasonable faith would be the kind of faith we use in our daily lives, and tends to serve us pretty well, especially those of us not predisposed to kidding ourselves. Reasonable faith is generally based upon experience rather than wishful thinking. For example, I have faith that when I am low on fuel and go to buy more, the liquid I am pumping into my van is gasoline and not apple juice, even though I didn’t taste it or send it out to a lab for confirmation. I’m certainly not speaking for all atheists, but that’s an important distinction worth noting.
    Next, I must admit that the religious people who claim that we can have no morals unless a creator god set the rules for us scare me. No one believes that it’s okay to steal (sorry to use another simplistic example to prove my point). We all know it’s wrong to take from someone else what isn’t rightfully ours.It seems to me that the only reason so many people tow the line morally or ethically isn’t that they don’t want to do bad things. They behave themselves because they think they are being constantly monitored; otherwise, they’d slap their kids around, steal whatever they could get their mits on, cheat on their spouses, or what-have-you.
    When it comes to “equal protection under the law”, well, we don’t have the right to decide across the board which people are deserving and which should be “left behind”(couldn’t resist). We as individuals and as a society have to take each other case-by-case, no matter how painstakingly time-consuming it is to do so. You are correct, we are all different in our strengths and weaknesses, mentally and physically. We can’t trust that our leaders will treat us each fairly, as they are subject to prejudices just like any of us, and so our laws have to be set up in such a way as to eliminate the influences of personal bias. Well, at least the laws are on the books, anyways. Thanks again, Theist, and I hope my tome of a post helps:)

  • Jen

    Alright, one more thing to add to the discussion- who is to say that we are all equal according to your god? Theist, I have no idea what version of God you believe in, but whose to say he cares about everyone equally? In the Bible, the Christian god is pretty mean to everyone besides the Jews and a few other groups.

  • http://off-the-map.org/atheist/ Siamang

    The way I look at questions like this one is this:

    Assuming that tomorrow, through a twist of fate, I found myself living in the station of a randomly chosen person in my society…

    Well, how would I want our society to be shaped given that was the case?

    My moral and ethical principles flow from that model.

    I vote for the society that I would like to live in, even if my life switched circumstance radically.

    I want for you what I’d hope you’d want for me. It’s a social contract.

    BTW, I don’t think religion has any such lock on any absolute morality. Some religions as recently as within my lifetime argued that black people didn’t have souls.

  • Polly

    I could say a lot more on this subject, but I’ll keep it short since there have already been some good answers:

    It would be hypocritical to endorse harming other human beings who have feelings, thoughts, dreams, etc the same way I do while demanding that my own rights be respected. This kind of hypocrisy would be a logical contradiction and most other atheists I “talk to” via web and real life like to be internally consistent and logical in their thinking.

    Also, if I were to set up a society that rewarded people with basic “rights” ONLY based on their contribtutions, I myself would have to constantly worry that I wouldn’t “make it.” And if I invent a system but exclude my self from its rules that makes me a hypocrite. So we’re back to the logical contradiction thing.

    I would also say that morality or ethics based on commands from a deity is not really morality at all but rather obedience. Most monotheistic religions put the deity’s mere pride or “face” or “glory” (whatever the hell that is) above human life. I consider this to be a bad basis for morality and I would take a “less than absoute” foundation over a bad one. But even that compromise is not necessary.

    As the laws of economics work, though they are not part of the physical universe, so, too, can ethics work without the intervention of a deity.
    Empirically, it’s quite logical that when we all agree to cooperate and treat each other as we’d like to be treated, we all benefit from a better society. Lest you think Jesus Christ originated this idea, please know it was around hundreds of years before him in other cultures. It’s been said many times throughout history in different ways because it’s logical…and just plain fair, not because it’s divine.

    I hope this helps. Good luck in all your musings and analysis.

  • Steelman

    Assuming that tomorrow, through a twist of fate, I found myself living in the station of a randomly chosen person in my society…

    Well, how would I want our society to be shaped given that was the case?

    Is that you there, Siamang, behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance? :)

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    There are thousands of different metrics from strength to beauty to intelligence to status of parents. Genetic endowment is far from equal, and all traits can be ranked on bell curves. There are smart people and stupid people–but most are in the middle.

    People are not equal and life is nowhere near fair. Now get over it.

    Whether government is necessary and what kind there should be is a whole other discussion. But if we are going to have government, it should be one that allows people of staggeringly unequal talents and genes to be fulfilled and to thrive with the least amount of suffering.

    Where this becomes problematic is when smarter, stronger people start taking advantage of others, as they always do. I think this has to be permitted to a certain extent as being the natural course of healthy competition. Weaker, dumber people will never improve if they don’t have to face that competition. But we want to stop short of all-out Social Darwinism, or we might as well go back to tribal society. The real heart of the problem lies in the tradeoff between coercion (in the name of strong or universal utilitarianism) and the equally important preservation of individual liberties.

    This is an area with room for all kinds of discussion. None of it having anything to do with a deity.

  • http://graeme-h.livejournal.com/ graemeh

    k… i think the question is just a bad one. A government with faith doesnt really make sense. Government is just the form or system that justifies how a civilization or society is opporated. You put faith into the government sure, but it does not run with faith in mind. I’d say it’s a bit like saying can a computer run without faith?. It runs through a logical progression of rules, yesses and nos, ones and zeros.

    What is a government with faith?

    Also i think the arguement that ethics is determined by faith or science is similarly false. Ethics is seperate, it is a ruling that is justified by the majority’s well being and societal concern as defined by those who work the mechanics of ethical institutions within the governmental system.

    It’s all about the golden rule really — simple common sense says that if i want security and benefits from the rest of society, than i am willing to allow anyone else that same privelage. Equality from a preliminary stand point hasn’t anything to do with it, whether you include certain groups is a specification that lies inherent with how the current society decides to deal with the issue.

  • http://off-the-map.org/atheist/ Siamang

    As Steelman points out, the idea didn’t begin with me. Great write-up, Steelman… but I didn’t notice God invoked anywhere in Rawl’s model of ethical behavior. ;-)

    The Theist writes as someone seemingly unaware of models of ethics outside the Sunday School model of “God’s watchin’ you, so be good.”

    But what he doesn’t realize is that for theism to provide “absolute ethical principles” we must know for a fact that we have absolute knowlege that we are getting the correct principles directly from God.

    Without that continual confirmation, we morally MUST treat all of proported God’s laws as man’s laws, and not above question, lest we make a tyranny of the Priesthood.

    Without 100% confirmation from God that we are following His laws, correctly and in practice, to the letter, a theistic-based morality suffers from the exact same limitations and non-absolute nature as human-derived morality.

  • Miko

    Well, I’m not sure merit-based awards really represent a social recognition of global inequality.

    It doesn’t have to be global; it works at any level of legislature.

    We’re looking at relative merit within a very narrow field. There’s no “Best Person Alive” award. Nobody “fires” you from living if you don’t meet your quarterly goal (certain exceptions apply).

    I never suggested that that would occur. It needn’t have anything to do with life-and-death situations. The question is whether we treat all people equally, which we clearly don’t. Some of us have college tuition paid by the National Merit scholarship, some get in on a sports scholarship, and some are told by the admissions committee that there isn’t enough room for them to attend. Whenever resources are limited, we have to make choices, and unless we’re going to make them randomly through some sort of lottery, we’re going to make decisions under the assumption that all people are not equal. There’s no one overarching context that will be used in all situations, but we’ll always act under the assumption that our choices matter.

  • eye-of-horus

    Let’s get away from abstractions and look at America’s history and at the real divers of cultural transformation which are not “values” from God.

    What’s the background to the ‘no state religion’ portion of the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (1786).

    As former English subjects, newly victorious Americans had also thrown off a state church, the Church of England. In the Mother Country of 1786 a religious nonconformist (not a confessing Anglican) could not become a physician, attorney at law, an officer in HM forces on land or sea, could not attend either Cambridge or Oxford.

    Americans were not about to tolerate a repeat performance. The issues were meat-and-potatoes: who eats well, procreates, educates the kids, rises in social standing. Real issues — not how to communicate with some cultural Icon, either theistic or deistic.

    As Marvin Harris would put it — we’re always talking about “cultural materialism.” The race to death of food production and reproduction. Guts lead God by the nose every time.

    Amendment 1 protects what used to be called “freedom of conscience.” Initially the right of every man (not slave, not female, not propertyless) to freely choose how to conduct his religious life. “Freedom of conscience” provides cover for the atheist, agnostic, deist, and an overwhelming population of the blessedly indifferent.

    Check it out, the Constitution does not contain the word “God.” “We the people” give our rights to each other, that is, to ourselves as the sovereign body. Neither Bush nor Cheney nor Xian theocrats understand that.

    eye-of-horus
    copyright asserted 2007

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    I have no idea if it’s impossible to have government without faith in a God. I suspect it is possible, Enver Hoxha tried.

    I know that you can’t have a democracy unless some basic assumptions that can’t be found by science are effectively believed in by a majority of people. Political equality, the possession of inherent rights by all people, the right of people to govern themselves on the basis of sound information. None of those can be found by science, indeed much of what is taken by science these days actively seeks to destroy those beliefs. Science deals exclusively with what of the physical universe can be observed, defined, measured and analyzed. Those things necessary to have democracy and freedom can’t be subjected to these methods but history has shown beyond doubt that their assumed absence produces a horrible society of an elite ruling the masses.

    I’ve known atheists who are firm believers in democracy and the necessary precursors on which it depends. I’ve never asked a democratic atheist how they square their belief in inherent freedoms with the mechanistic views of materialism, I suspect they do it by fudging. I’ve found increasingly fewer as the adherents of Evolutionary Psychology (Sociobiology in an assumed name), Pinker style congnitive “science” and other extensions out onto the thin ice have come into vogue. I don’t think that any government I’d like to live under can exist if those pseudo-sciences become the assumed truth.

    I will stand on the same ground Barbara Jordan did when she said that she would shed blood to protect the right of a person to cast a vote. History shows beyond anything science can that it’s something worth defending.

  • Katie

    The question is not a meaningful one. A government is nothing more than a codified set of laws and people executing, making and upholding them. By definition a system such as a government cannot experience “faith” – a human condition. Only sentient beings can experience faith – and a government certainly isn’t one.

  • kukuberra

    We choose words to describe things and then start to think they are the thing itself.

    “Equal” was used in documents to found our country and it was applied only to white men of a certain age. And it was “self-evident.” Cause white men were pretty sure they were equal to other white men and everyone else was inferior, and their property.

    Where is the faith in that?

    As we grow as a species we seem to be figureing out that it is better to confer on people with power the same rights we have/want for ourselves, mostly so they won’t use their power against us.

    That’s why Blacks and Women and other oppressed folks had NO EQUALITY UNDER THIS GOVERNMENT of “EQUALITY” until the oppressed had the power to press the issue. And they fought many years for that power. A fought for their “Equality.”

    Again, show me faith or god in any of this?

    I empathize with other people and bond closely with a few and try to identify all of the human race as part of my tribe. As I care about them and support their right to equal liberties and rights under the law I am also ensuring them for myself.

    I guess there is faith there, the faith in my fellow humans, to want good for us all, like i do. That we will mature enough to take care of each other cause we like each other and have been treated well, not because an unproven Ubaralles ToothFarie declares something.

    God is an emotion we can self-produce that helps us carry on but there is no inherent reason for it in the actual reality around you.

  • Matt Henderson

    being committed to democratic ideals does not at all necessarily entail a belief that everyone actually is “equal.” I don’t know who’s saying they are. Equal in what sense? It’s being said, at the very least, that government has no principled way valuing and ordering people.. and the history of attempts to do so is riddled with tragedy. But the larger point, I think, is that.. it’s not about whether we have equal ability levels or not.. it’s more so that no one person’s interests necessarily trump another’s interests. The farmer and the locksmith have needs and interests just as much as professors do. And, in any case, as soon as you start weighting one group over another.. you introduce oligarchy and have set the stage for corruption and the exertion of political influence for the sole benefit of that “privileged class.”
    But, sure, you guys are right to insist that our founding documents (while they are NOT “Christian”) cointain many references to the creator, from whom we are said to derive our “rights.” I agree with the first part (not the latter part) of the first poster’s post in which he/she said that we can justify these principles on the grounds that they work. It does involve a kind of faith.. but I think it’s a slightly different kind of faith than believing in the truth of an extraordinary supernatural proposition. There’s a distinction to be drawn between trusting other people.. and that a certain social arrangement will work out.. and invoking faith as a justification for believing in the truth of things. Now, sure, there is often faith involved in that too. But I just get annoyed when people invoke “faith” to justify any belief.. no matter how (in my view) outlandish and unparsimonious it is. Faith is going out on a limb and making yourself truly vulnerable. Religious faith means probably being wrong but believing anyway.. a very precarious thing.

    Anyway.. my two cents was that republican ideals don’t require a (naive, foolish) belief that everyone actually is equal in some descriptive sense.. but rather a commitment to the idea that everyone counts.. that everyone has a right to have their particular viewpoint heard.

  • Miko

    Let’s subject the hypothesis that government is based on faith to a scientific test. Faith is the assurance in things unseen, so if government were truly based on faith, then the acts of government would by their very nature become laws of the universe solely because of our belief that they were laws. Thus, the hypothesis is easily falsifiable: go to any street, preferably one with low traffic and attempt to jaywalk. If the universe prevents you from doing so, then it’s possible that government may be based on faith (although there could be other causes as well). If, however, you are successful in crossing the street despite a law against it, we will have determined that government is not, in fact, based on faith. And let’s be honest: we don’t need to actually perform this experiment, because each of us knows what would happen, just as each of us knows that government arises through choice, be it explicit or implicit, not faith.

    Those things necessary to have democracy and freedom can’t be subjected to these methods but history has shown beyond doubt that their assumed absence produces a horrible society of an elite ruling the masses.

    Or as that elite is typically referred to, “the Church.” Scientific developments are a large part of the reason that such abuses are less common in modern times.

  • Lee (the Theist)

    First of all, I would like to thank everyone for responding. And just to make a clarification, I have many friends of an atheist perspective whom I would vote into presidency in a second if I could convince them to run. This question really has arisen from my own exploration of what I do or do not believe.

    It is difficult to pose a response that will address everyone’s reply, I wish I could respond to each one individually. I will try to incorporate some of what everyone says into my response here.

    Just to clarify my main point, using Dawkin’s definition that faith is treating something as truth that you can not test or prove, I think belief in an absolute right and wrong requires faith. I think our government embraces the concept of an absolute right and wrong, and thus incorporates faith. I do understand that some are explaining to me that government can simply represent what we as a society want, as defined by what we value as a community consensus, but I’m not sure we all truly accept the implication of this type of government (I’ll give an example at the end of why I think many Athiests don’t accept this). But first I must explain what I mean by absolute right and wrong.

    I see a main difference between atheist and faith based explanations of ethics. I will try to describe below what the difference is. It has to do with the question of “why.”

    Lets look at the basic sentence that derives from ethics, either “You should (fill in the blank)…. “ or “You shouldn’t (fill in the blank)…. “. I think both atheist and theist can derive similar principles for the (fill in the blank). For example, many responses reference the concept that people should be treated as they would want to be treated; a concept which I agree can come from pure logic or from religious sources. To all those who say that you don’t need Jesus to teach “the golden rule,” I agree.

    The difference, to me, between theist and atheist perspectives when talking about what you should or shouldn’t do comes with the answer to the question “why” or “why not.”

    For example, to the principle “Treat everyone with equal worth,” if asked “why?” you can come up with a logical argument that if everyone doesn’t do this it will result in a un-prosperous society. But then if one were to say, “I don’t care if society is un-prosperous, why should I treat people as equals?” it is harder to give an answer. One might even say, “I suppose you don’t have to, but I also don’t want you living in my society.”

    From this comes the definition of government and ethics that Miko, theplainestguy, and Siamang explained, if I understand it correctly, which is that it is a social contract established by collective agreement. So society as a whole values certain things, and creates rules to achieve those values.

    Now, here might be a theists answer to the question of why a person should or should not do something. Because it is wrong, period. If you argue that X is wrong because it will result in Y, than a person who doesn’t care about Y won’t see X is wrong. If you argue X is wrong by definition, than that’s it.

    Now I know the response to this. Who has the authority to truly know what is right and wrong. As the plainestguy stated, the ethics of religion seem to change over time. As Jen says “who’s to say we are all equal according to your god?” As Siamsung said, religion often gets its wrong, such as racist views that people have used religion to defend.

    I would answer it this way. I think one goal as humans is to discover what that truth, or absolute right and wrong, is. I don’t think anyone has claim to it. But I think that all of us have some sense of it, and speak about it as if it is real. There are themes in everyone’s posts above. Jen spoke about compassion, and argued that it is better to error on the side of caring for more people. Tammy stated that there are many things that everyone knows is wrong. Polly described concepts of treating other people with the same rights one’s self desires. I got the feeling in T3knomanswer and Mike’s post that they started with the conclusion that it is better for society that we are all treated equally and found evidence for it, ignoring all the evidence that unequal treatment in society can also lead to great progress (Egyptian pyramids built by slaves, China’s current overwhelming success in the marketplace). While they might be right, I bet they also want equal treatment to be the best strategy for society, and would be disappointed if someone proved the opposite. Black Sun perhaps summed it up best saying that, if we have government, it “should be one that allows people of staggeringly unequal talents and genes to be fulfilled and to thrive with the least amount of suffering.” All of these descriptions of what is right share many things in common. They all seem to point in one direction.

    My feeling is that many people truly see these ideas as being “right,” not just a random opinion of how they think things should be to benefit themselves. We all seem to share similar ideas. Now, you can view these shared ideas in two different ways. Richard Dawkins described the concept of “memes”, which are ideas which evolve, just as genes do, because they have a survival advantage. In essence if we didn’t think this way we would be extinct. I think this is fair. You could call this “herd instinct.” You could call “the golden rule” heard instinct. But, if it were, it would also be ok to ignore it. The desire to have children can be considered a “herd instinct,” and it is ok to ignore. Yet I think if someone were to ignore the ethical “herd instinct,” we would see this action as something different, as truly wrong.

    To respond to Siamsung’s statement that I am seemingly unaware of models of ethics outside of religion, I can understand where that statement comes from especially with the views held toward theists. But, I must say I am fluent in ethical concepts of consequentialism, utilitarianism, deontology and with writers such as Sartre, Mill, and Hobbes. In fact, it was my exploration of ethical principles that led me to the conclusion that there is an absolute right and wrong. If there is not, than everything is based on what is trying to be achieved. If everyone has a different goal, than what should and should not be done is relative to what a person’s goal is. There would be no “right” and “wrong” in the traditional sense, there would only be actions and outcomes, and those outcomes would either be desirable or undesirable by an individual.

    So I understand that the fact that I can’t accept a world without absolute right doesn’t make it so. But I also see a trend in people with atheist perspectives acting also as if there is an absolute right which isn’t just relative to an individuals goals. I think if a person ignores that they do this, it is intellectualy dishonest. I have not spoken with a person of atheist perspective who is comfortable admitting there truly is no absolute right or wrong.

    For example:

    The ideas above state that ethics in government can be simply a societal contract based on the consensus of the community. As Siamang states, “I vote for the society that I would like to live in.” I am familiar with the polls which conclude that America currently would not vote for an atheist president. (Just to clarify, I would vote for an atheist president.) If what is being argued from an atheist perspective is true, that government should not based on absolute ethical principles (absolute right and wrong) but rather on the goals established by the consensus of the community, than the current situation in America where an atheist will not be elected as president is undesirable for atheists, but is not wrong because it is the consensus of the community. It is only with the belief in absolute right and wrong that you can argue it is truly wrong.

    -Lee (The Theist)

  • monkeymind

    Well, honoring my Mennonite ancestors, I’d like to put the question another way: why would you need a faith based on government?

  • http://crazyrainbowunderwear.blogspot.com yinyang

    What is the “true atheist perspective”? I didn’t realize anything like that existed. ;)

    My suggestion to the The Theist would be to pick up Richard Dawkin’s A Devil’s Champlain, and read the very first essay (with the same title), as well as the Ethics section from the “Memo for Tony Blair” (if he/she has not done so already). But, to save time, I believe this quote from the book is a suitable response on its own to the question of science and ethics:

    Science has no methods for deciding what is ethical. That is a matter for individuals and for society. But science can clarify the questions being asked, and can clear up obfuscating misunderstandings.

    As a sort of side note: just because science doesn’t provide an answer, doesn’t mean we automatically must turn to religion. And, atheists don’t use science for everything. To do that would be silly. :)

    Now, so I actually address the main question, I’ll offer a definition:

    faith
    n.

    1. Confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.
    2. Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence. See synonyms at belief, trust.
    3. Loyalty to a person or thing; allegiance: keeping faith with one’s supporters.
    4. often Faith Christianity. The theological virtue defined as secure belief in God and a trusting acceptance of God’s will.
    5. The body of dogma of a religion: the Muslim faith.
    6. A set of principles or beliefs.

    Atheists (and, I think, a fair amount of theists) only really object to 4 and 5 (and maybe 2) being used in the government to decide and enforce legislation, particularly when it is unreasonably harmful or preferential (though these are objectionable no matter the source). That does not meant we object to all faith used in the government, or anywhere else for that matter.

    I know I didn’t answer the question, but this comment is getting long, and I don’t think I can answer it as well as others have or will. Sorry. :(

  • marty

    What I am stating is that I do not see how one can argue absolute ethical principles without theism or faith.

    I don’t know. I can’t see how you could read The God Delusion for instance, without coming across the argument from personal incredulity being shown to be the fallacy it is. The whole argument that shows how theism and faith are not the source of ethics has been made in those books you say you’ve read, by much better writers than me.

    In fact, science tells us that many species survive by letting the weak or sick die instead of depleting resources for them when they can’t add survival value to the community.

    Not quite. The ailing springbok is left to the lion because the springbok doesn’t have palliative care, nor a sheltered workshop for springbok sufferers to dwell in. A springbok social worker isn’t going to ensure that a sick springbok gets adequate treatment, and none will be calling 911 for an ambulance.
    No species leaves their weak and sick to die as a policy decision. They die because the species lacks the ability to do much about it. Opposable thumbs help. When they get around to evolving them, then we’ll see…

    For example. Lets say congress passes legislation on universal health care, and a politician suggests that a certain group be left out of coverage, let’s say people with Downs Syndrome.

    I see what you did there. Nice work. Eugenics and an invocation of Godwin’s law. You’ll note that historically, the greatest advocates of ‘social darwinism’ a.k.a Eugenics, have been theists of one persuasion or another.

    Democracy works in ‘scientific’ terms as an expression of Game Theory. If anyone is disenfranchised, that anyone CAN BE disenfranchised. It has been a slow slow progress in expanding the franchise, and the principle of equal treatments. Religion has been a factor in this, to its credit. Religion was also an instigator of discrimination and bigotry. To everyones cost.

    My worry would be, that if they neglect anyone based on some arbitrary rule, that sooner or later fat 40 year old redheaded men would be in the ‘Do not want’ group. It is to my advantage not to have that group, so that I can never be within it.

    You know, like not having a “you can torture these people” group, or a “you don’t have to give habeus corpus to these people” group.

    In conclusion, the scientific reason for equal rights is that of Game Theory.

  • http://off-the-map.org/atheist/ Siamang

    As Siamang states, “I vote for the society that I would like to live in.” I am familiar with the polls which conclude that America currently would not vote for an atheist president. (Just to clarify, I would vote for an atheist president.) If what is being argued from an atheist perspective is true, that government should not based on absolute ethical principles (absolute right and wrong) but rather on the goals established by the consensus of the community, than the current situation in America where an atheist will not be elected as president is undesirable for atheists, but is not wrong because it is the consensus of the community.

    No.

    It doesn’t mean “majority rules”. If you’ve taken Rawl’s veil of ignorance and boiled it down to “majority rules”, you’ve made a huge error.

    The problem with accepting the “consensus of the community” as the correct interpretation of “the world that most people want to live in” is it ASSUMES that a lack of atheists in government is the majority’s overriding desire for society.

    Rather, I think fairness is a higher desire for most Americans. If I can convince them they’re being unfair, they will change their minds about electing atheists.

    The entire idea of the veil of ignorance is that if you vote out atheists today, you’ve set up the idea that tomorrow it could be methodists, or jews or whoever.

  • http://globalizati.wordpress.com globalizati

    I think a lot of this is similar to discussions of “rights”. Some theistic friends of mine have argued that without a belief in God, no one can believe there is an absolute basis for having any rights whatsoever. First I point out that the idea of God making the laws makes having absolute rights possible but it doesn’t mean it is possible or certain that we have absolutely correct information about those absolute rights. Then on another level, I agree, and let them know that my idea of “rights” isn’t absolute to begin with. Did anyone have a right to free speech before people came together and decided to make it happen? No (unless you can reify an idea into concrete existence with your thoughts). As plainestguy said,

    As an atheist, I take it that the principles of, say, “equality for all human beings” is not so much a matter of faith as it is a consensus of the community in which I live and the zeitgeist.

    What he said.

  • http://rob-thompson.com Rob

    Only a secular government can fairly represent a religiously diverse population. Government is granted its power by those governed, legislators ought to go about the business of governing, not praying to the majority deity for guidance.

    Secularists are not anti-God. They understand religious freedom much better than the majority. Freedom doesn’t mean getting the government to espouse faith to all of the population. It’s having a government that says nothing about religion, so that we may all worship, or not, as we personally choose without any coercion, no matter how subtle.

  • miller

    I think that the only useful definition of “good” is “that which we should aim for”. If you define it as “the will of God,” there is no way to prove that these two definitions in fact correspond to each other. What should we aim for? I think ultimately the answer is subject to arbitrary choice. What we refer to as “ethics” or “morality” is a society’s collective conception of good. Most societies choose to make their morality something absolute, something to be applied across cultures.

    Anyways, there’s some amateur philosophy for you. I am doubtful that such deep questions make any difference in the real world.

  • http://michaeldepaula.com Michael DePaula

    I’d like to respond here:

    Now, here might be a theists answer to the question of why a person should or should not do something. Because it is wrong, period. If you argue that X is wrong because it will result in Y, than a person who doesn’t care about Y won’t see X is wrong. If you argue X is wrong by definition, than that’s it.

    Isn’t the option for theists to believe in this way proof of the very idea that absolute right/wrong do not exist? Said another way, if the above position of the theist were true, wouldn’t I as an atheist feel compelled to agree by something internal and/or innate? Doesn’t my ability to disagree negate the necessity of absolutism?

    You said:

    would answer it this way. I think one goal as humans is to discover what that truth, or absolute right and wrong, is. I don’t think anyone has claim to it. But I think that all of us have some sense of it, and speak about it as if it is real.

    Please make the critical distinction here–though we all have a sense of right and wrong, we do not all have a sense that it is absolute. That is your personal conclusion which you have adopted for yourself after your studies of Hobbes, et al.

    Then:

    If everyone has a different goal, than what should and should not be done is relative to what a person’s goal is. There would be no “right” and “wrong” in the traditional sense, there would only be actions and outcomes, and those outcomes would either be desirable or undesirable by an individual.

    Yes! Yes! But those individual goals must still jive within the bigger context of the particular societal contract which the individual has agreed to make himself a part of.

    I have not spoken with a person of atheist perspective who is comfortable admitting there truly is no absolute right or wrong.

    Allow me to be the first then!

    If what is being argued from an atheist perspective is true, that government should not based on absolute ethical principles (absolute right and wrong) but rather on the goals established by the consensus of the community, than the current situation in America where an atheist will not be elected as president is undesirable for atheists, but is not wrong because it is the consensus of the community.

    Well, sure. It’s not “wrong” in any ethical sense. It’s simply a state of public opinion that is counterproductive and limiting to the atheist wishing to submit himself to public service. And precisely because it is a state of public opinion, it has the potential to be changed by a counter-opinion that is inclusive of those which were previously marginalized.

  • Steelman

    The Theist said: “I would answer it this way. I think one goal as humans is to discover what that truth, or absolute right and wrong, is. I don’t think anyone has claim to it. But I think that all of us have some sense of it, and speak about it as if it is real.”

    I think what you’re seeing is emotional normativity. Ethics and morality isn’t just about logic (I hope!); it’s also about emotion. Marty mentioned Game Theory. My understanding of that concept explains how “evolutionarily stable”, and therefore normative, emotions have become hardwired into human beings.

    Certainly, the normative moral sense human beings have (your “absolute” right and wrong) can be mitigated. Some people are born sociopaths, others can be conditioned to behave as sociopaths toward out-groups while maintaining normative moral behavior toward the in-group, and anyone can succumb to the mood altering effects of chemicals like alcohol. Tribalism is, I think, also normative but can be overcome to varying degrees, depending on the person and their social situation.

    “If what is being argued from an atheist perspective is true, that government should not based on absolute ethical principles (absolute right and wrong) but rather on the goals established by the consensus of the community, than the current situation in America where an atheist will not be elected as president is undesirable for atheists, but is not wrong because it is the consensus of the community. It is only with the belief in absolute right and wrong that you can argue it is truly wrong.”

    This paragraph seems to indicate that you’re really talking about right and wrong in two different senses. There’s the intuitive, emotional moral sense that tells the vast majority of us how we should treat the group of people we care about, and then there’s the majority consensus regarding who belongs in that group.

    The majority consensus can, of course, be based on ignorance of matters of fact. A couple of things we think differently about now, that have affected our societal morals: black Africans are not inferior to white Europeans, and women can be treated as equals in the workplace and society. The circle of who is afforded the same treatment as those in power has been widened (not everywhere, but we’re getting there). Atheists would like to use reason, education, and political negotiation to widen that circle a bit further in the U.S. Of course, they’d have to overcome the political influence of certain groups’ versions of “absolute” right and wrong (the societal mores, not the innate moral sense).

    Another thought about women being the societal equals of men. It is still considered a violation of absolute right and wrong in many Islamic countries, as it used to be in the mostly Christian U.S. Now, how would a theist use faith, and their conviction of absolute right and wrong, to get these two groups to arrive at the “correct” moral position? With each group having faith that their religious beliefs about societal mores are absolutely right, the only solution is often segregation or military action. You can’t negotiate societal standards with a government built on faith-based absolute truth. A difference of opinion becomes heresy, yes?

    Going back to your first quote at the top: ” I think one goal as humans is to discover what that truth, or absolute right and wrong, is. I don’t think anyone has claim to it.”

    You have, I think, an epistemic problem with the idea of absolute right and wrong. If discovering absolute right and wrong is an as yet unattained goal, and we’ve been repeatedly wrong about having achieved that knowledge in the past, how will we ever know when we’ve finally figured it out? It would seem, outside of our own innate moral sense, there’s no such thing as absolute right and wrong; those definitions seem to evolve over time. I think the best tools for continuing our discovery of what human beings and human societies conceive of as right and wrong are science, reason, compassion, empathy, negotiation, and a developing standard of human rights.

  • Pingback: Winter’s Haven » Blog Archive » Equality Under the Law

  • http://wintershaven.net Jacob Wintersmith

    There’s a lot of confusion here about the principle of Equality Under the Law. Please read my post on this issue at Winter’s Haven. (I’m posting this on my own blog because this comment thread is becoming rather long and unwieldy.)

  • Vincent

    To answer the initial basic question: “can there be government without faith?”

    Government is a system of rules by which a society functions.
    The difference between society and sport is only one of scale. Society regulates much more of what you do, but it’s still a set of rules just like the rule book of American Football (or insert your favorite sport here) is a set of rules.
    One cannot argue that faith had anything to do with the rules of football, so humans are clearly capable of establishing complex rules systems without resorting to faith.

  • infideljoe

    Ethics and science are two different things. Ethics and faith are two different things. Humans naturally have empathy and compassion for fellow human beings. Where this came from I don’t know, but I would suspect it may have evolutionary origins. Atheists don’t following science like a religion, we throw in a little bit of reason to any scientific claim.

    I have read numerous stories where the bible claims that certain people are inferior to others. God says that people with certain aliments are not allowed in the temple and that other tribes (races) should be killed and shown no mercy; and throughout the bible it is implied that women are inferior to men and that slavery is o.k.

    Again, I think people have a natural tendency to treat others with compassion and empathy. It takes religion to move people away from that natural tendency.

  • Miko

    If what is being argued from an atheist perspective is true, that government should not based on absolute ethical principles (absolute right and wrong) but rather on the goals established by the consensus of the community, than the current situation in America where an atheist will not be elected as president is undesirable for atheists, but is not wrong because it is the consensus of the community. It is only with the belief in absolute right and wrong that you can argue it is truly wrong.

    It is only with belief in absolute right and wrong that one can argue that it’s absolutely right or absolutely wrong. But doing so is not necessary in order to change it. A system of government where the ruling class thinks what they are doing is absolutely right because of faith is one of the worst disasters imaginable.

    In the Feudal system, everyone knew that God wanted society segregated (those who work, those who pray, and those who fight) with the peasants at the bottom. It was a matter of faith.

    In governments with slavery, everyone knew that God wanted those with lighter skin to enslave those with darker. It was a matter of faith.

    The only thing that’s truly absolutely wrong is the idea that we should base government on what the ruling elite thinks is absolutely right and wrong. As Susan B. Anthony said, “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.”

    Since we’re not going to get everything right the first time, it’s important that society be able to change through discussion and debate, voting and legislation. And the only reason we’ve managed to achieve such a system in the United States is because we were founded on the principle that some people having faith in a proposition is no reason to think that it’s actually correct.

  • Polly

    To the Theist:

    When a theist says X is wrong, by definition, he’s pretty much given up the exploration that you, Lee, are so interested in. He simply defines X to be wrong based on an arbitrary book (Bible, Koran, etc.)
    Atheists are the ones who have to grapple with what is moral, theists don’t- they’ve had it handed to them.

    So, while theists are doing the ethical equivalent of watching the sun revolve around the Earth, the non-religious are discovering new insights by thinking and exploring. Theism discourages this in the harshest possible terms (hell).

  • http://christianurbanradicals.blogspot.com Deacon

    Where this came from I don’t know, but I would suspect it may have evolutionary origins

    Refer to his first flaw in an argument, you’re assuming your conclusion.

    Atheists don’t following science like a religion, we throw in a little bit of reason to any scientific claim.

    what is science if not “reason”. how do you mix reason in with reason and get something different?

    I think a lot of people here are missing the point of the question. Compassion, common sense, etc. are not evolutionary. The natural world is harsh and for the most part selfish. If you are weak and can’t support your own than you die, period. Compassion, “common sense”, etc. obviously though is evident in humans, well most anyway. Atheist don’t have anything to base their values on other than personal convictions and obviously personal convictions are subjective. For example, when compared to Roman law our society has actually REGRESSED by getting rid of slavery. Now I believe everyone would agree it was inhumane but by who’s standard? Ethics, morality, love, freedom, etc. are all subjective terms if not based on an absolute truth.
    If one does not have an absolute truth then you can’t make a claim of right and wrong based on anything else then your personal convictions. That’s the danger of having a belief that exists in a vacuum as atheism does. No objective moral claims can be made on any other grounds then a personal belief. Although that belief may be shared by others there is no grounds to state what’s right or wrong because a person’s values will be based on backgrounds, society, laws, etc. and those are all subject to change in different envionments. Can an atheist tell me that the killings in Darfur are wrong? If so on what basis do you make that claim? I think we would all agree that genocide, slavery and the like are immoral but to make that claim you would first have to have a truth to base that claim on. What is an atheist’s absolute truth?

    So, while theists are doing the ethical equivalent of watching the sun revolve around the Earth, the non-religious are discovering new insights by thinking and exploring. Theism discourages this in the harshest possible terms (hell).

    it’s interesting though that the majority of truths that non-theists come to are the same ones that the Bible ascribes to theists to do. Explore all you want to but the reality of humanity without God is a labryinth so called “truths” that are constantly changing. If you obey simply because you don’t want the consequences then you’re doing it for the wrong reason anyway. Would you not stand up for a child for fear you would die? Hell isn’t presented to be a discouragement it’s a consequence. The discouragement is a separation from God.
    After all the atheist’s thinking what new ethical standard have you come up with that hasn’t already been presented? What moral bar have you set that hasn’t already been set by someone else in sometime?

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    Polly, hogwash. Atheists, so inclined, are as able to be closeminded as any other kind of fundamentalist and there are plenty of “theists” who are openminded. Making these kinds of blanket assertions about two allegedly definable groups is an exercise in bigotry. I’ve found that religious liberals are generally more open minded and undogmatic than most of the fad atheists I’ve come into contact with. Not that all atheists are like that, just that those who aren’t generally aren’t particularly interested in asserting their moral superiority.

  • Polly

    @ olvlzl, no ism, no ist:

    Notice my qualification at the beginning “When a theist says X is wrong, by definition”
    IF a theist does not start out that way (“liberal” xians/muslims/Jews, etc.) then they, indeed, have room to grow. HOWEVER, there are scripture imposed limits and, invariably, they will either have to abandon some of the more prejudicial injunctions and taboos from their scriptures or reinterpret them with mind-bending logic.
    Also, I don’t see GOD giving human beings the option of second-guessing his commands in any holy books. I’m glad liberal theists are open-minded; too bad their holy writ is decidedly not.

    Looking back at my post, I wrote with only the literalist, fundamentalist theist in mind. This was mainly in response to Lee’s questions regarding absolutes. So, I acknowledge that it’s not only the non-religious who investigate the basis of their morality though, as mentioned above, I think anyone with a religion is probably accepting a certain amount of limitation. My apologies for casting too broad a net, but most, if not all, theists I know personally are definitely NOT of the liberal persuasion.
    As for close-minded atheists. I absolutely agree. But, that’s not inherent in atheism. There’s no limiting factor for thouht, like a holy book imposes. That some get comfortable in a rut, is not a logical consequence of atheism. Fundamentalism is a logical inference from holy books.

  • Tammy

    I read your blog, Jacob, and actually disagree that we’ve all been confused as to the meaning of equal protection under the law. As you noted, this conversation has gotten long, and a lot of points have been brought up, and I guess nobody had got around to the problem you bring up, and that is the problem of relevant differences. Sociopaths, schizophrenics, and others have to be treated differently under the law than mentally healthy people for obvious reasons(you mention gun ownership, I would add that the blind aren’t issued driver’s licenses). I for one had already written more than I intended to, so I just barely treated that aspect of the debate by saying something to the effect that we have to deal with everyone on a case by case basis. Well, thanks for your perspective on it, and I reiterate that I guess no one had gotten around to that part of the problem.

  • Darryl

    If one does not have an absolute truth then you can’t make a claim of right and wrong based on anything else then your personal convictions.

    I disagree. The mere fact of my existence in a material universe that gives me joy, that includes others like me, is enough for me to know that I must not interfere with your right to be and to seek your joy, and you must not interfere with mine. My judgment tells me that it would not be good for me to deny you that which I would demand for myself. I prefer peace to war; I would rather be your friend than your enemy; I would rather you respect my right to be than attempt to deprive me of my natural freedom. If you press me, and I cannot avoid a confrontation, I will prevent you from depriving me of my liberty. This is the basis of my morality: there is no god required; no religion; no absolutes–everything changes; nothing is absolute. The idea of the absolute is an invention of our crazy minds.

    However, even if you are right, what does it matter? Any morality is only as good as its practitioners. Let’s say there is an ‘absolute truth,’ and that, as the Bible has said, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” What can I conclude? Believing there is an absolute morality and breaking it every day appears to me no differently than believing there is no absolute morality and doing the best you can every day. Noble atheists are no better or worse than depraved Christians, or Muslims, or Jews, or Hindus, or Buddhists, or . . .

  • Tao Jones

    What does faith really have to do with any of this? I think it’s more a question of values.

    Consider the following two statements.

    “I believe strawberries are the best snacks in the world.”

    and

    “I love strawberries. They are my favourite snack.”

    These sentences appear to have similar meanings but they are really quite different.

    The first statement is an expression of a belief, that strawberries are the best snacks. Whatever the basis of the belief, the statement is certainly debatable. A critic or supporter can come up with any number of metrics to use as supporting evidence of their point of view.

    The second statement is quite different. It is not a statement of belief, it is a value statement. Is it debatable whether or not strawberries are the speakers favourite? Not at all.

    In terms of government, or even morality (or ethics) the same analogy can apply.

    The rule of the law is the best social organization for humans. The golden rule is the best basis for how to treat our neighbours.

    Compare those statements to:

    I value the rule of law. I like to treat others as I would have them treat me.

    I don’t see how either of those last two statements could be debated. Nor do I see how they require faith, belief, or anything else of the sort. Nor do I see how they are intellectually dishonest.

    As for how this ties into the theism/atheism debate, I would say that most theists use the equivalent to those belief statements while atheists tend to use value statements.

    Who would dare tell me I need faith to value your life?

  • Lee (the Theist)

    I again want to thank those who have posted. My intent of this post was never to prove the existence of God, or to disprove atheism. It was simply to explore the logical differences between the two views. I have enjoyed reading different viewpoints on this. I was never expecting to get a unified atheist perspective, just as one will never get a unified theist perspective.

    I do want to thank “olvlzl, no ism, no ist” for making the point that theists are not by definition closed minded. I’d like to think I’ve given this topic as deep of thought as many atheists, and haven’t simply had my ethical principles, or theist beliefs for that matter, handed to me. I hope not to give the impression that I view my self with any ascendancy. In fact, I have struggled with many issues, and have read equal amounts of atheist literature as theist literature. I don’t see myself as too different as anyone else here, but I am interested at to what brought us to different conclusions, which is what started this exploration.

    I hope people can see from my posts I have made that we seem to have similar values. I believe we all should be treated as equals. I believe we should treat others as we would want to be treated. I would welcome an atheist president, and feel the exclusion of a person for presidency based on atheist status alone is wrong. In fact, along with many on this blog, I cringe when our president quotes from the bible during national speeches. I am not all that different from people with atheist perspectives, and I would disagree with “infadeljoe” who concludes that it is religion that moves us away from compassion and empathy. I think many things can. Infideljoe and Miko point to many examples of where people have used religion to justify bad things. I agree that this is a problem, and I could also give many examples. This however doesn’t negate theism anymore that me giving examples of chemotherapy resulting in patient deaths negates oncology.

    In regards to Marty’s post, I am familiar with the argument for personal incredulity. I don’t see how it defeats my argument, as I am not arguing that God is real, or that atheism is incorrect, I am simply exploring the logical reality of existence without God to see if people from an atheist perspective arrive at the same conclusions I have. Personal incredulity, from my understanding, is when you don’t believe something because it doesn’t seem plausible. I am not arguing God exists because atheism doesn’t seem plausible. Since it isn’t explained how it defeats my argument, I can’t really respond further. I don’t think it is fair to argue I am wrong because Richard Dawkins said so and can prove so. If the arguments he makes are good, I welcome you to reproduce and explain them in your own words. I could easily point someone in the direction of C.S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man for his argument for the existence of the Tao, but then we would just be arguing that “my dad is better than your dad.”

    I do agree with “yingyang’s” statement that science does not have the ability to determine what is ethical. Values have to come from somewhere else, then science can tell us how to achieve those values. Yinyang also said that even though science doesn’t give answers, we don’t have to turn to religion. I agree. But my question is where do we turn. Again, I am not saying anyone is wrong, I just want to know where we look. Some have argued that we exist because we have instinctual values which have evolved to promote a survival advantage. But we can’t listen to instincts, there are too many with too many conflicting messages. As a parent I have devoted countless hours to getting my child to suppress instincts that I don’t value (grabbing what they want, hitting out of anger) and express instincts I do value. There seems to be something else which tells me which instincts are more valuable than others. So what can decide which instincts are more valuable than others, a higher order of instincts? You can see where this can lead. Instincts alone doesn’t seem to be the answer of where we get our values.

    Here is how I currently understand how ethics are decided in a non-faith based manner. Let’s take the value that everyone should be treated equally. In a nutshell, I think that the argument is that I should treat others equally because in the long run it will benefit me. This is the concept in Game Theory (marty), John Rawl’s thought experiment (Siamang), or memes (Dawkins).

    So then what happens in a circumstance where I conclude that treating people equally won’t benefit me in the long run. If this is the case, I no longer have to treat people equally, since one’s only argument for doing so is that it is good for me. One could only try to convince me that it is really good for me, but what if it really isn’t good for me in whatever circumstance arises. One good example is explaining why I should die for someone else. Nothing can be good for me once I am dead.

    This I see as moral relativism. What is right and wrong depends of the goal or value, and the goal or value isn’t absolute. The conclusion of atheism to me is that there are no absolute rights or wrongs. There are also no absolute values. There are individual values which may or may not differ from others. When we as a group all share the same value, it may seem absolute, but it is really just a shared value.

    So for example, if one were to argue that religious suppression of science is wrong, they would be holding pursuit for truth as a value. If it were only a personal value, than a person who didn’t value truth and tried to suppress it wouldn’t be wrong anymore than a person who didn’t like chocolate would be wrong. If you considered truth to be an absolute value, than you could say suppression of science is truly wrong.

    Michael seemed to agree with this concept in his post, as did others. However, others seemed not to. I feel as if I do commonly witnessed people of an atheist perspective putting forth values as if they are absolute, when I don’t think one can logically derive them to be so. You will always have the question, “why is that wrong?” For example, given an answer “because it hurts people” the next question would be “why is hurting people wrong?” This reaches absurdity. At some point you have to either say “Its wrong because its wrong,” or you have to admit there is no absolute wrong.

    Again, this isn’t an argument for the existence of God, it just to me is view of what the world looks like if there is no “theism”. Richard Dawkins agreed with the lack of absolute right or wrong in his debate with Collins in Newsweek.

    Now, if from a theist (absolute right and wrong) perspective, I might say that we should treat people as equals because we are equal (perhaps we are all have equal souls inside unequal bodies), and because treating others equally is an absolute value.

    Now, no matter what you argue will benefit me in the long run, treating people as equals will always be right and not doing so will be wrong.

    C.S. Lewis, in his book The Abolition of Man, choose to call the concept of absolute values the Tao. In this book he doesn’t conclude the Tao necessarily proves God’s existence, but argues that the Tao exists. Many of us act as if it does, and if we act as if it does the intellectually honest thing to do would be to explore why we act that way. Again, instinct doesn’t seem to capture it all.

    How we establish those values is a good question. I do believe it is possible. I think these values pop up repeatedly as far back as we have records, as the deacon pointed out. Any example that is given where assumption of the knowledge of absolutes lead to tragic outcomes I can counter by saying prideful arrogance, which is not valued, as well as other absolute wrongs played a role.

    So getting back to whether faith is needed in government. If it is not in government, than I think government would be logically morally relative. Some might argue this isn’t bad, and that government already is. In moral relativism, we should treat people as equals, unless it doesn’t result in the long term benefit of the community, then we don’t have to.

    It would seem better to me to have more absolute values in government, such as that we are all created equally and equally deserving to pursue happiness. We can’t prove such a concept, but embracing it as absolute truth to me would seem to involve faith, or believing it exists without proof.

    I wonder if everyone agrees atheism logically concludes with moral relativism. Again, I am not saying that is wrong, but you can see that it might make for a difficult campaign.

    -Lee (the Theist)

  • ash

    hey Lee, just wanted to pick up on a couple of points you made…

    Yinyang also said that even though science doesn’t give answers, we don’t have to turn to religion. I agree. But my question is where do we turn.

    well, you seem to have already given us some answers – we look to society, we look to others, we look to ourselves. we see what others value, and decide whether we agree. as with your child, a vast part of our personal moral compass will be decided by our upbringing, then honed by the above. the instinct thing is plausible in many situations – e.g., even tho society/god/whatever tells you to not to hurt your child, you also have an instinct to protect it, as many children react when confronted with a baby/much smaller child. instincts become confusing possibly because they relate to an era that we mostly do not have to face these days, which may suggest evidence for some sort of genetic predisposition, but as we can neither prove/disprove that yet…

    In a nutshell, I think that the argument is that I should treat others equally because in the long run it will benefit me.

    yeeeah, but possibly more importantly, because it will benefit the species.

    One good example is explaining why I should die for someone else. Nothing can be good for me once I am dead.

    ok, putting aside the fact that a common human trait is self-survival, here’s a thought – if your choice had to be between your death and the death of your child, what would your instinct be? if your choice was between your death and the death of the only person you believed could save your family, what would your instinct be then? to put it crudely, would this be an ethical choice on your part or an instinctive need to preserve your gene pool? also, for a theist, would this choice be compelled by a need to do right in the eyes of their god, or to do right by themselves? but, no, i agree instinct does not explain it all.

    without trying to have a go, can i ask what a person of a religious bent would see as an ‘absolute’ right or wrong? the problem i have with this assumption (and i’ll take the example of the bible here, coz it’s the one i know best) is that i see so much hypocrisy and contradiction in sacred writings, so much interpretation, selection and re-interpretation by followers that i’m not sure i see any absolutes there. say murder; it’s wrong, it’s a sin – except if it is done by god, in the name of god, is sanctioned by god…

    Now, if from a theist (absolute right and wrong) perspective, I might say that we should treat people as equals because we are equal (perhaps we are all have equal souls inside unequal bodies), and because treating others equally is an absolute value.

    if this were the case, there would be no ‘chosen’ people, and there would be no sect of people destroyed by god. this cannot be explained by the wrongful actions of man, when according to the bible, this is how god behaved. therefore, would it not be more reasonable to expect (at least from christians) there to be far more social inequality as divinely advocated?

    It would seem better to me to have more absolute values in government, such as that we are all created equally and equally deserving to pursue happiness.

    in principle, it’s a lovely idea, but this does not take into account that some people are extremely selfish, be they religious or not, and for some, their personal pursuit of happiness will involve causing others misery; i don’t believe we are all created equally, but that we should all expect to receive equal treatment nonetheless – for me, this makes the idea of a government influenced by faith an undesirable, and in extreme cases, a dangerous, concept.

  • Lee (the Theist)

    ash, you pose good questions.

    I do not want to make this denominational, which is why I only refer to myself as “a theist.”

    I am not a bible scholar, and this likely isn’t a good forum to discuss the meaning of the bible. I am speaking in more of a general sence about what a world with and without theism looks like. But at the same time, you make good points about how religions derive principles from confusing texts and I don’t won’t to dodge your question. I am not Jewish and can not answer from a Jewish perspective, but I will say that many Jewish people I know do not interpret “chosen people” to mean exclusivity or superiority.

    In answer to your question as to what I consider an absolute ethical principle, it would be to treat others as I would want to be treated. I don’t think it is ever ok to violate this, even if it results in more advantageous survival of the species. I think this concept is widespread in many religous texts.

    In response to your comment that many principles can be derived from survival of the species instinct, I still would say this by definition does not make them right. If I truly believed I was acting just so my species could survive, I would see myself similar to a worker ant, and wonder what the point of species survival was to begin with. After all, species survival won’t benefit me, I’ll be dead. I might also see this as an instinct I might be able to conquer for my own benefit. I think we both agree that instinct doesn’t explain it all.

    Ethical absolutism clearly presents its challenges, such as how we determine the absolutes. I am not denying that, and don’t have quick answers to your question about how absolutes are determined. This doesn’t mean they don’t exist, however. I like the deacon’s earlier post that if you read ethical philosophy, we really haven’t invented anything new in terms of ethical principles in thousands of years. Maybe we already know what we need to know, it is a matter of implamenting it, which isn’t so easy.

    One of my points is that moral relativism also isn’t without challenges. I have read enough atheist blogs to know atheist viewpoints similarly don’t seem to offer a unified stance on controversial issues such as the death penalty or abortion, as atheists seem as equally divided on those issues as theists.

    I agree that religion has been used to justify autrocities, I would just argue that it is corrupted religion, not honest use of religion that has. To be fair though, survival of the species, which seems to be a recurrent theme of moral relativism, has also been used to justify autricities.

    In summary, I think both camps have their fair share of problems. It doesn’t prove one is right or wrong, but does show some differences.

    Question back to ash, do you think you could run an effective presidential campaign on a moral relativism platform? Can’t moral relavatism, especially if survival of the species is a value, be just an dangerous as corrupted religious politics?

    -Lee (the Theist)

  • Darryl

    Here is how I currently understand how ethics are decided in a non-faith based manner. Let’s take the value that everyone should be treated equally. In a nutshell, I think that the argument is that I should treat others equally because in the long run it will benefit me.

    This is not the only reason one might decide to treat everyone equally. Can you conceive of the impulse to treat others with dignity because you think they deserve it, or because you want to set an example of how to treat others, or because you’re insane and doing so is just one of your nutty habits, or because to do so elevates your experience of life, or gives more meaning to life?

    This I see as moral relativism. What is right and wrong depends of the goal or value, and the goal or value isn’t absolute. The conclusion of atheism to me is that there are no absolute rights or wrongs. There are also no absolute values. There are individual values which may or may not differ from others. When we as a group all share the same value, it may seem absolute, but it is really just a shared value.

    What is this anabsolutophobia, and where does it come from? So what if your values differ from others? Newsflash: diversity in nature tends to be a good thing. I expect diversity; I depend upon it. I have no desire for a society wherein everyone thinks alike—if our founding fathers were correct, this would be a tyranny. All we can hope for is a set of shared fundamental ethical standards—which may be what nature has provided us; everything else is up for grabs and negotiable.

    Here’s a thought experiment: postulate that you are in error, and that there is no god, no supernatural, and all of the world’s religions are just the products of human imagination. Then ask yourself “whence morality?” The answer will be one without the idea of absolutes. If you are right, then maybe there are absolutes, and by all means go find them. If I am right, then quite fretting over something that doesn’t seem to make a dime’s worth of difference to how people conduct themselves in this life.

  • http://off-the-map.org/atheist/ Siamang

    There is an ethical dilemma in your suppositions, I think, Lee.

    I think there are some hidden assumptions that you are making that you may be unaware of.

    Let me first boil down what I think you are saying.

    Are you proposing this:

    There is an absolute set of moral instructions in the universe.
    This set of moral instructions may as yet be uncovered in their entirety by human understanding.
    This set of moral instructions comes from God.
    These moral instructions, if we were to uncover them in their entirety, would improve the world (here it’s fuzzy… Would it eliminate all ethical quandries? Would it cause ethical perfection? Would it eliminate all suffering? Would it eliminate all human-caused suffering? Only willful or incidental as well? Fill me in on this.)
    Across human history, we are getting better at uncovering these instructions, and therefore modelling human ethics closer to the absolute.

    And the argument proceeds from there. Do I have those parts correct at least? I’m probably guessing at some of them. Can you state these assertions as clearly as you can… Thanks.

  • Tao Jones

    So then what happens in a circumstance where I conclude that treating people equally won’t benefit me in the long run. If this is the case, I no longer have to treat people equally, since one’s only argument for doing so is that it is good for me. One could only try to convince me that it is really good for me, but what if it really isn’t good for me in whatever circumstance arises. One good example is explaining why I should die for someone else. Nothing can be good for me once I am dead.

    Seems to me that Game Theory also suggests that people being “all good, all the time” would not be an evolutionary stable strategy. It would only take one person with a deviant strategy to bring down the system.

    Whatever influence natural selection has had on our “morality” can also be found in our “immorality.”

    Deviation from social norms “keeps us honest” as a species. It also allows for social progress. Consider it a method of constant natural error checking testing our system to make sure it is stable — that it works. In that sense, a degree of deviation is certainly good for the species.

  • Lee (the Theist)

    To answer Darryl, I am not afraid of moral relativism. I am simply concluding that this is the natural result of atheist logic.

    Your thought experiment is what I am doing here. When I postulate there is no God, and ask “whence morality,” I come up with moral relativism. I started this blog to see if I am in agreement with people from an atheist perspective on this, and it sounds as if many agree. I am not saying moral relativism is wrong, I am just trying to clarify differences in logical conclusions between views of atheism and theism. Even though we may have different views on God, we both still use logic, and therefore really aren’t that different. I am trying to see if anyone from an atheist perspective does not conclude moral relativism.

    But I am also concluding that this is a tricky thing to incorporate into government. Government seems to like absolutes, like “Everyone is equal under the law.” Bad things seem to happen when this is changed to, “Everyone is equal under the law…. sometimes…. there may be times where people are not equal under the law.”

    To answer Siamang, you have part of what I think correct. I do think there are moral absolutes in the universe, but I think we actually have already discovered them. Clearly, we do not live in some kind of ethical perfection. This might seem to argue against the idea that we have discovered moral absolutes. I think this is because, in a general sense, we all (including myself) choose to do things we know we shouldn’t do.

    As an example, I know that I should treat people as I would want to be treated. Let’s say I own a successful business, and make lots of money. I know that if I were an employee, I would desire a good wage and good benefits. But as the owner, my greed gets in the way, and I cut benefits and pay as little as I have to make as much money for myself as I can. I might hide behind market economics to defend this, but in reality I am not doing what I think I should do.

    I think many theists commit the wrong of prideful arrogance, which is the fodder for many arguments against them.

    I think often times we know what we should do, but choose not to do it. This is a bigger problem than discovering what the right thing to do is. In a religious sense, I might refer to this as “the fall of man.”

    So, I’m curious to see what the ethical dilemma is, Siamang. I also have a question for you. From the above atheist perspective posts on ethics I have discerned three goals for society. Survival of society, pursuit of happiness, and minimizing suffering. I think these are good goals. But what do you do when they are in conflict? What happens when what is best for survival of the species, or society, will actually cause suffering? Without absolutes, how do you decide which is more important, or how to balance them?

    -Lee (the Thesit)

  • Vincent

    How do you do that WITH absolutes?
    I see no method of determining which of those is ALWAYS the top choice, whether theistic or not.

    You’ve changed the question on us. Now you are asking if atheism necessarily leads to moral relativism. First off, moral relativism has gotten a bad name because people misuse it. In the broadest sense, yes. Morals develop out of human experience. Where human experience is different, morals will be different. Some moral positions are so valuable that they apply in almost every time and place. Others vary greatly. Still, if 1/2 the wold population suddenly vanished and aliens invaded and enslaved the other 1/2, some moral positions would have to change.

    Now attempting to get back to government, I must state that laws do not assume absolutes. Look at the current executive branch. Apparently laws don’t even apply to them. The vice-president claims not to be subject to the laws regulating the executive branch. The Geneva Conventions are claimed not to apply to captured terrorists. While I believe what is being done is wrong, there are smart people who believe these are exceptions to general laws. Laws have exceptions. In the USA, the Constitution is relative in that it does not apply to foreigners outside the USA. “Persons” is meant to be “persons within the borders of the USA.”
    Laws are not absolute. Governments are not absolute. Morals are not absolute.

  • http://uncrediblehallq.blogspot.com Chris Hallquist

    I posted my response at my blog and titled it and I’m damn proud of it!. Excerpt:

    A couple things jump out at me that at first seem secondary concerns. First, the author seems to suggest that perhaps we ought to ignore scientific facts, even the most obvious ones such as “Some of us are taller, stronger, faster, and have higher IQ’s.” Also, it strikes the author as obviously problematic to say that we “should be willing to give ideas… reasonable consideration.”

    The author assumes atheists would take the opposite position. I wouldn’t say this is true of all atheists, but it is true of a great many of them, myself included, and I’m damn proud of it.

  • http://off-the-map.org/atheist/ Siamang

    Hi Lee…

    I still need answers to my questions.

    I asked:

    These moral instructions, if we were to uncover them in their entirety, would improve the world (here it’s fuzzy… Would it eliminate all ethical quandries? Would it cause ethical perfection? Would it eliminate all suffering? Would it eliminate all human-caused suffering? Only willful or incidental as well? Fill me in on this.)

    I think you’re dealing with generalizations and you aren’t being specific.

    You use the words “absolute ethics,” but I think it’s actually a placeholder for many different shifting concepts… a kind of logical shell-game.

    I’m not accusing you of duplicitousness… merely of foggy reasoning. Specifics would help here.

    When you say “absolute ethics,” what are you referring to? Are you referring to a system of principles of decision-making to be done by the individual, the government or some other body?

    Are you referring to a system of laws, or of principles? Do these laws provide for exceptions in extenuating cases? Who is the judge or jury of whether the exceptions are warranted in a particular case?

    If we were to adhere to these absolute ethics, what results would we see?

    How do we evaluate if we are applying an “absolute ethics” properly? Who provides that evaluation? Who enforces that evaluation?

    How do we evaluate if we are mistaken in thinking an ethical rule is actually an absolute?

    Are “absolute ethics” subject to critical evaluation and questioning? If not, do we run the danger of accepting a less than absolute ethics by mistake, and compound the problem by allowing an injustice to stand?

    What is the enforcement mechanism of this “absolute ethics”? If the enforcement mechanism isn’t absolutely ethical, is that still okay?

    Does this “absolute ethics” work in a world of limited resources and shifting circumstance? For example, if one rule of absolute ethics works in a world where there is plenty of food (let’s say, ‘all food is free’), does it still work when a crop blight happens? How ethical principles deal with a world of limited resources is very important. All ethical principles are equally valid in an imaginary utopia. How can we expect “absolute ethics” to work in a world of shifting survival challenges and limited resources?

    Which brings up a good point. Do “absolute ethics” adjust to the changing realities of life? If so, are they really “absolute”, or are they situational? If not, how do they deal with the reality that tomorrow there could be a worldwide famine?

    The essence of nature is change. Does your “absolute ethics” accomodate change?

    The essence of nature is variation and adaptation. Does your “absolute ethics” accomodate the variation of different people and adaptation to solve new problems? If so, which is the absolute, the rule before the change, or the rule after the change?

    You see, Lee…. there are a lot of unanswered assumptions behind declaring an absolute ethics.

    If you can give me answers to these questions, I hope I can give you my thoughts on ethical dilemmas brought up by them. But right now, my understanding of what you’re actually proposing is really fuzzy. Can you help with some better specifics?

  • ash

    hi Lee

    Question back to ash, do you think you could run an effective presidential campaign on a moral relativism platform? Can’t moral relavatism, especially if survival of the species is a value, be just an dangerous as corrupted religious politics?

    seeing as (like Siamsang) i don’t actually understand what you’re purporting to be absolute ethics, nor do i see (as Vincent points out) governments actually being run on absolute ethics, even when they claim to be god-orientated, i’d have to say yeah, and it already happens. any claim of absolutism is generally a matter of spin. the danger for me is that, moral relativism posing as ethical absolutism claims to have a greater authority, to be sanctioned by forces that cannot be commented on, argued with or denounced by the common voter. in some countries that are governed with a god-based governments, even theists who are accused of ‘wrong’ belief or practise can be locked up or murdered. yes, this might be a bastardization of ‘true’ religion, but this is a risk of mixing god + politics.

    yes, moral relativism can also be a danger, but as it is more open to question and criticism, i’d say less so. the second world war, for instance was a question of moral relativism. was it worse to kill however many civilians + soldiers to save the lives of other civilians and stop hitler becoming an even worse threat? either way, there was going to be murder of innocents, so there was no ethically absolute decision to guide this choice, and frankly i’d say there rarely is.

    I do not want to make this denominational, which is why I only refer to myself as “a theist.”

    sorry for that, i was trying to put it into terms i knew well, but to be honest, the general problems i see with the christian faith can be transposed (at a general level) to any denomination. i do see any faith, whilst not necessarily crowing about it’s holier than thou status, as setting itself up as exclusive. i have yet to meet a faith system that does not believe that if one doesn’t believe, behave and/or practise in a certain way, that person is lost/damned/unenlightened/inferior etc. if you then mix that, even if unstated, with politics, i do think you’re asking for trouble.

    In answer to your question as to what I consider an absolute ethical principle, it would be to treat others as I would want to be treated. I don’t think it is ever ok to violate this, even if it results in more advantageous survival of the species. I think this concept is widespread in many religous texts.

    okay, but how do you reconcile that view with, say, the extremist muslim’s? this person wishes for the average westerner to pledge allegiance only to allah, to be chaste in their dress and manner, to accept physical punishment for what they see as misdeeds that we may not even concur with… as they would wish to be treated. if their absolute differs from yours, can it really be an absolute?

  • Lee (the Theist)

    I appreciate those who have hung on this far. I am continuing to have value in this discussion. I will try and answer everyone’s questions.

    Siamang and Ash, I agree I haven’t really defined what I mean by relativism and absolute ethics.

    If I were to summarize my position, it would be three statements.

    1) Deriving ethical principles from atheism concludes in moral relativism.
    2) Having an absolute ethical principle at some point requires faith, of which theism is a part.
    3) Although both positions are have their fair share of problems, I think government works better when based on absolute principles than moral relativism.

    It sounds like there is some agreement on number one and two, (although I need to clarify my definitions), but clearly there is disagreement on number three.

    So how do I define absolute and relative?

    In moral relativism, you establish a goal which you desire (Y) and a goal you dislike (Z). If action or principle X results in Y, it is right. If it action or principle X results in Z, it is wrong.

    It is relative for two reasons. If you change the goals, which are not absolute, than action X can change from right to wrong. Also, if you change the circumstance, action X can go from causing Y to Z, and thus go from right to wrong.

    In ethical absolutism, you establish a principle, and say it is right because it is right, or wrong because it is wrong (I know, circular logic). It doesn’t depend on what it leads to. (Kind of like Kant’s deontology, however I’d rather not discuss Kant because I see it as different.) The obvious problem is where you derive these principles from. I agree with everyone who points this out.

    So, here is an example of moral relativism gone bad in government. It’s kind of ironic that I am going to use a government theist as an example, our president. We have a law based upon the principle of equality; everyone should be treated equally under the law. Our president then decides that we don’t need to treat enemy combatants equally, because not doing so will result in a safer country. This is basing whether something is right or wrong on a goal, and since his goal is a safe country he can try to justify treating people in all sorts of ways. You can argue that unequal treatment really won’t result in a safer country and we should treat even enemies the same. The point is that moral relativism opens the door to all kinds of justifications of things that might not be right. The goal, whatever it is, is used to trump the principle, such as equality. And since some of what is argued is based on what will happen in the future, it gets very murky to prove or disprove something being right and wrong.

    If you held equal treatment of people as an absolute principle, then our president wouldn’t be able to treat enemy combatants differently, no matter what he could argue would be achieved by it. The principle can never be trumped.

    I think many times government has gone astray has been because of relativism. We take a good principle, but don’t apply it all the time.

    My only confident example of an absolute ethical principle is to treat others as you’d like to be treated (Do as you’d be done by).

    Ash poses an interesting question, can my principle result in bad things. I am willing to consider possibilities. Militant extremists always seem to be brought up in this type of discussion. I suppose the only way to know if a religious militant who uses violence is using “do as you’d be done by” logic is to ask one. After 9/11, there was a post on Al Jazeer by Osama bin Laden of why America was attacked. There was a lot of stuff about revenge, anger, and getting the West out of the Middle East, but I didn’t read anything in it that said he was doing it for our own good, or because that is what he would want if he was us. I think your example of the extremist Muslim who would punish someone for misdeeds isn’t doing it out of concern for the person’s who was punished own good, they are instead doing it out of prideful arrogance. Islam itself means a willing submission; it can’t be a forced submission.

    I am willing to entertain that “Do as you’d be done by” could result in bad things, but I have not seen it yet. I would guess that any example which can be given is a hypothetical one, which by definition means it isn’t real. I would be interested in real examples.

    Ash, for you statement:

    i have yet to meet a faith system that does not believe that if one doesn’t believe, behave and/or practise in a certain way, that person is lost/damned/unenlightened/inferior etc.

    Let me be the first. I have no idea what happens to anyone when they die. I think any thought of mine proclaiming that I am better than anyone else for any reason is prideful arrogance, and I try not to do it. I believe in the “judge lest ye be judged” and “throw the first stone” mentality that I am far from perfect and shouldn’t look down on anyone. And although I consider myself a Christian, I do not look at any other faith, or lack of faith, as being wrong, for that would be prideful arrogance of claiming that somehow I know God better than others. My belief there is a God is also a great hope there is a God, and in my life I search for God rather than believe I know God better than other people do. I don’t claim to know God any better than a person who says they don’t believe in one.

    I understand the many reasons why the Christian faith is looked down upon. Like in many facets in life, unfortunately the actions of some public or outspoken theists create stereotypes for the rest of us. The basic tenant of Christianity I think is to “do as you’d be done by,” and I don’t know anyone who argues against that principle. It is also to love God, this is a bit more difficult to explain here, and since it wouldn’t impact government probably is best for another blog.

    Now, to Siamang’s many many questions.

    Your questions are very specific. I am going out on a limb here, because I don’t claim to have answers to everything. Thus, if I say something incredibly illogical, it doesn’t necessarily disprove my thesis.

    I hope I have given at least beginning description of absolute ethics. They are principles that can never be violated. Not really the same as laws, but our laws are derived from them.

    As I said above, the only absolute ethical principle I know of is “do as you’d be done by.” We should base our government’s laws on at least this, and vow never to violate it. Where did this come from? Almost every religion I know of, and also from logical reason. Although logical reason can deduce such an idea, it can’t prove it is an absolute principle that should never be violated, which is why I think faith is necessary to say that it is.

    Who is judge and jury? I think the best we can do is get reasonable people to make laws based on the absolute principle. The principle is seen as infallible, the laws are not. The American with Disability Act (ADA) would be an example of trying to act out “do as you’d be done by” with a law, although I don’t see the act itself as some absolute. If I were in a wheelchair, I would like a reasonable amount of accessible ramps.

    Do the laws have exceptions? Yes, but the principle does not. If you find that the ADA results in closing down a homeless shelter, something a person in a wheelchair wouldn’t want, you might conclude the law has missed its intent. This is showing the law, not the principle, is flawed. This is different from our president throwing aside “do as you’d be done by” by torturing enemy combatants.

    Who evaluates / enforces this? The same people who do now, hopefully reasonable people.

    Who decides if such a principle is wrong? Tough question. Don’t know. This is the flaw, I admit. I don’t know anyone who thinks “do as you’d be done by” is wrong, so I don’t think we’d have to worry about much opposition. I realize this is a huge area open to criticism.

    I want to point at, as Vincent answered in my question, there is also no atheist way of deciding which of the values of survival of the species, promoting happiness, and minimizing suffering win out when they are in conflict. I see the same problem in relativism.

    Absolute principles are subject to questioning. This doesn’t make them relative. I think we will discover what they are, just as we’ve discovered “do as you’d be done by.”

    Absolute principles do not change in limited resources and shifting circumstances, which is what makes them powerful. You can’t start violating “do as you’d be done by” because times are tough and you are desperate to achieve something. If there is a famine, that doesn’t mean I can push my way to the front of the food truck, and shoot others to steal their food.

    What would the result be if we embraced this? There would still be suffering by natural events, illnesses, etc. If EVERYONE did it, I don’t think there would be suffering at the hands of humans, except for instances where a mental illness prevented someone from reasoning “do as you’d be done by.” But, the truth is that even if we base our laws on this, I think we all fall to temptation and will do selfish things and at times ignore “do as you’d be done by.”

    I’m not sure what the question about accommodating change is asking. I would expect reasonable people to engage in great discourse and pull on scientific knowledge to try to implement the principle. So I guess it embraces change as it helps implement the principle. The principle itself does not change, it hasn’t needed to for thousands of years.

    Ok Siamang, I’ve tried to answer all of your questions. Let me know if you need more, and I am interested to hear the ethical dilemmas it puts forth. I would also like to hear your answer to the problem that moral relativism doesn’t provide a way to rank values of survival of the species, promotion of happiness, and minimizing suffering when they are in conflict.

    -Lee (the Theist)

    Sorry this is so long, but did you see how many questions I was asked? :)

  • Darryl

    Lee, though Siamang pummeled you with just about every question that could be raised about absolute ethics I don’t think he asked the question I want to have answered: where do you get your absolute ethics, and how can you be sure that the ones you get are the absolute ones? You handle is “The Theist.” Theism, of itself, is completely devoid of any ethical particulars, and its the particulars that seem to be the ones that we fight about. Theism is often used as a diversionary tactic–and a poor one at that: it is the fall-back argument for transcendent morality when a religion and its ethics have been discredited.

    Government seems to like absolutes, like “Everyone is equal under the law.” Bad things seem to happen when this is changed to, “Everyone is equal under the law…. sometimes…. there may be times where people are not equal under the law.”

    Your thoughts are not refined on this. Governments would love to have things neat and clean, but they never are. Politics is the art of compromise, it has been said. Our idea of equality under the law is a fiction that we have created for its utility. It serves a purpose. We have lots of fictions that work for us. Corporations are legal fictions–they have the same rights as a person–are they persons? Of course not; but, they serve a purpose.

    Government is the last place you would want to find absolutes. Absolutist governments are tyrannical, like the Taliban, or at least authoritarian. They, since they are still run by people, are, like ours, always hypocritical. What good are absolutes when no one can live up to them? No people can live absolutely. In case you didn’t get that, I’ll say it in the converse: All people live relatively.
    We live this way because there is no other way we can live. If we make rules for ourselves, whether they are inspired by utilitarian ideas or by our instincts, then all conduct is measured by ourselves; it is relative to who and what we are at some time or place.

  • Darryl

    As I said above, the only absolute ethical principle I know of is “do as you’d be done by.” We should base our government’s laws on at least this, and vow never to violate it. Where did this come from? Almost every religion I know of, and also from logical reason. Although logical reason can deduce such an idea, it can’t prove it is an absolute principle that should never be violated, which is why I think faith is necessary to say that it is.

    “Do as you’d be done by” is a human invention, not a divine one. It assumes a general equality among relations; a parity of power to do harm; a necessary bargain. When one party has hegemonic power over another, the one tends not to hesitate to violate your “only absolute ethical principle,” and always finds justifications for doing so. Consider our foreign relations. If this nation full of self-described Christians fails to observe your “only absolute ethical principle,” who will?

  • ash

    i have yet to meet a faith system that does not believe that if one doesn’t believe, behave and/or practise in a certain way, that person is lost/damned/unenlightened/inferior etc.

    sorry if i sounded like i was accusing individuals, i was actually referring to organised religiousity, and there, i think my point stands. individuals, be they jew, christian, muslim, hindu etc, are perfectly capable of discarding their religions arrogance, and you aren’t the only person i’ve found to do so. i happen to agree with the ‘do as you’d be done by’ principle, however my agreement is not founded on faith.

    I am willing to entertain that “Do as you’d be done by” could result in bad things, but I have not seen it yet. I would guess that any example which can be given is a hypothetical one, which by definition means it isn’t real. I would be interested in real examples.

    well, i can give you a very small scale real example, and trust to your imagination to see how it might work in a bigger picture;
    my boyfriend and i argue. a fair bit. i hate arguing, he enjoys it.
    his perspective – i enjoy arguing, it relieves my stress, it helps me clarify my points to myself and the surrounding world, i hear things in an argument i don’t feel get said in a normal discussion, the passion with which others react to me makes me feel i am communicating properly and provoking their honesty. i even partially chose to go out with my girlfriend because i saw in her the ability to stick up for herself and her views, and felt she would be happy to argue with me.
    my perspective – i don’t enjoy arguing, it causes me stress, i feel it confuses the issues, i often stick to just defending my position rather than listening to the other side, hearing others get loud and angry makes me want to ‘prove i’m right’ or shut up + just leave. i’m happy to debate and explain my position, but i don’t want to argue.

    for us, we cannot treat each other as we’d like to be done by because we will part company. that’s ok, we can. if however you apply that to a larger scale, such as britain wanting to curb energy use for the good of it’s people vs. china wanting to expand it’s energy use for the good of it’s people, can you see how ‘do as you would be done by’ is not a sufficient principle by itself?

  • Lee (the Theist)

    To ash, I see your point. But in your example I would say that your boyfriend isn’t incorporating “do as you’d be done by,” he is rather wanting you to want what he wants, which is different. “Do as you’d be done by” involves viewing things from another’s perspective. If he were applying that principle, he would see forcing you to argue causes unhappiness and stress, and he would not want that for you. I see your point though, and I think people run the danger of the not good “I know whats best for you” principle. I think this can look similar at times, but is different. Maybe that “do as you’d be done by” principle in your case would result in him not forcing you to argue, but you also recognizing it causes him happiness and letting him spend a few hours arguing on blogs, like a person might let someone play golf.

    Your examples of governments doing this is fair. I would say that when governments go wrong, it might be because they apply different standards to the people than themselves. Such as if they were to take away our cars while they ride around in limos. This is not “do as you’d be done by.”

    To Darryl, I see your point, and will pose the same question I posed to Siamang.

    My original point was that you can’t so easily dismiss faith from government, as many are calling to do.

    Using logic and reason, at times you still will face instances where things we value will be in conflict. For example, the conflict of survival of the species, promoting happiness, and minimizing siffering were in conflict with the decision of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima / Nagasaki.

    From a relativistic perspective, I think you have to admit that there really is no absolute right or wrong. This is fine, and might be true, but for a government who has to make a decision (drop or not drop the bomb) saying there are no absolutely right answers is going to make it very difficult to arrive at one. Faith is the only thing that gives a way to arrive at a firm conclusion and make a decision.

    How do you use relativism to resolve such issues when important values are in conflict?

    -Lee (the Thesit)

  • http://theplainestguygmail.com theplainestguy

    Okay, I’ve been following this conversation in the background for a while now and I’m impressed by the points presented on both sides of the table. It’s come to a point where I feel I just have to interject this thought.

    Faith is the only thing that gives a way to arrive at a firm conclusion and make a decision.

    Now, I understand Lee’s point probably can also be understood also as non-religious faith. In that case, it can be likened unto some so deeply held conviction free of religious origins. Either way, I hold that such an understanding is a danger unto itself. Our president is a deeply religious man. He is also a man who is uncannily sure of himself. I hold that individuals with deeply held, “absolute” convictions do not have the capacity to admit error despite overwhelming evidence. In everyday life, that’s just annoying and mostly harmless. In public life, the results can be very much the opposite.

    Remember what I mentioned earlier that ethics and morality is a product of the consensus of the community and the zeitgeist. I think I should modify this point further by saying that various elements of our society’s ethics and values change at differing rates but the bottom line is that they do undergo this shift regardless if we live long enough to see it or not. The kinds of moral propositions which Lee has brought forward are good ones, but they were not always upheld as such. Looking into the far future, I do not think any one of us can know for sure which kinds of moral priciples will best fit the kind of society we are to build then. There is no convincing justification for laying down a set of moral priciples and upholding them as absolute for all future generations.

  • Vincent

    Lee,
    I guess my point boils down to “how do you use faith for that?”
    or in the declaratory: “Faith is no better, and is often worse, than reason in formulating governments.”

    If, as you suggest, there are absolutes, then we COULD NOT violate them.
    If, as you suggest, all of our laws stem from one absolute, then the laws would not have exceptions.
    Faith is not an escape from this dilemma. Faith is nothing more than submission to another.
    Faith is where you choose to draw the line in the sand. It is an arbitrary stop to the infinite regression problem (How do you know x is good? it’s in the book. How do you know the book is good? It’s from god. How dod you know it’s from god? I have faith that it is)
    Francis of Assisi, a man of intense faith, believed that submission to authority was the greatest of all virtues. Is that an absolute? Sounds like one, but it’s not one I agree with so it must not be absolute or I could not dispute it.
    Faith is the arbitrary selection of a standard by which you measure all things. In the case of book-based faiths, that standard is holy writ. But considering how subject holy writ is to interpretation, and how many human hands went into creating it, there is no absolute way of choosing which book to submit to.

    And as to “do as you’d be done by”, that itself is not universal and therefore not absolute. The buddhist have it the other way around, and I like their better: “don’t do as you’d not be done by”.

  • Steelman

    Here are a few scenarios involving how the idea of absolute right and wrong, and the absolute moral code of “do as you’d be done by”, might prove difficult to apply.

    Lets imagine the USA has reinvented itself as the United States of Absolutism. This new nation is founded on the faith-based certainty that absolute right and wrong exist, and ruled by the nation’s inviolable principal of “do as you’d be done by.”

    1) Religious Freedom
    Members of a Baptist church have filed a lawsuit against the Mormon church. They claim the church violated the nation’s inviolable principal by sending missionaries to their mostly Baptist neighborhood. The Mormons contend that the Baptists also have missionaries, who knock on doors in Mormon neighborhoods. The jury consists of members of various Christian denominations, with only one Mormon. The Mormon juror thinks that all mission work should be allowed, regardless of denomination, since that’s in keeping with “do as you’d be done by”. The other jurors disagree: the new USA was founded on having faith in the principal of absolute right and wrong, and allowing a cult to spread their lies by proselytizing would be absolutely wrong. After all, say those jurors, if they were spreading lies they’d want someone to stop them as well, so they’re not violating the “do as you’d be done by” rule by putting an end to the Mormon church’s missionary program.

    2) Helping Others
    Voters pass a proposition to increase state spending for K-12 education. One of the ways this increase is paid for is by drastically cutting a program that provides occupational retraining for those who have become disabled, leaving many recently disabled people on a years long waiting list. A group of these disabled individuals file a lawsuit against the state. One of the jurors on the case had previously benefited from the retraining program, it allowed her to get a new job and provide for her school age children. She feels an emotional connection to the disadvantaged plaintiffs, but not as strong as the connection she feels for the welfare of her own children. When applying the absolute principal of “do as you’d be done by”, should she identify with the disabled plaintiffs, her own children, or all the parents who, like her, voted for the education law? Siding against the disabled would be helping two of those three groups, but she wonders how deciding against helping the minority satisfies the application of a universal principal.

    3) Crime and Punishment
    A man with an anger problem has been convicted of domestic violence, the trial is in the penalty phase, and jurors are debating over how to apply “do as you’d be done by.” One group says that were they in the man’s position, they’d want to be given a minimum sentence and mandatory anger management classes. Another group says that his anger is just an excuse for his violation of “do as you’d be done by,” and he deserves the maximum sentence. The first group believes the second is wrong; they are violating the inviolable principal by choosing what the convicted man deserves rather than what they would want for themselves.

  • monkeymind

    Lee, on reading through this thread, your answers are quite confusing to me.

    Principles or “moral absolutes” like equality, justice, mercy, are abstract ideas, correct? It seems to me that saying atheists cannot have moral absolutes is like saying that atheists are incapable of abstract reasoning. So then it seems like you’re saying that an atheist’s moral absolutes are not as absolute as yours, because they are free to make them up or change them, whereas a member of a religion which has a set of laws handed down from on high (and not all religions have such) is adhering to a set of unchanging principles that have a divine stamp of approval. But to an atheist, this begs the question: how can you be sure a god, and not humans, came up with that set of principles?
    And that also brings up another theme, which is best summed up with a phrase my husband often uses:
    “It’s not just the law, it’s a good idea.” Meaning that is possible to extract from any set of divine laws many principles that make sense outside of their specific cultural/religious context (do as you would be done by) and others that don’t (prohibition against eating pork or wearing wool blend fabrics).
    In any setting except a strictly monocultural one, you’re going to have to rely on those abstracted principles, rather than the divine law itself, to figure out how to have a just society.

    Using logic and reason, at times you still will face instances where things we value will be in conflict.

    Lee, with statements like this and others you have made, it seems like you are implying that a theist, following a divine set of moral principles, will never face moral dilemmas. I know from the example of my parents, that even very godly, devout people can have ethical dilemmas, or as they would say, “I’m not sure what God wants me to do in this situation.” The devout person reads scripture and prays for guidance, the atheist uses logic and reasoning. (In fact , both are probably using emotion and intuition also)

    Faith is the only thing that gives a way to arrive at a firm conclusion and make a decision.

    This statement seems to be a claim for the superiority of the “praying for divine guidance” model of solving ethical dilemmas. Again, you’re stuck with having to prove that divine guidance exists, and that the Scripture reading and prayer isn’t just your way of reasoning and feeling your way to a solution.

    For example, the conflict of survival of the species, promoting happiness, and minimizing siffering were in conflict with the decision of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima / Nagasaki.

    From a relativistic perspective, I think you have to admit that there really is no absolute right or wrong. This is fine, and might be true, but for a government who has to make a decision (drop or not drop the bomb) saying there are no absolutely right answers is going to make it very difficult to arrive at one.

    If you are implying by this that the decision to drop the bomb on Hirosihma and Nagasaki was the absolute right one, you’ve totally lost me. I can think of a few alternatives that might have been better, such as dropping it on an uninhabited island, or maybe waiting for the Japanse govt to react to Hiroshima before dropping another bomb on Nagasaki two days later!

  • http://theplainestguygmail.com theplainestguy

    Here’s a thought experiment to consider with respect to my previous post. Since “do as you’d be done by” is being raised so often, I’ll use it as well to make my point.

    Consider “do as you’d be done by.” It’s a fairly good principle which applies justly to the greater sum of human affairs. It is so ubiquitous that most people of the day would be tempted to proclaim it an absolute value. Now, a group of scientists and engineers after decades of hard work produce a non-human sentient biological being capable of a level of cognition equal to the humans of that present day. A vociferous debate amongst the humans ensues.

    On one side, the proponents claim that the “do as you’d be done by” principle applies only to human being and that this principle should not be extended to other species, otherwise, we’d have to extend these same rights to all sorts of other non-human organisms.

    The opposing camp argues that the “do as you’d be done by” principle should extend to all sentient beings. They argue that even despite our selfish genes which predisposes us to only concern ourselves with the propagation of our own species and genetic code, the rarity of the existence of DNA in the universe makes it worth protecting and we should not be partial only our DNA. To round off their argument, they propose that such principles should be applied on a gradient with humans and these new creatures at the top enjoying the full protection of the principle going steadily downwards with lesser species.

    This kind of paradigm shift in the physical world can have a tremendous impact on the way ethics is thought about and applied. Even principles which appear to be absolute in both explicit wording and implicit assumptions are subject to change over time provided the external stimulus is there.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    Now, I understand Lee’s point probably can also be understood also as non-religious faith.

    theplainestguy, I got into a fifty comment pileup by demonstrating that all human activity, including all of science, couldn’t exist without faith. By “faith” I meant that the untested ideas and assertions of other people up to and including using formulae and doctrines that weren’t entirely understood was a daily and necessary practice of everyone.

    I don’t think that there is a bright line between faith and knowledge, I doubt that there are two distinct and discrete mental processes that produce what are called beliefs and things that are held to be known. The absurd belief that there is a hard and fast distinction is, itself, a matter of faith and not really known. Adding in the arrogant morality that distinguishes the superstition of scientism doesn’t make the matter more certain. Lately this kind of scientism has become especially cultic and intellectually thuggish.

  • http://off-the-map.org/atheist/ Siamang

    Lee…

    I think your concept fails because of some short-cuts in your argument.

    I think you are able to describe with a certain degree of clarity how a relativist or situational ethics can fail. Easy to do, as there’s lots of examples in the real world.

    On the other hand, I think you’re waving us past the flaws of an absolutist system with assertions unsupported and perhaps unsupportable. Harder to find the flaws in that world, since it is imaginary and ideal.

    Would that you had such mote-finding powers when looking in the mirror! ;-)

    You are saying, in essence “ethics is a messy, imperfect business, and it’s very difficult to justify ethical rules that always work no matter the circumstance. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could just agree on something by fiat, and not have to justify it? Oh yeah, and I think this code of ethics would be perfect and absolute. ”

    I think you and I would agree on most of the ethical principles that you would put forth. The only difference is that YOU want to put them in your worldview and have them declared “absolute” by fiat, whereas I, messy imperfect human homo-sapiens that I am, want to do the messy business of “reasoning them out.” And that opens to door to (bum..bum…BUMMM…) moral relativism!

    You wrote:

    If you held equal treatment of people as an absolute principle, then our president wouldn’t be able to treat enemy combatants differently, no matter what he could argue would be achieved by it.

    Now are you arguing absolutes, or are you arguing consistancy?

    Here’s some thoughts on your points:

    Thus, if I say something incredibly illogical, it doesn’t necessarily disprove my thesis.

    Burden of proof is on you. I don’t need to disprove your thesis if you haven’t proven it in the first place. You’re the one with a utopia planned.

    Who is judge and jury? I think the best we can do is get reasonable people to make laws based on the absolute principle.

    ….

    Who evaluates / enforces this? The same people who do now, hopefully reasonable people.

    Waitasecond… “the best we can do”??!? “Reasonable people?” Isn’t that relativist? You’ve introduced imperfect humanity into the first step. If the laws are relativist, can we really say we live in an absolutist ethics? As soon as the rubber hits the road in your system we’re smack dab back in relativist land. The problem STILL isn’t a lack of absolutes. The problem still is constistancy. Humans aren’t always consistant in their actions.

    I think we may already live in a world of absolute ethics, if you allow for imperfect laws based on it, enacted and enforced by imperfect people who aren’t always consistant.

    We already have an absolute! The absolute is “preserve human civilization.” The rest are just laws that may be imperfect but undenyably based on that shared absolute, written, evaluated and enforced by hopefully reasonable people who see the principle as infallible, even when the laws are not.

    Do the laws have exceptions? Yes, but the principle “preserve human civilization” does not.

    One more point for now. And this, I think illustrates precicely what I said about how you can see the very real problems with the current system clearly, but you kind of hand-wave past the problems in your own system. It’s a double-standard. For example here you write:

    I am willing to entertain that “Do as you’d be done by” could result in bad things, but I have not seen it yet. I would guess that any example which can be given is a hypothetical one, which by definition means it isn’t real. I would be interested in real examples.

    Okay, so you confine us to arguing without hypotheticals… but your entire scenario is a hypothetical. You’re making us jump through hoops that you don’t subject your own system to.

    “Do as you’d be done by” doesn’t always work, because people aren’t perfect reasoners, and people don’t always have all the information, nor all the time to react.

    Let’s say we have a famine, and millions of refugees. Thousands are dying by the day of starvation…. this is not a made up scenario. People are beginning to fight over food. People are stealing food to feed their families. But at the same time, doctors need to eat every day or many more people will die than will die of starvation. A mob is comign at the food stores… do you shoot at these people in order to save more lives in the longrun? Is that really how you would like to be treated? Do you know all possible outcomes? What if food might arrive tomorrow, will you have killed the looters in vain?

    “Absolute ethics” require absolute knowlege to work in all circumstances. Situational ethics can be operated on without absolute knowlege, but merely by doing the best with the knowlege you have … hopefully by reasonable people doing the best they can… same as your system.

  • http://off-the-map.org/atheist/ Siamang

    olvlzl, no ism, no ist said

    Lately this kind of scientism has become especially cultic and intellectually thuggish.

    All I had to do was read that sentence and I knew instantly who wrote it. You’re becoming a broken record here.

  • Darryl

    Lee said

    From a relativistic perspective, I think you have to admit that there really is no absolute right or wrong. This is fine, and might be true, but for a government who has to make a decision (drop or not drop the bomb) saying there are no absolutely right answers is going to make it very difficult to arrive at one. Faith is the only thing that gives a way to arrive at a firm conclusion and make a decision.

    How do you use relativism to resolve such issues when important values are in conflict?

    I don’t know what planet you’ve been inhabiting, but on this one decisions are made on no basis at all every day. Decisions are made as much by instinct and emotion as by reason—maybe more so. Government decision-makers may believe in absolutes or not, and this may make decisions easier or more difficult, but they do arrive at decisions nontheless. The Communists in Moscow and Bejing have made decisions for decades despite their atheist philosophies. Their lack of faith didn’t seem to keep the former Soviets from being a superpower; and our faith-based politicians don’t have a good record of high-quality decisions as of late.

    Vincent said

    Francis of Assisi, a man of intense faith, believed that submission to authority was the greatest of all virtues.

    This point bears repeating: one of the dangers of absolutist thinkers (like our Pugilist in Chief) is that they tend to get their thinking from authoritarian philosophies that condition their practicioners to be comfortable with the idea of submission to authority. Just look at those poor deluded Pakistani women protesting for the imposition of sharia law in their country. Our fundamentalists here in the U.S. are dangerous in part because they are authoritarian and willingly submit themselves to a worthless leader so long as he panders to their beliefs. If you look at their effects, I think you must conclude that absolutist ethics are evil.

    olvlzl, this discussion doesn’t require the reiterations from your one-man campaign against scientism. Let me dispel the implication in your post that you “demonstrated” something. You only asserted your doubts about the relation of faith and knowledge. Your doubt is not worth much since it’s not constructive. You have nothing to offer but the obvious.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    Siamang, if you think I’m a broken record what must you think of most of the atheist blogosphere?

    Darryl, is this an invitation to explain myself? I don’t think Siamang would welcome that. I’m hardly alone in criticizing scientism, probably the most common superstition current in the United States today.

  • Darryl

    No, olvlzl, please spare us another regurgitation of your conspiracy theory.

  • http://off-the-map.org/atheist/ Siamang

    Siamang, if you think I’m a broken record what must you think of most of the atheist blogosphere?

    I don’t read most of the atheist blogosphere. But if you check my blog, which is an arm of a Christian ministry, you may find that the conversations I enjoy are hardly typical of atheists.

    Darryl, is this an invitation to explain myself? I don’t think Siamang would welcome that

    Just letting to know that the rhythm of your pounding drum is getting monotonous. I’ve begun tuning you out when I see your name on a post, and your kneejerk tone.

    If you want folks to pay attention to you, you might vary your approach from time to time. That’s all I’m saying.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    Darryl, I think you’re confused, I haven’t said there was a conspiracy but a wide spread superstition that science is the only means of obtaining the truth and that anything that lies outside of science is false. I assume you understand the word, but I might have been mistaken.

    Siamang, I wasn’t aware of having talked that much about scientism here but since there’s so much of it about it’s always a temptation to refute it. If you think the refutation is tedious could you tell me if the assertion of it gets under your skin? Or is it just so common that it’s part of the background? It’s in the background that the beginnings of so many problems start, imagine what the United States would be like if nationalism was seen for the folly it is instead of a civic duty. People might actually remember they’re supposed to take a critical look at the government instead of reflexively supporting it. Same goes for science and especially the culture of science.

  • monkeymind

    olvzl, what I think people may be finding annoying is a certain tendency in your posts that makes it sound like you are addressing person or persons unknown to us here with whom you have clashed in the past. As Baba Ram Dass said, “Be Here Now”!

    I also am not a big fan of the “Science Must Destroy Religion” campaign, because I think religion and spirituality (but also literature, music, poetry, and social activism) cover a lot of non-rational or ethical territory that science can’t and probably shouldn’t cover. But in some of your posts I have to admit that I see that viewpoint presented in a way that I don’t want to be associated with.

  • ash

    just to steer us a little bit back on topic…Lee, i’m not sure i can comment much further here ATM, the points i wish to make are being made far more intelligently and succinctly by others right now…i’d just like to say thanx for the discussion (and the relationship perspective!), it’s hugely enjoyable even when i disagree…

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    monkeymind, I don’t understand what you mean about addressing people who aren’t here. Since the comment that provoked Siamang and Darryl was specifically addressed to theplainestguy I assumed that was who I was addressing. The comment about scientism was relevant to what was said about “non-religious faith”. My experience is that calling that kind of belief by the perfectly accurate term “faith” is a potential minefield. Everyone operates on the basis of ideas that they accept without knowing the verification of them or even the soundness of them, quiet often on nothing more than the reputation of someone who holds the idea. That clear truth can be controversial among some people, I’ve found.

    I’m sorry if people find my style annoying but I assume the people who read this and other blogs are informed enough to be able to deal with ideas and, if they’re interested but aren’t familiar with the subject, that they know enough to look it up. If someone can find a flaw in an argument I’d like them to point it out so I can fix it. Having grown up in a large family, name calling etc. just rolls off my back.

  • Lee (the Theist)

    To “theplainesguy”, yes I agree with many of your points. I have agreed all along that moral absolutism has its problems. I think, however, the many times our current president has done questionable things has been out of moral relative logic rather than absolutes. And, more imprtantly, because he has flaws. But you are right, there is potential for great bad to come from it.

    My point since the beginning is that eradicating faith from government doesn’t really solve anything, and that moral relativism produces the potential for equal amounts of negative consequences.

    To olvlzl, no ism, no ist, I think you and I agree on the definition of faith. I think you and I agree also that, by this definition, you can’t eradicate faith from society. I would like to read your “fifty comment pile up” post if you could let me know where to find it.

    If you were to step back, and have no position on whether there is a God or is not, and just look at moral relativism versus moral absolutism based on faith, I think logically one could conclude there are pros and cons with both. And I think one could logically choose to embrace some faith. I am not saying this makes it right, or proves the existence of God, but it is an argument not to abolish faith from government, or as Richard Dawkins is arguing, to abolish faith altogether.

    To Vincent, laws are a man-made attempt to live out an absolute principle, and are thus flawed and can be changed. Like science making theorems. Scientists acknowledge there are absolute universal laws, and try to describe them with theories, but acknowledge their theories are not complete and subject to change. Newton’s laws of physics are actually not completely accurate, and have been improved by, (ironically for this discussion) relativity. Some day relativity will be replaced by something else. But there still is a belief that there is an absolute answer. Science is open to change while at the same time embracing the idea that there are concrete answers.

    One of people’s fears is that absolutism is inflexible. I think that it doesn’t have to be.

    To Steelman, I understand the examples you are posing, but I think in some of them you are warping “do as you’d be done by” into other things, such as “I want you to want what I want.” I think in the “Religious Freedom” example it would work to find, as we are working now, the balance of how far to let freedom of speech go before it can do harm, to find rules that are fair to everyone. For the “helping others” example, our natural instincts cause us to favor our family over our community, our community over our country, our country over other countries. “Do as you’d be done by” breaks that down to eradicate favoritism, and would help the woman fairly decide how to allocate money. The Crime and Punishment example I think is actually an argument for “Do as you’d be done by.” Richard Dawkins has argued our crime and punishment laws should end in protecting our society but not focus on getting revenge. I agree with that, and think “do as you’d be done by” would manifest in something like us locking people up to protect society without feeling the need to execute them. I can honestly say that I don’t want to be a danger to my family or community, and if I was I would someone to prevent me from doing harm, even if it would necessitate killing me. Not the same as execution.

    To monkeymind, I have no idea if the atomic bomb was right or wrong, and wasn’t trying to say it was or wasn’t. I don’t think absolutism suddenly makes the process of determining right from wrong easy.

    To Siamang. Ok, I agree with you that people aren’t perfect reasoners, don’t have time to react, don’t have all the information. I agree that embracing “do as you’d be done by” doesn’t suddenly make a perfect society. I will go a step further and say that we all flawed, we all succumb to things like greed, pride, etc. I admit if I am in government, I might enact laws to benefit me or my family over others, or I might accept a “donation” to create an earmark (aka, be bought out). This doesn’t mean “do as you’d be done by” is faulty, it means that humans are faulty. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t embrace it in principle. As for the difference between the laws and the principle, see the above paragraph to Vincent. Now, did I hear you correctly, that you think “preserve human civilization” is an absolute? Doesn’t that open the door to huge injustices?

    Here I think is a good example of what I am trying to say about the difference of relativity and absolutism.

    Lets say you are trying to decide if torturing enemies is ok. You have at least (but many more) 3 values in conflict. They are: preservation of the community, protection of the potentially innocent, and “do as you’d be done by.”

    Each value might lead you to a different answer as to weather torture is right or wrong. Moral relativism concludes there really is no right or wrong answer, as it is relative to the value or goal you are trying to achieve which is not absolute and, as so many have pointed out, differs from person to person.

    So what happens? You have a room where two or more parties adamantly disagrees with each other. No matter how long they argue, in relativism there is no hope of arriving at the “truth”, because there is none. It is not like in science where you can debate and hope to arrive at a concrete answer.

    So what happens is the stronger of the two or more gets their way. This is the inevitable outcome of moral relativism, and its greatest flaw.

    It requires some amount of faith to say something like “do as you’d be done by” is an absolute, and stronger than preservation of the community, and therefore we shouldn’t torture.

    Why is it wrong for the strongest or majority to get their way? That’s why I used the “atheist as president” example, that currently given the balance of power the natural result of relativism is that an atheist will not be elected president. Only one person actually accepted this as not wrong, everyone else argued this as wrong. The contradiction I hear is that people argue for relativism while at the same time argue that excluding atheist from government is wrong period, not just wrong from their perspective.

    So in my above example, why would relativism be better than embracing an absolute principle?

    -Lee (the Theist)

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    Lee (the Theist), Here is the piece I wrote back in Feburary, you might want to follow the two follow up pieces I wrote at the same blog that weekend. Things got pretty heated and I found out several months later that a prominent blogger had lied about what I wrote even as he must have read my correction of another person who made the same assertion. The piece wasn’t about atheists it was about pseudo-skeptics. That the examples I used may have all been atheists is a coincidence. They were chosen because they are all prominent as semi-professional “skeptics” or as members of CSICOP, including Dawkins.

    You might want to read some things I wrote on my own blog about these subjects.

  • Steelman

    Lee said: “My point since the beginning is that eradicating faith from government doesn’t really solve anything, and that moral relativism produces the potential for equal amounts of negative consequences.”

    I don’t agree. Faith in absolutes begs the question of where such absolutes come from. If the answer is that they come from an infallible God, and in this society that is a common belief, all discussion about whether the principles that human beings have deemed absolute is over (discussion = heresy). The only thing that can be called into question is the method by which these absolutes have been discovered. If the method is found to be flawed, and it would only take one incident of a false absolute to determine this, then the status of all other absolute principles would immediately be called into question. At that point, one would have to ask: what’s the difference between an actual absolute, and one that human beings deemed to be absolute but were later found to be mistaken? The moral question of slavery in the 19th century U.S. is a real world example of this.

    Lee said: “If you were to step back, and have no position on whether there is a God or is not, and just look at moral relativism versus moral absolutism based on faith, I think logically one could conclude there are pros and cons with both. And I think one could logically choose to embrace some faith. I am not saying this makes it right, or proves the existence of God, but it is an argument not to abolish faith from government, or as Richard Dawkins is arguing, to abolish faith altogether.”

    Firstly, I don’t think Dawkins has ever said he wanted to “abolish faith altogether.” His purported aim, as I understand it, is to remove the special privilege that is afforded religious faith in government and society, not to abolish it. If you’ve read different, can you please provide a source?

    I think there may be some equivocation going on with your use of the word faith. Stephen Law has written about that sort of thing, within the context of a God belief here. Briefly, you’re using faith to cover everything from strong religious convictions to the type of faith we all have that the sun will rise tomorrow. There is, of course, no guarantee that it will. The earth could be demolished by a giant asteroid before tomorrow morning. Induction allows me to say that the sun most probably will rise tomorrow, and that the chances that it won’t are so slim I don’t even think about it, regardless of the fact that I have no way of proving it will really happen; I can’t foretell the future because I have no evidence of the future itself, only the past. Having faith in moral absolutes that exist outside of human minds, or their originator, is quite different than having faith in the inductive reasoning which tells me that the sun will rise again.

    Lee said: “Science is open to change while at the same time embracing the idea that there are concrete answers.”

    Science deals in probabilities, not absolutes, because it is based on induction. It is self-correcting because it offers approximations not absolutes. Scientists may desire “final” answers, but the history of science shows that we can’t ever be sure we’ve found them, or even prove that such answers exist. This feature of self-correction allows us to continually improve our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. How would a system, any system, that is based on absolutes be self-correcting in a way that allows it to adapt to a continuously improving understanding of humanity?

    Lee said: “One of people’s fears is that absolutism is inflexible. I think that it doesn’t have to be.”

    Absolutism is not just inflexible, it’s unchangeable by definition, no? Can you give me an example of the malleability of that which is absolute?

    Lee said: “I think in the “Religious Freedom” example it would work to find, as we are working now, the balance of how far to let freedom of speech go before it can do harm, to find rules that are fair to everyone.”

    The Mormon juror, and all the other Christian jurors, believe completely in absolutes, especially absolute truth; they’re not relativists. How do they work it out? I don’t think they can, not without secular laws that put aside the “absolute truth” of their respective faiths. In the other jurors’ minds the Mormon’s are being treated fairly; they are being stopped from proselytizing for a false religion, the same as the juror’s would want to be stopped if they had been deluded into preaching for a cult (or knowingly spreading lies for their own benefit: more church members = more money).

    Lee said: “For the “helping others” example, our natural instincts cause us to favor our family over our community, our community over our country, our country over other countries. “Do as you’d be done by” breaks that down to eradicate favoritism, and would help the woman fairly decide how to allocate money.”

    That’s great! You seem to have that one figured out, so I’ll let you finish the story. How did she decide?

    Lee The Crime and Punishment example I think is actually an argument for “Do as you’d be done by.” Richard Dawkins has argued our crime and punishment laws should end in protecting our society but not focus on getting revenge. I agree with that, and think “do as you’d be done by” would manifest in something like us locking people up to protect society without feeling the need to execute them. I can honestly say that I don’t want to be a danger to my family or community, and if I was I would someone to prevent me from doing harm, even if it would necessitate killing me. Not the same as execution.”

    My example shows that “do as you’d be done by” is relative to individuals, so jurors who sympathize with a defendant will opt for a lighter sentence, those who don’t for a stronger one. In real life cases where capital punishment is an option (since you brought it up), that relativity of juror sentiment can result in the defendant being sentenced to death. I don’t think that would change if “do as you’d be done by” were the absolute law of the land; there are people who, unlike yourself, would feel that they should die if they committed a terrible crime. Some people kill themselves after the commission of a such a crime (murder/suicide), or, at the very least, wish they were dead. Despite “do as you’d be done by”, some jurors would still feel that a child murderer, for instance, ought to be killed. Those that abide by the absolute principle might feel that if they were in the defendant’s shoes they wouldn’t be able to go on, so they might still vote for the death penalty. In sum, I don’t think “do as you’d be done by” would necessarily negate the legality of the death penalty, nor its enforcement in certain cases.

    Lee said: Lets say you are trying to decide if torturing enemies is ok. You have at least (but many more) 3 values in conflict. They are: preservation of the community, protection of the potentially innocent, and “do as you’d be done by.”

    You said above: “I can honestly say that I don’t want to be a danger to my family or community, and if I was I would someone to prevent me from doing harm, even if it would necessitate killing me.”

    What if I said the following when questioned about imagining myself in a terrorists shoes: “I can honestly say that I don’t want to be a danger to my family or community, and if I had information that could save countless innocent lives, I would want someone to prevent me from doing harm by withholding it, even if it would necessitate torturing me.”

    How does this example differ markedly from yours, where you find it morally acceptable for others to kill you if you become a danger to your family or community? Is this a violation of “do as you’d be done by”?

    I think that “do as you’d be done by” is a good maxim, but not universally applicable to all situations. It seems to me there are a number of situations where two opposing parties can use it properly, yet still reach an impasse. It seems that whether one accepts absolute principles or a strongly principled relativism, negotiation for peaceful coexistence must still occur where opinions differ. Further, I think the “absolute” of absolute principles is illusory. That’s like saying you have a rule which will work in every instance. I don’t think you’ve shown that “do as you’d be done by” is such a rule. And if we need more than one principle in a real life political system, and I think we do, then we will always be negotiating over which one should take precedence in any given dispute.

    I think strongly principled relativists can be just as steadfast in their moral commitments as those who have faith in absolutes. although I think it’s actually easier to be an absolutist. The relativist realizes they must use logic and reason to defend their position, that they could be wrong about their beliefs, and that there’s no falling back on a higher authority. Absolutists have available to them the idea that they cannot be wrong; the moral position they defend is absolute. Unfortunately, absolutism also allows the needs of mere humans to easily fall under the tyranny of a “higher purpose.”

    I think of social morals like the business model of “best practices.” The best practices of today may or may not turn out to be the best ones for tomorrow. Some of those practices may stay the same indefinitely, others may change at the next board meeting (and then continue to be accepted, or later rejected). The ones that stand the test of time unchanged do not continue to do so because they are absolutes, or just business the owners have faith in them; they are simply the ones that continue to result in success. The difference between practices accepted on faith as absolute, and the best practices that stand the test of time, is that the best practices may be reviewed to determine if they still are indeed the best. This, I think, is how relativists can still be strongly principled without turning to absolutism, which lends itself to authoritarianism.

  • Steelman

    For clarity, the third sentence from the last should read:
    The ones that stand the test of time unchanged do not continue to do so because they are absolutes, or just because the business owners have faith in them; they are simply the ones that continue to result in success.

  • Darryl

    Absolutes, were they to exist in the universe, would destroy us. A world of fallible people, constantly under the crush of the weight of absolutes that no one can live up to, would be forever reminded of their failures and inadequacies, and as such would grow despirited and anguished. Examine the lives of people you know–if you know many kinds of people–and notice the differences of ethical conduct among those who believe in absolutes and those who don’t. There is no difference: a sinning Christian appears just as an errant atheist.

  • monkeymind

    Well, I can’t resist re-telling 2 stories of the incomparable Mullah Nasruddin here:

    On “do as you would be done by” as a universal principle:

    Once a renowned philosopher and moralist was traveling through Nasruddin’s village and asked Nasruddin where there was a good place to eat. Nasruddin suggested a place and the scholar, hungry for conversation, invited Mullah Nasruddin to join him. Much obliged, Mullah Nasruddin accompanied the scholar to a nearby restaurant, where they asked the waiter about the special of the day.

    “Fish! Fresh Fish!” replied the waiter.

    “Bring us two,” they requested.

    A few minutes later, the waiter brought out a large platter with two cooked fish on it, one of which was quite a bit smaller than the other. Without hesitating, Mullah Nasruddin took the larger of the fish and put in on his plate. The scholar, giving Mullah Nasruddin a look of intense disbelief, proceed to tell him that what he did was not only flagrantly selfish, but that it violated the principles of almost every known moral, religious, and ethical system. Mullah Nasruddin listened to the philosopher’s extempore lecture patiently, and when he had finally exhausted his resources, Mullah Nasruddin said,

    “Well, Sir, what would you have done?”

    “I, being a conscientious human, would have taken the smaller fish for myself.” said the scholar.

    “And here you are,” Mullah Nasruddin said, and placed the smaller fish on the gentleman’s plate.

    On divine justiice:

    Two children found a bag containing twelve marbles. They argued over how to divide the toys and finally went to see the Mulla. When asked to settle their disagreement, the Mulla asked whether the children wanted him to divide the marbles as a human would or as Allah would.

    The children replied, “We want it to be fair. Divide the marbles as Allah would.”

    So, the Mulla counted out the marbles and gave three to one child and nine to the other.”

  • Lee (the Theist)

    I will address all the above posts against the “do as you’d be done by” principle and about the idea of absolutes.

    But first I would like an answer to a question which still hasn’t been answered by anyone as far as I can tell. If it has, I apologize, but please repeat it so I can be clear on it.

    In a world with not faith or theism, all is relative. So the problem exists of how you determine right or wrong.

    If one says right is based on what instincts say, you have the problem of deciding between conflicting instincts, and someone asking why they shouldn’t just ignore their instincts alltogether. Is it wrong for a bird not to fly south for the winter just because it is an instinct?

    If one says right is based on survival of the species, you still can’t answer why it is important for the species to survive. Why should I care if the species survives after I am dead?

    If one says right is what society agrees is right (social contract), then you have to prove why it is wrong to disobey society’s idea of right. We should just submit to what others tell us?

    If one says I should not do wrong because bad things will happen to me if I do, I can easily argue that I am capable of doing bad things and not getting caught, as clearly so many are.

    As C.S. Lewis put it, “When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.”

    In other words, I can’t seem to conclude anything else but that no faith and no theism results in no right or wrong at all.

    Does anyone see this any other way, and if so how? (Remember, I am not arguing this proves God, I just think this is a logical conclusion.)

    I have met many atheists who agree with this concept, but it sounds like some people here don’t and I’d like an explaination.

    -Lee (the Theist)

  • http://fivepublicopinions.blogspot.com AV

    In a world with not faith or theism, all is relative. So the problem exists of how you determine right or wrong.

    If by “right and wrong” you mean “right and wrong in an absolute sense,” then theism has no definitive answer to that question. This or that system of religious belief might assert that it knows how to determine absolute right and wrong, but this dos not constitute proof that such is the case.

    If, on the other hand, we’re prepared to live with non-absolutist concepts of right and wrong, and if we’re humble and honest enough to admit that we–all of us, theists and non-theists alike–simply do not (yet) know what we can call right and wrong in an absolute sense, then I see no reason why we cannot attempt to answer moral questions through the use of reason, discussion and debate as opposed to the blind adherence to religious dogma.

  • Lee (the Theist)

    AV,

    Let me clarify this point. You mention that in a system without faith and theism you would be honest enough to admit we “simply do not YET know what we can call right and wrong in an absolute sense.” Are you saying there is an absolute right and wrong, and you just are admitting you don’t know what it is? I am saying in such a world there is no absolute right and wrong, which is to say there is no right or wrong, there are only things you want and don’t want.

    In a world without faith and theism, right and wrong is like taste. There is no point in me arguing that pizza tastes good to someone who doesn’t think it tastes good, because there is no concept of things which taste absolutely good or bad. When I say “Pizza tastes good,” I imply that “Pizza tastes good to me.” If you think pizza tastes bad, there is no point in me arguing with a sense of righteousness that it tastes good, that would be silly. In a world without faith and theism, saying “That is wrong” is saying “That is undesirable to me.” It can go no further. You can only hope to say “That is undesirable to me and here is why, I hope you agree but if you don’t you aren’t wrong.”

    If I am incorrect on this, how? How would you determine what right and wrong is? People keep saying through reason, but reasoning what? I listed things above that don’t work (instinct, survival of the species, social contract, negative consequences). What are the standards for which one determines right and wrong?

    -Lee (the Theist)

  • Vincent

    I don’t know why I bother because you clearly aren’t listening to anyone.
    You claim those things don’t work but you haven’t shown any evidence that they don’t.
    You claim faith works but haven’t shown any evidence that it does.

    I just want to say:
    “To Vincent, laws are a man-made attempt to live out an absolute principle, and are thus flawed and can be changed.”:
    Just like religion or faith. Reason at least gives you some basis, even if imperfect, to choose.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    Firstly, I don’t think Dawkins has ever said he wanted to “abolish faith altogether.” His purported aim, as I understand it, is to remove the special privilege that is afforded religious faith in government and society, not to abolish it. If you’ve read different, can you please provide a source?

    Dawkins has certainly endorsed the position of Sam Harris which is that religion should be destroyed, he signed (and then retracted in the face of criticism) a petition to make it a crime for anyone to teach religion to children under the age of 16, including their own parents. I am not inclined to overlook his original signing of the petition even when he cravenly retracted it. An Oxford professor signing onto something so outlandish, even fascistic, shouldn’t be considered a youthful indiscretion, after all. If Polkinghorne signed a petition to outlaw the free speech rights of atheists you wouldn’t overlook it if he retracted the foolish action within the week.

    If Dawkins is Bright enough to avoid the headaches that would come from his calling for the outright call for the abolition of religion it doesn’t mean that people can’t draw the logical conclusion of his polemics and his actions. I don’t think a reasonable person could be faulted for drawing those conclusions.

  • http://fivepublicopinions.blogspot.com AV

    Are you saying there is an absolute right and wrong, and you just are admitting you don’t know what it is?

    I am admitting (a) that I don’t know if there is an absolute right or wrong (and neither do you), and (b) if there is an absolute right and wrong, I don’t know what it is (and neither do you).

    In a world without faith and theism, right and wrong is like taste.

    No, it’s not like taste at all. If you were to advance the claim “homosexuality is wrong,” and you wanted to convince me of the same, you would have to offer some kind of substantiation–some kind of supporting argument–for why I should accept your claim as true.

    “Homosexuality is wrong because God/The Invisible Pink Unicorn/The Flying Spaghetti Monster says it’s wrong,” or “Homosexuality is wrong because erm, well, it’s just wrong”–neither of these are satisfactory answers. Indeed, they are non-answers: they don’t tell me anything about why I should accept your claim as true, and merely act as placeholders for your lack of substantiation/refusal to substantiate.

    People keep saying through reason, but reasoning what? I listed things above that don’t work (instinct, survival of the species, social contract, negative consequences). What are the standards for which one determines right and wrong?

    Here’s your problem. You advocate reliance upon religious dogma as a way of sorting out right from wrong, and simply assume a priori that everybody thinks about morality in this way. “So tell me, atheists,” you ask, “if you reject religious dogma, which dogma do you guys rely upon? What are the standards for which one determines right and wrong?” But why can’t one adopt a non-dogmatic way of thinking about these questions? In other words, what is wrong with an approach to thinking about right and wrong in which we don’t have to check our critical faculties at the door and blindly observe religious dogma?

    In any case, reason and argument are not dogmas. They don’t offer answers about absolute morality that are etched in stone. What they can help us to do is reach tentative conclusions regarding moral questions. You seem to think this is a major flaw in taking a non-dogmatic approach: but here’s the news–tentative is the best we (and by “we,” I mean theists and non-theists alike) can do. Given that the absolutist cannot prove the absolute truth of his claims–and can only assert it–we have no reason to accept his claims.

    Again: “X is wrong because God says so” is useless as a moral statement because it convinces nobody who doesn’t already accept the presupposition on which it based: i.e. that God exists. In which case, how do you convince the non-theist, or the theist who doesn’t worship your God? “X is wrong because it’s wrong because it’s wrong” is equally useless: why should I accept your authority to decide that X is wrong (as opposed to, say, the guy who delivers my pizza)? Not only are these approaches to morality useless, they are also anti-democratic, insofar as they attempt to arbitrary shut down debate about what is right and wrong (and how claims about right and wrong can be substantiated). “X is wrong because God says so” disenfranchises those who don’t accept the presupposition that God (or the particular God issuing the command) exists, which is why theistic dogmatism as a guide for determining law and public policy has (in my view) no place in a secular liberal democracy.

  • http://fivepublicopinions.blogspot.com AV

    You claim those things don’t work but you haven’t shown any evidence that they don’t.

    Indeed, Lee would have to use reasoning in order to show how they don’t work, having already rejected the use of reasoning in deciding moral questions.

  • Christian the Atheist

    Thanks to all for a very interesting and civilized read. Similar conversations on other faith/atheist websites have not been so civilized.

    I am friends (offline) with Lee the Theist, and have to vouch for his philosophical integrity and sincerity, which I think most of you have also seen by his writing. Thanks for giving Lee and I a lot to discuss on the phone/in person, because many of you gave me some good discussion points I had not brought up with Lee in the past.

  • ash

    If one says right is based on what instincts say, you have the problem of deciding between conflicting instincts, and someone asking why they shouldn’t just ignore their instincts alltogether.

    this is one way of deciding things, but must be taken in conjuction (or used relatively) with others. also people do overcome their instincts, as proven by our ability to be toilet trained!

    If one says right is based on survival of the species, you still can’t answer why it is important for the species to survive. Why should I care if the species survives after I am dead?

    see as above, also ask yourself why you chose to have a child. a child is a huge financial, emotional and psychological burden – either at some level you do care, or you have debased yourself to the position of ‘i want’.

    If one says right is what society agrees is right (social contract), then you have to prove why it is wrong to disobey society’s idea of right. We should just submit to what others tell us?

    see above, also note that it is not always wrong to disobey society’s idea of right (ie racism condoned by government/society). i still feel it is easier to challenge a societies views when one can argue their point and not be told they are wrong by reason of fixed absolutes.

    If one says I should not do wrong because bad things will happen to me if I do, I can easily argue that I am capable of doing bad things and not getting caught, as clearly so many are.

    see above, also note that most people will judge bad things relatively, theist or not. if i could murder someone and positively guarantee i could get away with it, would i? no, but there is no singular reason on this list that i would give as to why not.

    the problem is here, you are arguing and understanding by a position of absolutism, and therefore seem to think that there can only be one, absolute alternative answer as to how people can make moral judgements. don’t get too hung up on the idea of absolutism that it blinds you to the fact that most situations cannot be decided by only one principle.

    In a world without faith and theism, saying “That is wrong” is saying “That is undesirable to me.” It can go no further. You can only hope to say “That is undesirable to me and here is why, I hope you agree but if you don’t you aren’t wrong.”

    in a world with faith and theism, saying “That is wrong” is saying “That is undesirable to god”. It can go no further. You can only hope to say “That is undesirable to god and here is why, you should agree and if you don’t you are wrong anyway.”

    hmm…

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    in a world with faith and theism, saying “That is wrong” is saying “That is undesirable to god”. It can go no further.

    ash, you are wrong. I base my morality on inherent rights of individuals, the absolute nature of those rights when the exercise of them doesn’t impinge on the rights of others and the negotiation of rights when those do impinge on other peoples’ rights. I put the necessities of life before mere desires which aren’t necessary to life.

    One of the things that I find most objectionable in materialism is that it always seems to devolve into the denial of inherent rights on the basis that the pseudo-sciences that involve themselves in such areas are incompetent to find them. So, despite the long and bloody history of what happens when those inherent rights are denied to exist these invariably comfortable folk are quite prepared to relive a history they are quite untroubled by. The more of these discussions I read and participate in the more certain I am that the most recent crop biological determinsists are not much different from those of the past.

  • http://fivepublicopinions.blogspot.com AV

    I base my morality on inherent rights of individuals, the absolute nature of those rights when the exercise of them doesn’t impinge on the rights of others and the negotiation of rights when those do impinge on other peoples’ rights.

    Two issues that can separated out:
    (i) Simply asserting the absolute nature of those rights does not prove that they are absolute. What substantiation can you provide for the claim that certain rights are absolute (and which rights are they)?
    (ii) Furthermore, what do we as a society achieve by acting as if these rights are absolute? What do these rights do? Conversely, what would be the consequences of negating/denying these rights?

    One of the things that I find most objectionable in materialism is that it always seems to devolve into the denial of inherent rights on the basis that the pseudo-sciences that involve themselves in such areas are incompetent to find them.

    Fine. If you’re competent enough to prove that these rights are inherent, then go ahead: prove it. But remember that simply asserting them to be inherent does not prove that they are inherent.

  • Lee (the Theist)

    Christian the Atheist, thanks for vouching for my rationality, and welcome to the discussion.

    Discussions and debates are most useful, I think, when both parties understand the other side before they try to debate it. Otherwise they fail to understand the opposing point more so than disagree with it, which isn’t as interesting.

    One problem currently is that I don’t think you all have an accurate picture of what I am saying are my views on theism. I will take responsibility for this and try to correct it. I agree with about 95% of all the criticism against theism that has been presented here. I live in the same world as everyone here, and witness every day people acting with absolute moral authority doing horrible things. For everyone who says faith and theism can lead to horrible, wretched, awful outcomes, let me say again and again, I AGREE I AGREE I AGREE.

    It is hard to argue with someone who agrees with you. If you want to keep arguing to me all of the flaws in theism, you can, but I agree with you.

    As to the prior post on whether Dawkins is trying to abolish faith altogether, here is a direct quote from Dawkins as put for in his documentary on the God Delusion: “I don’t see there is a future of the world as long as people are brought up to think that there is something good about faith.”

    So I am trying to understand why non-faith ethics are better.

    To understand why non-faith ethics are better, I am trying to understand what they are.

    The question I am posing to you all now is one I still am not clear on anyone’s answer to (except “olvlz no ism no ist”). The question is can there exist a right and wrong without faith. I seem to have gotten a yes, a no, and an I don’t know.

    “Right” in the moral sense is defined as being in accordance to what is good. This manifests in saying what a person “should” do.

    In atheism, how do you define what is good? I don’t see how you can in an absolute sense. I know Ash argued against this analogy, but I do think this would be like defining what tastes good, it depends on the person. Just like defining what a person “should” eat depends on what the person wants to achieve by eating, defining what a person “should do” depends on what the person wants to achieve in life. If there is nothing a person “should” achieve in life, how do you define what “good” is?

    (In my theism, “the good” is defined by love for one another. It takes faith to embrace this, as it can never be proven. But again, I want to focus on atheism for a moment.)

    I see people have tried to establish a non-faith based good with concepts like survival of the species, instinct, and consequences. But these all clearly break down. One can’t prove that the species “should survive”, one can’t prove that I “should” obey my instinct. If I am wrong on this, please show me how these stand up. (To Vincent, it seems you are putting the burden of proof on me to show these things don’t work, instead of proving they do. I agree with atheists who argue the burden of proof on the existence of God is on theists, and so to I say the burden of proof on the existence of good, or right, is, or how instinct or species survival fulfill it, is on you.)

    To ash, it seems like you agree with me that these things fail on their own. Are you saying that individually they don’t work, but together they do constitute some absolute good?

    I’ll repeat the C.S. Lewis quote: “When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.” (I need to give ‘Christian the Atheist’ credit for pointing me to an article containing this quote, I had forgotten it from ‘Abolition of Man’.)

    To AV, your statement: “In other words, what is wrong with an approach to thinking about right and wrong in which we don’t have to check our critical faculties at the door and blindly observe religious dogma?”

    I have done this. I explored atheism, and concpets of right and wrong without faith using only reason. In doing so I concluded there is no right and wrong. Tell me how you concluded otherwise. To the comment: “In any case, reason and argument are not dogmas,” I would say that your holding to an idea of right and wrong without proving it is a dogma. To the comment that I have “already rejected the use of reasoning in deciding moral questions,” show me how your reasoning concludes there is a right and wrong.

    Please, don’t respond to this by criticizing the many faults of theism, because I will agree with you. I am trying to understand atheist ethics. I am not trying to prove or disprove anything, just understand. I have had this discussion with high-profile atheists who have told me they think there is no right or wrong.

    If there is a right and wrong, what really is it, and how do you define “good.” If you can’t define it, or prove it, how do you say it exists?

    -Lee (the Theist)

    Also to the comment: “theistic dogmatism as a guide for determining law and public policy has (in my view) no place in a secular liberal democracy,” I would just say that my theism mainly asserts that we should love each other.

  • ash

    olvlzl,, i was actually referring to the idea of god-based faith, not the generalistic sense that you have explained (particually in your blog you linked to). as i understood it, you were taking the idea of faith to apply to all assumptions anyone can hold, be they based on either a god-system or the supposition that scientific ‘experts’ are right whether one personally has access to/specific knowledge of the field/theorum/original data or not. within those guidelines, yes, your point is valid.

    however, i was trying to make the point, by using Lee’s own words, that if you replace the ‘without’ to ‘with’, in the context of religious faith, the statement then appears to be highly condemnatious and has little or no room for tolerance and comprehension of an opposing viewpoint.

    i would further add that whilst you have categorically stated i am wrong, i didn’t see that what informs your sense of morality (your faith in the inherent rights of individuals) was argued from the perspective of an allusion to a god or supernatural power, rather it was rooted in the physical, material aspect of the reality of human experience.

    i have not tried to argue that science, logic and reason can or should inform all of our opinions (the nature of beauty, philosophy, art, existentialism etc), however, when taken with regard to this topic, ie politics, i do not see why religious views should be involved. also, i do not agree with the idea that only theism can can inform our morality, or even that there are moral absolutes that can supposedly be applied to all situations throughout the entire course of history and future. i feel that, yeah, religion has it’s place…not in my reasoning though, and certainly not in politics. if you disagree, could you please tell me why?

  • ash

    For everyone who says faith and theism can lead to horrible, wretched, awful outcomes, let me say again and again, I AGREE I AGREE I AGREE.

    LOL!!! brave man!

    I seem to have gotten a yes, a no, and an I don’t know.

    unlike most religious groups, atheism ain’t a society, there is no-one that can claim to speak on behalf of all atheists with any authority, so if you’re looking for a definitive answer or viewpoint, you’ll be disappointed.

    To ash, it seems like you agree with me that these things fail on their own. Are you saying that individually they don’t work, but together they do constitute some absolute good?

    broadly, yes. i think that to use absolutes will usually disguise a situations complexities (hence my liking for the terms perhaps, maybe, usually etc), and that as most situations are complex, trying to use only one rule, or an absolute, would be to ignore or disregard all the details. murder in self defence is still murder, and if judged by only one standard, or by an absolute of ‘do as you would be done by’ you could expect the same sentence for this as for murder with no extenuating circumstances. the human eye is a remarkable thing, but by itself, it’s pretty useless.

    In my theism, “the good” is defined by love for one another. It takes faith to embrace this, as it can never be proven.

    in my atheism, i’d argue that my sense of ‘good’ is defined by respect for others. can this be explained without faith? i’d say so, again through a combination of the factors that we’ve already discussed. perhaps olvlzl would disagree, but like i said, i see a disparity between religious-based faith, and a faith based on testable, changable theories (just to clarify).

    I explored atheism, and concpets of right and wrong without faith using only reason. In doing so I concluded there is no right and wrong. Tell me how you concluded otherwise.

    it’s not that there is no right or wrong, it’s more that ideals of right and wrong are not informed on an immutable base and are therefore subject to question and change. again, i’d have to point out that even the idea of religious moral absolutes are subject to question, change and exception. i’ll refer to holy books again because it cannot be claimed that ancient writings and practises have no relevance to modern day conceptions. polygamy was once considered perfectly ok and moral, but is now widely regarded as wrong. issues such as rape have not always been condemned. even whole scale murder by gods has been viewed as morally just.

    my theism mainly asserts that we should love each other.

    unfortunately, it would appear that many, theists, atheists and even gods do not share your noble convictions.

  • Darryl

    I don’t know why I bother because you clearly aren’t listening to anyone.

    Ditto that. You just keep saying the same thing in other words. Clearly you want to justify your decision to keep your faith. Fine. Just don’t try to make us think that there is a point to this discussion.

    You have framed this discussion in terms of categories that are a product and a concern of ancient thought. You ought to be asking whether the categories are any longer useful. You assert a dilemma that presupposes these categories–eliminate the categories and you eliminate the dilemma. You are arguing in a vacuum.

  • http://fivepublicopinions.blogspot.com AV

    For everyone who says faith and theism can lead to horrible, wretched, awful outcomes, let me say again and again, I AGREE I AGREE I AGREE.

    But you don’t seem to have paid enough attention to why faith and theism can lead to bad outcomes. They don’t attempt to substantiate their claims or to test them against the real world. They make no attempt to convince anyone of the truth of their claims–they simply insist that you accept them, and that’s that.

    In atheism, how do you define what is good? I don’t see how you can in an absolute sense.

    I agree. And as an atheist I would never claim to be able to define what is good in an absolute sense. But theism cannot do this either. It claims or pretends to be able to do so, but this is simply argument by assertion. No evidence is (or has yet been) provided in support of the claim that theists have the ability to define what is good in an absolute sense.

    I know Ash argued against this analogy, but I do think this would be like defining what tastes good, it depends on the person.

    I argued against it too. And you have not provided any evidence to support your claim that a non-theistic approach to defining the good is like defining what tastes good–you simply assert that it is so.

    To Vincent, it seems you are putting the burden of proof on me to show these things don’t work, instead of proving they do.

    Well yes: if you are making a positive knowledge claim to the effect that “x, y and z non-theistic methods of determining what is right and good don’t work,” then the burden of proof indeed rests upon you. We are under no obligation to accept your claim if you are not prepared to substantiate it.

    Just like defining what a person “should” eat depends on what the person wants to achieve by eating, defining what a person “should do” depends on what the person wants to achieve in life.

    Why does it (only) depend on that?

    In my theism, “the good” is defined by love for one another. It takes faith to embrace this, as it can never be proven.

    It also depends upon how “love for one another” is defined. I recall a fundamentalist commenter on my blog arguing that the “loving” thing to do is to teach schoolchildren pseudoscientific anti-homosexual propaganda. There is a Christian ministry that promises to “convert” homosexual teens that calls itself “Love in Action.” You might claim that they are using the concept of “love” incorrectly, but what would give you the authority to make such a claim? If you agree with this use of the term “love,” then just about anything–no matter how horrid, wretched or awful–can be justified if it is motivated (or if it is claimed to be motivated) by “love for one another.”

    I’ll repeat the C.S. Lewis quote: “When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.”

    Appeal to authority fallacy.

    I have done this. I explored atheism, and concpets of right and wrong without faith using only reason. In doing so I concluded there is no right and wrong.

    What you seem to be asserting is this. There are no good reasons not to murder people, once you eliminate the bad reasons (bad because they are not really “reasons” at all): (i) because God says so, or (ii) because murder is wrong because its wrong because its wrong because its wrong (at which point the one advancing this claim sticks his fingers in his hears and chants “lalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalalala”).

    Now what I think you’ll find is there are likely to be a great many theists who would disagree with you. I think there are likely to be a great many theists who can think of many a mundane, non-theistic reason why we should murder or steal from each other–without either appealing to supernatural consequences or arguing by fiat. (And I think it would be doing a grave disservice to theists to think otherwise.) You might come up with counterarguments to their arguments, and they might respond with counterarguments to yours–thus is the nature of reasoned debate. What I have suggested is that it is through this process of reasoned debate and discussion that we can reach tentative conclusions about what is right and good. Not final conclusions. Not absolute conclusions. The non-dogmatist does not pretend to be able to reach absolute conclusions about right and good; the dogmatist does pretend this. The non-dogmatist advocates that it is through discussion and debate that we should seek to define the right and the good–even if we can only do so in a tentative way; the dogmatist simply seeks to close down discussion and debate altogether.

    To the comment: “In any case, reason and argument are not dogmas,” I would say that your holding to an idea of right and wrong without proving it is a dogma.

    But how does that prove that reason and argument are dogmas?

    To the comment that I have “already rejected the use of reasoning in deciding moral questions,” show me how your reasoning concludes there is a right and wrong.

    My reasoning does not conclude that there is a right and wrong–if by that you mean an absolute sense of right and wrong. I have already acknowledged that I do not know or cannot see how one can arrive at absolute conclusions about right and wrong through the use of reason. I have also maintained that I cannot see–and you have not proven–that one can arrive at absolute conclusions about right and wrong by appealing to supernatural authority or arguing by fiat.

    All I have claimed is that we can, through the use of reasoned debate and discussion, and (I might add) evidence, reach tentative conclusions about how individuals and groups ought to behave.

    I am trying to understand atheist ethics.

    I think you should instead try to understand that there is no single atheist ethics. Different atheists will take different approaches to ethical questions, and I personally cannot claim to speak on behalf of the atheist community. What I can tell you is that the idea of a single atheist way of thinking about ethics is an illusion–a strawman.

    I have had this discussion with high-profile atheists who have told me they think there is no right or wrong.

    Well, now you’ve met a low-profile atheist who agrees with them: I have not seen any evidence to suggest that there is an absolute right or wrong, so I have no reason to believe that there is an absolute right or wrong.

    Also to the comment: “theistic dogmatism as a guide for determining law and public policy has (in my view) no place in a secular liberal democracy,” I would just say that my theism mainly asserts that we should love each other.

    But you are advocating, are you not, that faith play a role in government?

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    AV, as I said earlier history is able to demonstrate the virtues of assuming that people have inherent rights due to what happens in the absence of that assumption. History is really superior to the various schools of psychology, etc. that are the fields actively in denial of those rights when it comes to making discoveries in this area. Unlike, say Evolutionary Psychology or Pinker-style cognitive speculation, the facts of history can be relied on to have actually existed. The demonstrated evils of the denial of inherent rights are undeniable they are proof of what happens in the real world.

    Having followed several of the modern manifestations of biological determinism, eg. Behaviorism, I’ve never been impressed with the actual objectivity of their bases. They all begin with models and bend “evidence” to suit their predispositions. Evolutionary Psychology, the current fad in this area is largely based on nothing more than making up stories about life in a period from which we have absolutely no physical or cultural evidence of things such as family life, gender relations, political organization,… But that doesn’t stop them from making up a phony cultural history to explain why and how people are the product of genetic determination. It isn’t really science, it’s myth making. And that isn’t even getting into the sloppy original sins of the social sciences, conflation and reification. History, to be credible, has to at least show that what they are talking about actually happened or existed. History is the logical choice for learning about politics and human societies, not the latest fad of the pseudo-sciences.

    I assume you are actually going to look deeply and critically at the claims of Dawkins, Pinker, etc. since you are asking me to ‘prove’ that inherent rights exist. Of course, no one can “prove” such a thing exists or doesn’t exist, proof is a burden that is seldom met in even the real sciences and those things “proved” are always open to modification or even over-turning as knowledge progresses. Contingency is the rule in scientific “proof”. Math, of course, is an entirely differnt matter. Math actually can practice proof without the need of quotation marks. Since history demonstrates the horrors that come when rights are assumed to not exist, I’d say that the burden of proof is on those who want to risk repeating what has happened when pseudo-scientific biological determinism is adopted by a political and economic elite as an organizing principle in politics and society. I’m not willing to take their word for it without giving a very skeptical look at their “evidence”.

  • http://fivepublicopinions.blogspot.com AV

    AV, as I said earlier history is able to demonstrate the virtues of assuming that people have inherent rights due to what happens in the absence of that assumption.

    But that’s not what you said. You didn’t say that we should assume or act as if people have inherent rights–an idea which I personally have no difficulties with, by the way; you claimed that these rights are absolute.

    History is really superior to the various schools of psychology, etc. that are the fields actively in denial of those rights when it comes to making discoveries in this area.

    I’m sorry, but how does history prove that inherent rights exist? Certainly the case can be made that history shows what can go wrong if we don’t pretend that inherent rights exist, but that does not constitute evidence that inherent rights exist–all it provides is a good reason for embracing the notion of inherent rights as a necessary legal fiction.

    Unlike, say Evolutionary Psychology or Pinker-style cognitive speculation, the facts of history can be relied on to have actually existed.

    What one makes of such facts–what moral lessons one can draw–on the other hand, is itself a matter of great speculation. (And you’ll have to do a lot more to convince me that history is more objective than the natural sciences than simply asserting that it is so.)

    I assume you are actually going to look deeply and critically at the claims of Dawkins, Pinker, etc. since you are asking me to ‘prove’ that inherent rights exist.

    I don’t recall mentioning Dawkins, Pinker, etc., and perhaps you can point out where I have. Or are you simply assuming the existence of an Atheist Hive Mind, such that everything uttered by Certain Famous Evil Baby-eating Atheist Scientists will be automatically and unquestioningly agreed with by every single atheist on the planet?

    Evolutionary Psychology, the current fad in this area is largely based on nothing more than making up stories about life in a period from which we have absolutely no physical or cultural evidence of things such as family life, gender relations, political organization

    Strawman. (And you accuse others of making things up!)

    Oh, you disagree with me? OK: please provide evidence that Evolutionary Psychology is “largely based on nothing more than making up stories.”

    Of course, no one can “prove” such a thing exists or doesn’t exist, proof is a burden that is seldom met in even the real sciences and those things “proved” are always open to modification or even over-turning as knowledge progresses.

    OK–please provide the evidence that inherent rights exists. You’re right that real sciences don’t work on proof–but the conclusions that they do reach are based on evidence. You’ve made the claim that inherent rights exist; if you want to convince anybody of the truth of this claim, the onus is on you to substantiate it with evidence.

    I’d say that the burden of proof is on those who want to risk repeating what has happened when pseudo-scientific biological determinism is adopted by a political and economic elite as an organizing principle in politics and society.

    Why is it pseudoscientific? Off hand, I’d say you’re applying the label “pseudoscience” to ideas that you personally don’t like. But perhaps you can show me how the ideas you label as pseudoscientific are indeed pseudoscientific.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    Having followed several of the modern manifestations of biological determinism, eg. Behaviorism

    I realized later that, of course, the right term would have been “psychological determinism”, though in the end it all comes down to the denial of free wil and, will ironies never cease, the impotence of reason to determine behaviorl.

    I would really like a detailed explaination of how the devotees of Dawkins, Pinker, etc. can explain how they can justify a belief in individual rights, democracy, etc. when their materialism would seem to justify only that people are essentially machines that follow a program of some complexity. As mentioned above, I’ve known materialists who advocate individual rights and democracy and that I suspect they do so on the basis of fudging. If that’s it, that’s a kind of intellectual fudging that I would like to encourage.

    I suspect that the belief in biological and psychological determinism, as it gains currency in the semi-educated, will undermine the devotion to democracy and freedom. I suspect it’s a road to despotism.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    AV, their atheism is of absolutely no interest to me. The knee-jerk defense by atheists of any huckster who is an atheist who gratifies them by slamming religion, including making them above any criticism, is one of the major weaknesses of pop-atheism.

    I hold that rights are absolute UNITL they impinge on the rights of other people, that is not the same thing as holding that they are absolute in every case. I rely on the fact that the exercise of rights that do not impinge on other beings is, in fact, harmless. It is the creation of harm that causes the limits on rights. The preception of what constitutes harm is a large part of what the negotiation of rights consists of, that is a more complex matter than I am going to go into here. It is what necessitates the existence of politics.

    Evolutionary Psychology is a pseudo-science because it is based in phony methodology. It has all of the bad habits of the old Sociobiology, the afforementioned reification and conflation, myth-making, assuming that things not proven to be the same “behavior” are actually the same thing only because they care called the same thing. The practice of doing “studies” to back up their story telling is in no way different from the practices of the previous schools of psychological speculation that have fallen out of fashion. Behaviorism is a very good example because it was at its zenith of reputability just before it crashed into disrepute. I suspect that the same is going to happen to EP, that is if it doesn’t morph into yet another “science”.

    You ask me to “prove” to you that EP is based in storytelling? Ok, where is the physical evidence or historical record that supports anything that the practitioners of EP have said about family life, gender rolds, political organization, etc. in the period before writing began? Their stock and trade is the creation of such stories and conducting “studies” to support their stories as having an existence in the present day. As mentioned, those “studies” are not much different from those that “supported” the previous schools of psychological speculation.

    If you are willing to foregoe your political rights unless they can be demonstrated scientifically to exist, that’s your business. I don’t think that if it was put to people in a way that they could understand that they would be willing to just let the biological determinists suspend their political rights anymore than they would allow religious fundamentalists to suspend them on the basis of their authority. As I mentioned here the other day, I’d shed blood to protect those rights.

  • http://fivepublicopinions.blogspot.com AV

    I’m interested in your thoughts on which rights are inherent, and which aren’t, and by what criteria one determines the inherent rights from the non-inherent rights.

    The practice of doing “studies” to back up their story telling is in no way different from the practices of the previous schools of psychological speculation that have fallen out of fashion.

    Doing research in order to test a claim is pseudoscientific?

    You haven’t really given me a good reason to consider EP a pseudoscience. Does it make unfalsifiable claims, like ID does? Does it assume the truth of its conclusions a priori, then look for evidence that seems to fit the conclusions, like creationism does?

    If all it is doing is advancing speculations and hypotheses about why humans behave they way they do, and whether certain aspects of human behaviour can be explained in evolutionary terms, then I can’t see how that is pseudoscientific.

    As mentioned above, I’ve known materialists who advocate individual rights and democracy and that I suspect they do so on the basis of fudging.

    Why? A non-theist could advance the thesis, much along the same lines as you have in a previous post, that a human society that does not embrace the recognition of individual rights and democracy as necessary legal fictions cannot remain viable. Or they could simply advance the thesis that such legal fictions make for a better society, even if their absence is not fatal. Neither of these propositions requires a belief in God; nor are they made any stronger or more convincing if the arguer appeals to the supernatural.

    AV, their atheism is of absolutely no interest to me. The knee-jerk defense by atheists of any huckster who is an atheist who gratifies them by slamming religion, including making them above any criticism, is one of the major weaknesses of pop-atheism.

    But what relevance does this have to my argument–since I mentioned neither Dawkins nor Pinker? It seems that you’re the one who is being “knee-jerk” here.

    You ask me to “prove” to you that EP is based in storytelling?

    I asked you for evidence that EP is based in storytelling. Not assertion. Evidence.

    If you are willing to foregoe your political rights unless they can be demonstrated scientifically to exist, that’s your business.

    Where did I say that? More knee-jerkery on your part. Strawmen arguments contribute nothing to honest debate.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    You know, AV, I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that the word “strawman” is a sign that the side using it can’t think of what to say. If you think that rights aren’t there, then why shouldn’t I ask you the question?

    If you aren’t aware of the methods of EP that isn’t my fault. Anything anyone says making assertions about the behaviors of pre-historic people and our nearest ancestors other than the most general assumptions based on the physical record are telling stories. EP constantly makes up stories about the behaviors of these people without any basis whatsoever. I mentioned the fable that Dawkins, himself, told on Terry Gross’ program to “explain” how religious belief is the product of evolutionary adaptations. I assume he did so to back up the absurd writings of Daniel Dennett, his rather pathetic version of Thomas Huxley. I would request you go do some reading about the theories and methodology of EP before you accuse me of distorting their practices. The creation of explainatory myths to explain the world in terms of a predetermined theory or ideology is exactly the same thing that the various writers of Genesis did. Exactly the same thing.

    Did I say you were the one who mentioned Dawkins or Pinker? I did out of the assumption that bringing up two of today’s more prominent biological determinists would be safe ground in a discussion of the subject. I assure you if this was forty years ago I’d bring up Skinner, but he’s sort of gone the way of Freud, fashionwise.

    What rights do I hold to be inherent? The right to life, freedom of thought, speech, equality, bodily integrity and ownership,…. that’s enough to be getting on with. Since none of these can be “proven” to exist by the methods of science which ones are you willing to forgoe? Or how can you, on the basis of your ideology defend their practice? How would a biological determinist explain why any or everyone of them should not be brushed aside? I think it’s time for the mechanistic materialists to answer these questions and I’ll continue asking until I get an answer whenever the subject comes up.

  • http://fivepublicopinions.blogspot.com AV

    You know, AV, I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that the word “strawman” is a sign that the side using it can’t think of what to say.

    Wrong. What it means is that you are misrepresenting my argument or putting words into my mouth–whether in err or out of malice–rather than having to deal with what I have actually said. It’s not a particularly honest way to conduct debate.

    If you think that rights aren’t there, then why shouldn’t I ask you the question?

    I haven’t seen any evidence that these rights are inherent or absolute. And you haven’t provided me with such evidence. And I’ll keep asking for it until you do.

    I mentioned the fable that Dawkins, himself, told on Terry Gross’ program to “explain” how religious belief is the product of evolutionary adaptations.

    I assume he’s simply offering this as an explanation, not claiming it as established fact. (And I am basing this assumption on my having read The God Delusion, where he does the same thing.) Simply offering an explanation for something that is currently unexplained in science–such as the fact that most humans have religious beliefs–I cannot see how this can be described as pseudoscientific. Otherwise you’d have to rule out any kind of hypothesising.

    Are you telling me that you can absolutely rule out an evolutionary explanation for religious belief? If so, what is your evidence? And I’m sure the scientific community would be very interested in your findings.

    I would request you go do some reading about the theories and methodology of EP before you accuse me of distorting their practices.

    Where did I make this accusation?

    Since none of these can be “proven” to exist by the methods of science which ones are you willing to forgoe?

    I don’t see how the fact that they can’t, as you claim, be proven to exist by the methods of science has any bearing on whether they ought to be embraced as necessary legal fictions.

    Or how can you, on the basis of your ideology defend their practice?

    Nothing to do with my “ideology,” whatever you want to tell me that is. I think that human societies are more viable, and more likely to flourish, if the kinds of rights that you have listed are respected and enshrined in law (and it is to the detriment of these societies if such rights are not respected). I cannot prove this (which is not the same thing as saying that it cannot be substantiated), but I agree with you that history provides enough evidence to support my supposition.

    How would a biological determinist explain why any or everyone of them should not be brushed aside?

    Why don’t you ask one?

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    AV, if you hold that there is no such a thing as an inherent right you could fairly be asked:
    1, If you believed that people possessed rights.
    2, How they would come by those rights.
    3, Under what conditions would they retain those rights.
    4, And, most pertainantly, which of your rights you are prepared to sacrifice on the alter of biological determinism.
    Your calling the most basic civil rights “legal fictions” would lead any resonable person to assume you are quite prepared to abridge or abolish their freedom. Which, I’m sorry to say, I’ve found to be true of more and more materialists and true believers of scientism.

    If you resent the tone of my pointing out the logical conclusions, to yourself, that you position necessitates, you really have to expect that kind of thing if you are going to continue in the business of calling peoples’ rights into question. I certainly intend to encourage people to consider the full implications of biological determinism.

    Your calling Dawkins’ explainatory fable an “explaination” doesn’t change the fact that it is entirely made up on the basis of absolutely no physical evidence of any kind AND in service to his chosen orthodoxy. That is exactly the same thing that other fundamentalists of a religious nature do in service to their orthodoxy. If you object to the term “fundamentalist” in the previous sentence, it was used by Stephen Gould to describe exactly the school in question, I didn’t make it up. Where there is no physical evidence there can be no science, that is absolutely unassailable. Science absolutely depends on the existence of physical evidence or it is no better than rather bad science fiction.

  • Vincent

    Lee (if you’re still here after the back and forth that just happened)
    I keep hearing the same thing from you, and it sounds like this:
    “I have studied atheism and have decided that it cannot provide me with invisible pink unicorns.”

    So why do you need invisible pink unicorns?
    Does having faith give you an invisible pink unicorn?
    If so, show it to me.

    In other words, you say atheism does not provide for absolute right/wrong. Most, if not all of the respondents agreed with you.
    That’s not a criticism of atheism unless you can prove (A) that absolutes in fact exist and that (B) theism provides them, and that (C) they are worth having.

    You just seem to keep coming back with “but where are your invisible pink unicorns?” That’s why I get the impression you aren’t listening. You have never addressed your underlying assumptions and you keep asking for what we keep saying doesn’t exist.

  • Lee (the Theist)

    I will answer all of the above questions / observations tonight when I have time. For right now, to AV or ash or Vincent or Darryl or anyone (I think I know what olvlzl, no ism, no ist thinks)

    What is the definition of right, as simply as you think it can be stated?

    -Lee (the Theist)

  • Lee (the Theist)

    To clarify the question, I am asking to give a definition of non-absolute right and wrong.

    -Lee (the Theist)

  • Lee (the Theist)

    Sorry for the third clarification, but I am trying to figure out if some here are saying ABSOLUTE right and wrong doesn’t exist but that right and wrong does exist, or that right and wrong doesn’t exist even in a non-absolute form. If right and wrong does exist in a non-absolute form, how is it defined? If it doesn’t exist at all, please say it doesn’t so I can be clear on it.

    -Lee (the Theist)

  • Lee (the Theist)

    I know everyone took a lot of time to answer my previous questions, and for that I want to say thanks.

    I did anticipate this at some point the discussion would come to an end, and perhaps the end is now. From the beginning I foresaw the discussion ending when I pressed for a definition of right and wrong, which is why in the first post I mentioned my fear of people not answering.

    I would like to draw a comparison between theism, and non-faith based concepts of right and wrong.

    A theist may argue God exists, even though the theist can’t explain what God is, or prove God exists.

    I hear people arguing right and wrong exist in a non-absolute sense, and haven’t heard a clear definition of what it is, or proof that right and wrong exist (even in the non absolute sense).

    A theist may argue that we should act as if God exists, even if we can’t prove it.

    Many who claim not to use faith seem to act as if right and wrong exist in some form and yet not have a problem with it. AV said that he has no problem acting “as if” right and wrong exist, while at the same time admitting there is no absolute right and wrong. He even suggested embracing inherent rights as “necessary legal fiction.”

    I hear people harshly criticizing theism for abandoning critical reasoning, yet I see the exact same logic applied to concepts of right and wrong by non faith based perspectives.

    To Vincent, you asked why I need invisible pink unicorns, I will answer this way. It is a matter of consistency. Without faith I have concluded there is no right and wrong. Every day, I act as if I believe there is a right and wrong, even when I have tried to convince myself it is “a fiction”. I embrace faith, because I can’t help but act as if it is true. You might argue that this feeling of a right and wrong is hard wired into me proving nothing, and you might be right. Since no one here will come forth and say there is no right and wrong at all, it seems that some may share this cognitive dissonance.

    Without giving too much personal information away in cyberspace, I will say that I am in the scientific field of immunology, and specifically autoimmune diseases. I do highly value science and reason, and take offence to references that because people are faith-based, they must by definition abandon reason.

    I have always held that, if someone truly understands something, they should be able to explain it in a way that a high school student could understand. Steven Hawkins does this in “A Brief History of Time” when he explains relativity and string theory in terms I can grasp. Richard Dawkins is excellent at explaining scientific concepts in understandable ways. When people can’t explain things, even complex immune system cell functions, in such a way I usually question if they understand them or just think they do.

    I can put my definition of right and wrong clearly and simply. Right is in accordance with what is good. Good is defined by God’s will, which is that we love one another. You can argue this is wrong, and I can’t defeat you, but at least I defined it.

    For as much criticism as I am getting for that definition, I can’t get any clear definition from anyone else of what right is. Ash, I do appreciate your calm and respectful answers. I know that you are saying right is some combination of many things, and the “the eye by itself being useless” concept is a good one, but I just don’t think you are being very clear on exactly what that combination actually is. Also, if you put “respect for others” as your good, and someone else puts “survival of the species” for theirs, there is no deciding who is right, which is to say there is no right. I’m not talking right in an absolute sense; I am just talking about right in any sense at all. An answer that right is too complex to define I don’t think is an answer, or definition.

    AV, I asked you what is good, and you told me you could not define it in an absolute sense. But then you didn’t define it in a non-absolute sense. I say “what is right?” and you answer “there is no absolute right, only tentative right” but then don’t explain what “tentative right” is in a clear way. To me tentative implies a final, so I am still confused by your use of that term. To the burden of proof, I am not claiming atheist ethics don’t work. I will say with confidence that many atheists are the most ethical people I know, and would trust them in government. I have never said there are not good non-theist reasons to avoid murdering someone. I am saying that without faith the classic concepts of right and wrong do not exist. You say they do, so you need to prove they do.

    When creationists are put on the spot to explain inconsistencies in their views on things like the flood and the age of the universe with respect to scientific evidence, they often become defensive and angry and try to avoid the question. They walk away while rolling their eyes. Darryl, you just choose not to answer my legitimate question and called the discussion pointless. Creationists do this a lot too.

    Many people seem to be caught between being unable to define right, and refusing to say it doesn’t exist.

    At my very first post, I defined intellectual dishonesty in part as avoiding a good question. I feel my simple question of “what is right and wrong” is being ignored. I think this is because, without faith, they really don’t exist, even in a non-absolute sense. Without faith it would be more accurate to replace right and wrong with terms describing actions as “legal, illegal, advantageous to survival, detrimental to society, a cause of suffering, against the social contract, etc.”

    I am willing to entertain any simple definition of right and wrong that doesn’t incorporate faith, but unless one is put forth, I am not sure where the discussion can go.

    As for the previous questions put forth to me on why I prefer faith in government, lets look at our founding document from a non-faith based standpoint:

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

    Clearly, America has gone wrong since the declaration of independence was written, and unfortunately has not applied these unalienable rights to all people, but I choose to believe they exist.

    Without embracing faith, here is a critique of the above paragraph:

    You can’t say something is true because it is true, so calling everyone equal and endowed with rights because it is self evident is not rational, you must prove it. There are no absolutes, and therefore we do not have unalienable rights. In fact, the jury is currently out on whether there concept of right and wrong exists at all. There certainly is no absolute right and wrong. If there happens to be a right and wrong, it doesn’t seem to be something easily definable or something 95% of the public would understand anyway.

    This is why I choose to embrace faith based government. Faith defined as holding something to be true that you can not prove. I want my government to hold as truth that I have rights that can not be violated to serve some other purpose, like survival of the species or welfare of the community.

    To all of the questions about how we determine the absolutes, I do believe they are self evident, as our founding fathers did. Concepts of rights and freedoms haven’t changed in thousands of years. I think people can be blinded from seeing them by things such as pride, greed, envy, hunger for revenge, gluttony, lust, etc. which is why there is the need for questioning, debate, and change. To anyone who argues that faith based government is inflexible, just look at how much America has changed in 200 years even though its government is full of faith based concepts.

    To “olvlzl no ism no ist”, I am intrigued by your concepts of absolute right in the absence of a creator, and will try to read more of your discussions on the other blogs that you have referenced.

    If anyone wants to take this further I am willing, but it seems to be ending. If someone wants to take this further, please do so by first defining right and wrong, or saying it doesn’t exist.

    Thanks for everyone’s time and ideas. I hope everyone knows that I do have respect for atheism, see atheists as very ethical, and as I have said before, would elect an atheist as president.

    -Lee (the Theist)

  • ash

    hi Lee, i’ll do my best to try and answer you

    the problem in your asking for a clear definition of right and wrong from a moral relativism perspective is that moral relativism doesn’t work that way – i can tell you what would inform my decisions, as i and others already have, but i cannot make broad sweeping statements of ethics that would apply wholesale to any given situation; that would be a position of absolutism. do you see the problem? therefore, whilst one can argue for certain standards, these have to be flexible, open to change and dependant on specific circumstances. for example, should we invade a foreign country where we believe the people need to be liberated? absolutism – yes. i would wish to be free if i were oppressed. moral relativism – i need more details before i can decide whether this would be a right moral action, ie, why do we claim they are oppressed? are those people asking for intervention? will we cause more damage by this form of action than another? will we exacerbate their circumstances, what weapons will we use? etc…

    it is easier to define a moral standpoint that can be boiled down to a slogan than one that by its very nature is dependant on relativity to the situation.

    AV said that he has no problem acting “as if” right and wrong exist, while at the same time admitting there is no absolute right and wrong. He even suggested embracing inherent rights as “necessary legal fiction.”

    i think the point here was that these are concepts, and they need us to slap a label on them to make them exist – or, i do not believe that such concepts exist independently of concious thought. i am not claiming that there is no right or wrong at all, merely that these are invented concepts necessary for even basic social cohesion.

    I know that you are saying right is some combination of many things, but I just don’t think you are being very clear on exactly what that combination actually is.

    quick allegory for you; morality as a minefield where the mines have the potential to change position every 10 seconds. i could not draw you a definitive map because the moral situations (mines) change. the combination can always alter, so we have to tread carefully, work with new info as we receive it, and apply our route accordingly.

    if you put “respect for others” as your good, and someone else puts “survival of the species” for theirs, there is no deciding who is right, which is to say there is no right.

    no, there is careful navigation and negotiation between views to find the best or least harmful solution for all parties, the search for a moral right despite contradictory opinions.

    an absolutist could claim to know a definitive safe route, but does risk coming a cropper – see

    monkeymind said, July 14, 2007 at 10:10 pm stories of the incomparable Mullah Nasruddin

    To all of the questions about how we determine the absolutes, I do believe they are self evident

    the problem here is that if they were self evident, you yourself would have been able to come up with more than just ‘do as you would be done by’.

    From the beginning I foresaw the discussion ending when I pressed for a definition of right and wrong

    this sounds a tad self-defeating, in that it appears you were looking for an absolute definition, which for the reasons i’ve given, was never gonna happen, further it sounds like this is the only answer that you’d be happy with. again, highly problematic.

  • http://fivepublicopinions.blogspot.com AV

    AV, if you hold that there is no such a thing as an inherent right

    For the record, I haven’t offered an opinion on this one way or the other. What I have asked for is the evidence that there is such a thing as an inherent right.

    (And I notice that you still haven’t answered my question on what the criteria is by which we may distinguish inherent from non-inherent rights.)

    And, most pertainantly, which of your rights you are prepared to sacrifice on the alter of biological determinism.

    Obviously you have a wheelbarrow to push here, but I don’t recall mentioning anything about sacrificing rights on the altar of biological determinism. That you persist in such strawmen reveals (to any reasonable person) your unwillingness to engage in honest debate.

    In short: stop telling lies. It does your argument no credit.

    Your calling the most basic civil rights “legal fictions” would lead any resonable person to assume you are quite prepared to abridge or abolish their freedom.

    What it means–and all it means–is that these most basic civil rights are man-made. This does not mean that they are any less valuable. What it does mean is that we ought to be able to give reasons for why we think they are valuable. We ought to be able to give reasons for why it is good that we have the right to freedom of expression, or religious freedom, for instance.

    My question is: what reasons would you offer to someone (not me–despite the fact that I am an evil baby-eating atheist (hang on, I think I heard the microwave beeping)) who doesn’t believe that people should have the right to freedom of expression, or belief? Simply asserting that these rights are inherent will not do–not without supporting evidence at any rate–because that would be tantamount to the claim that “it is good to embrace the right to x because, because, well . . . just because.” That’s not an argument; it’s a cop-out.

    I think we need to separate the “is” from the “ought” in this discussion. Are there basic civil rights? Insofar as there is legislation enshrining them, then yes. Do they exist in some ineffable, absolute sense? I don’t know, but I would like to see evidence one way or another–I’m not just going to accept that they do on your say-so. Ought we to embrace (and legislate) these rights? That is a separate question–and I don’t think “just because” is a satisfactory answer.

    Your calling Dawkins’ explainatory fable an “explaination” doesn’t change the fact that it is entirely made up on the basis of absolutely no physical evidence of any kind AND in service to his chosen orthodoxy.

    Again, you obviously have an axe to grind here, and I’m not going to accept this allegation on your say-so without evidence.

    if you are going to continue in the business of calling peoples’ rights into question.

    Whose rights have I called into question? All I’m suggesting is that if we believe that these rights ought to exist we need to give reasons why, and not just argue by fiat.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com/ olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    AV, why not come clean, do you believe that there are rights that all people hold simply because they are people?

    I suppose a “right” assumed under a contract, assuming the contract was freely entered into by all parties, would constitute a right that was not inherent. I would be more likely to analyze such a “right” as a privilege. Under our rather foetid legal system today such “rights” are accorded more respect than real rights. Such is the security of civil rights when they are not given special respect.

    You seem to think I care that you are an atheist, I don’t. As I’ve mentioned at least twice in this exchange I’ve known atheists who believed in inherent rights and the governmental system that belief necessitates. I haven’t questioned them about how they would square that with a mechanistic view of human personality, alas, most of those people have gone on to their final reward (I believe) and so can’t enlighten me as to how they managed what would seem to be unlikely if not impossible. I’m finding fewer and fewer of such atheists today, most seem to be under the influence of some form of biological determinism, have little confidence in peoples’ ability to think independently and, in the worst cases, have no faith in democracy. Most of the last group are snobs who seem to believe in some sort of oligarchy in which they imagine they will be part of the elite, innocent as they are.

    Axe to grind, why because I don’t hold Dawkins or Pinker to be sacrosanct and above criticism? I was writing critiques of Dawkins before his latest hobby career as the successor to Madalyn Murry (God, do I miss that woman,pop atheists used to be so much more fun back then), I had no interest or thought to his views on religion. That was during his “selfish genes” period. I continued to criticize him in his second hobby career, the “meme” period. I’ve got a feeling that “memes” and his latest gig as the atheist pope are evidence that he has less than complete faith in EP. That would be logical since every single other speculation based attempt at psychology has had a very limited shelf life.

    I doubt anything I could tell you about EP would be something you believe, I’d advise you to look at what Gould had to say about it. You could fruitfully look at the critiques of Sociobiology (which is what they used to call EP). If you don’t notice the story telling then I’m afraid you won’t see much else, since that’s really just about all there is to it.

  • http://kellygorski.blogspot.com Kelly

    Nope. No faith in government. Faith cannot drive our decisions. We are smarter than that, and we deserve better. There. End of debate.

    Whew. That was easy.

  • http://fivepublicopinions.blogspot.com AV

    AV said that he has no problem acting “as if” right and wrong exist, while at the same time admitting there is no absolute right and wrong. He even suggested embracing inherent rights as “necessary legal fiction.”

    What I would add, however, is that we need to be prepared to justify (in the case of morality) why we think people should or should not behave in certain ways, and (in the case of rights) why we think it is beneficial that we recognise these rights, and detrimental if these rights are denied.

    I hear people harshly criticizing theism for abandoning critical reasoning, yet I see the exact same logic applied to concepts of right and wrong by non faith based perspectives.

    Tu quoque fallacy. What’s wrong with critical reasoning?

    I do highly value science and reason, and take offence to references that because people are faith-based, they must by definition abandon reason.

    But you yourself are advocating–are you not–that we, and the government, ought to abandon reason in the area of ethics.

    I can put my definition of right and wrong clearly and simply. Right is in accordance with what is good. Good is defined by God’s will, which is that we love one another. You can argue this is wrong, and I can’t defeat you, but at least I defined it.

    But you haven’t defined it, because there is no clear definition of what “loving one another” entails. According to certain Christian fundamentalists, it entails noisily disrupting a Hindu chaplain reading a prayer before the US Senate–and who would you be to declare them wrong? All you’ve done is attempt to explain a mystery (what is “God’s will?”) with another mystery.

    Furthermore, what reasons would you give to a non-theist for why we should love each other?

    Also, if you put “respect for others” as your good, and someone else puts “survival of the species” for theirs, there is no deciding who is right, which is to say there is no right.

    Who is to say that these two goals–”survival of the species” and “respect for others”–are necessarily mutually exclusive?

    I’m not talking right in an absolute sense; I am just talking about right in any sense at all.

    By “right and wrong” I am referring to ethics/morality in a general sense–how people ought or ought not to behave.

    AV, I asked you what is good, and you told me you could not define it in an absolute sense. But then you didn’t define it in a non-absolute sense.

    What I meant is that you seem to be asking for an Atheist Guide to Right and Wrong–a kind of Atheist Code of Ethics or Bible–and I responded that there is none. Different atheists will have different ideas about right and wrong, depending upon their own worldviews and perspectives. Conservative atheists will have ideas about right and wrong that will differ from those of libertarian atheists, who will in turn differ from socialist atheists, and so on.

    I say “what is right?” and you answer “there is no absolute right, only tentative right” but then don’t explain what “tentative right” is in a clear way. To me tentative implies a final, so I am still confused by your use of that term.

    Dictionary.com defines “tentative” as “of the nature of or made or done as a trial, experiment, or attempt; experimental,” so I can’t see how it implies “final.” Scientific facts are often referred to as “tentative,” in the sense that while they are based on evidence, there is always the possibility that they will be overturned upon the discovery of new evidence.

    I see a non-theistic approach to moral reasoning in similar terms: conclusions about how people ought to behave can be reached through sound reasoning, debate, and appeals to evidence. They are tentative in the sense that they can always potentially be overturned by more convincing counter-arguments, a better understanding of the facts, and so on. And so the conversation continues.

    I have never said there are not good non-theist reasons to avoid murdering someone.

    Well, if there are good non-theist reasons for not murdering people, then why do we need a theistic reason? What does “Because God says so” add?

    Many people seem to be caught between being unable to define right, and refusing to say it doesn’t exist.

    You yourself have alluded to two definitions of “right”: your own (=God’s will=loving one another), and the “classic” definition–which you have not defined.

    Perhaps the problem is that we’re all speaking past each other, and need to agree upon what we mean when we say “right and wrong.”

    Without faith it would be more accurate to replace right and wrong with terms describing actions as “legal, illegal, advantageous to survival, detrimental to society, a cause of suffering, against the social contract, etc.”

    I think many of us are using “right and wrong” as shorthand for the above (I think I am). But I think that, in the absence of any evidence of absolute right and wrong, independent of these, it is the best we–any of us, theist and atheist alike–can do. If you’re looking for an atheist absolute right and wrong, you will not get one, and it might indeed be time for you to pick up your ball and go home.

    This is why I choose to embrace faith based government. Faith defined as holding something to be true that you can not prove. I want my government to hold as truth that I have rights that can not be violated to serve some other purpose, like survival of the species or welfare of the community.

    Again, I’m not sure why human rights and the survival of the species or the welfare of the community are necessarily mutually exclusive. But surely you can offer reasons why you think it is beneficial for us, as individuals and as societies, to have these rights recognised and protected.

    When you talk about faith-based government, in one breath, and then define faith as “holding something to be true that you cannot prove,” you are in danger of committing the fallacy of equivocation. “Faith-based government” implies a government that privileges a certain religion or that enshrines its dogmas as policy and law (i.e. a theocracy). How is faith-based government compatible with the right to freedom of religion or the separation of church and state? As for “holding something to be true that you cannot prove”–well, you don’t need to be a theist to do that. You could be describing simple idealism, or beliefs based on personal experience but unsupported by expert knowledge, or any kind of belief that one cannot demonstrate with absolute certainty. For example, I believe but cannot prove that the Sun will rise tomorrow.

    So I don’t see how a faith-based government can guarantee the protection of the rights you would have them protect. The faith-based governments that we do see around the world–Iran, Afghanistan (under the Taliban), etc.–are synonymous with grievous human rights violations, and on the grounds of faith.

    Concepts of rights and freedoms haven’t changed in thousands of years.

    You can’t be serious.

  • http://fivepublicopinions.blogspot.com AV

    AV, why not come clean, do you believe that there are rights that all people hold simply because they are people?

    I haven’t seen any evidence that there is. I was hoping that you could help me out here.

    But olvlzl, why not come clean:

    What are the criteria by which we may distinguish inherent from non-inherent rights?

    What reasons can you give for why it is good that we have the right to freedom of expression, or religious freedom?

    I’m finding fewer and fewer of such atheists today, most seem to be under the influence of some form of biological determinism, have little confidence in peoples’ ability to think independently and, in the worst cases, have no faith in democracy.

    That’s nice. What does it have to do with our discussion?

    I was writing critiques of Dawkins before his latest hobby career as the successor to Madalyn Murry (God, do I miss that woman,pop atheists used to be so much more fun back then), I had no interest or thought to his views on religion.

    Axe to grind.

    I’ve got a feeling that “memes” and his latest gig as the atheist pope are evidence that he has less than complete faith in EP.

    So he is the atheist pope, then? I thought it was Hitchens. Or Harris. Tell me who my pope is, please?

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    AV, as the people who wrote and adopted the First Amendment I find the proof of the desireablity of people having freedom of speech and to their religious beliefs in the history of Europe from roughly the 14th through the 17th centuries. The history of those countires that have adopted these freedoms demonstrates that in the real world, not that make believe univers of social scientists and devotees of other pseudo-scientific pretentions, these freedoms help produce a relatively decent and non-violent society. That, AV, is proof superior to anything your heros have produced about anything. Unlike Dawkins “explainations”, it can be shown to have really happened.

    How can you distinguish an inherent right? A right that is necessary for a person to live their life, follow their reason and their conscience while not depriving other people of the same rights is an inherent right.

    The fact is that many areas of life can’t be sewn up in a neat and final form causes fundamentalists great anxiety and anger, religious as well as materialist fundamentalists. While I am sorry that such people are so rigid as to not be able to accept the limits of science and logic that doesn’t change the fact that there are many, perhaps most, areas of life and the universe which will never be susceptible to the methods and limits of science. Pretending that simple fact isn’t true is the very heart of the superstitions of scientism, positivism, reductionism. I’ve always suspected that the adherents of those ideas, clearly unsupported by the facts, are following their emotions instead of their reason.

    No, Dawkins is the atheist pope, at least of those atheists who treat him that way. I know atheists who think he, as well as the other heros of pop-atheism you name are jerks who are more likely to put off full civil rights for atheists than to promote them. Harris, no, he’s a much lesser figure. Hitchens, I can’t imagine that enormous ego that feeds on itself would settle for something as low as pope. I suspect he’s bright enough not to challenge Dawkins but he’s back-stabbed just about everyone who he was associated with so it might happen if he lives long enough.

  • http://fivepublicopinions.blogspot.com AV

    AV, as the people who wrote and adopted the First Amendment I find the proof of the desireablity of people having freedom of speech and to their religious beliefs in the history of Europe from roughly the 14th through the 17th centuries. The history of those countires that have adopted these freedoms demonstrates that in the real world [. . .] these freedoms help produce a relatively decent and non-violent society.

    Here I would agree with you. But it does not constitute evidence that these rights are absolute or inherent.

    In fact, what you are doing here is showing how very good reasons can be put forward for why these rights should be recognised and protected, without having to pretend (or assert without substantiation) that they are absolute or inherent.

    That, AV, is proof superior to anything your heros have produced about anything.

    More strawmen. Seriously–do you know any other way of conducting debate?

  • http://fivepublicopinions.blogspot.com AV

    No, Dawkins is the atheist pope

    Really? Can you substantiate this?

  • Vincent

    Lee,
    Ash answered very well. I will just try to make two points.
    Your response directly to my unicorn question sounds like rationalization.
    You claim you can’t help but live your life with the assumption that there is always a right and a wrong. Since you can’t come up with a reason why, you say god made it so. In other words, you are starting with the assumption there are absolutes then using the god hypothesis to stop asking the why question. However, since you cannot know the will of god, you are actually just taking someone else’s word for it. That sounds like abdication of the responsibility of giving reason for your own actions.

    Regarding your statement about the Declaration of Independence, you erroneously called it “our founding document.” Our founding document is the Constitution. The Declaration of Independence is merely a declaration of war against England and did absolutely nothing to establish a government. In fact, it asserts to be the joint agreement of several “Free and Independent States” to throw off the tyrany of their mutual oppressor.
    It made no pretense to be founding anything.
    It is historically important, but it was written when there was no government, and 12 years before our government was formed.

    It’s no more a founding document of our government than is the UN Charter the founding document of a world government.

  • http://thinkerspodium.wordpress.com Bruce

    I think it is a logical conclusion that without theism or faith, there can be no absolute ethics.

    This pre-supposes that absolutes are necessary or even desirable. It’s also self contradictory if you want to be pedantic about the term ethics; ethics being a process to determine what is right and wrong, absolutism simply being a check list of morality.

    Having a working definition of ethics is at the core of this issue (even if I’m not actually so pedantic as to seriously posit the above quibble.) We can define ethics as something to exclude a group by definition, rather than as a means to actually engage in moral actions. For example, one pre-suppose conculsions by positing absolutism as essential to ethics to exclude non-absolutists (but don’t take this point as my coup-de-grâce, I’m still toying around).

    If we chose ethical to mean obidence, it is redundant without something to be obidient to. Insert God. Which God? Which God do we choose? The God of the generally sensible caring Christian majority or the God of Terry Mark Mangum?

    This is a serious question. The problem is, in any ethical debate where substantiation is required (as opposed to faith), one can no more substantiate one God than the other and hence one moral more than another. Unavoidably, by way of ethics as obidenice to divine, the murder of Kenneth Cumming joins the ranks of deeds such as caring for the poor in terms of what is known to be ethical.

    This isn’t just counter-intuitive. If I was claiming that counter-intuition was all that was wrong, and was sufficient to end the debate I’d be pre-supposing my conclusions (ethics y says murder is wrong – falsifying ethics X – therefore ethics y is right and so on.)

    I’m not talking about contradiction in one literal interpretation here, I’m talking about contradiction across all equally non-faith substantiated metaphysical interpretations; where substantiation matters, “murder as moral” in an obedience to unfalsiable God schema is as equally knowable as valid as “murder as immoral” is. This breaks the law of non-contradiction.

    Don’t think for a second that I’m singling out theists here either. This criticism applies to any metaphysic of morals. Consider that some atheists include metaphysics (sometimes citing Kant) and this is a wider problem. All metaphysics requires faith to assert as true, and in any reasoned debate all faith bares the same coinage (no substitute for substantiation).

    Theists can take this as a limitation of mortals to comprehend the mind of God if they will.

    Absolutes not only have the effect of appeal to metaphysics, but they are crap at resolving dialemma. Say for example; X type of deed is absolutely wrong; Y type of deed is absolutely wrong. In scenario Z, failiure to do X precipitates Y. I’ll let people fill in X and Y according to their beliefs.

    Some absolutists claim that they can resolve this but such a statement is untrue for either of two reasons; congnitive dissonance between the states of X and Y (didn’t do X or Y) or that they argued X or Y down to a non-absolute (making the alternative the absolute) and don’t have the honesty to admit they abandoned absolutism.

    So let’s do away with metaphysics as arbiter of the absolute. It doesn’t work.

    So what have we got left? Nihilism? Well I think we can all agree that nihilism isn’t acceptable.

    What do I use as an atheist? Reason a priori. Empericism. Utilitarianism.

    Reason is the basis for my epistemology. I don’t need a metaphysic to prop it up either. The reason of reason, unlike so many other things claimed to be self-evident, actually is. Reason is reasonable. It needs no proping up with Gods or catagorical imperatives.

    Empericism. I borrow from “radical constructivism” here. Something I could prattle on about forever (given that I have a few qualifications). But suffice to say, it is possible to accept many things as fact without recourse to any metaphysic. This forms the basis for knowing the circumstnaces of any situation requiring moral consideration.

    It’s not fool-proof, it won’t grant omniscience, but as I’m aware, no human is claiming to be omniscient or infalliable in these regards anyway. The limits of my epistemology in this regard are the same as in contending thesis.

    Utilitarianism (positive with negative caveat for those interested). I’ve harped on about a definition of ethics earlier and this is why. If we are going to have a meaningful definition of ethics that excludes absolutes, and abandons the flawed narrative of morality as obedience (ultimately to a metaphysic one can’t back up) we are only left with considerations of harm. It’s either this, or redefine ethics as something so alien and meaningless that us having this discussion in the first place is meaningless.

    Harm. Ethics. If we are to use harm as the main criterion for ethics, then ethics by definition becomes a utilitarian beast. Deciding on what causes harm in my epistemology of ethics is informed by somewhat of a heirarchy of heuristics. The first step is to ascertain facts emperically; what do we know of X that has capacity to harm?

    When, and not before there are gaps in my emperical knowledge of capacity for harm, then I go to the inter-subjective. I ask “will this hurt you”? I’ve used the example of two men being hit in the groin with equal force before. One may say they are equally harmful. Wrong. If man 1 wants children and has a tender loin, while man 2 doesn’t wnat kids and has an S&M streak then kicking man 2 in the groin may very well not be as immoral as kicking man 1 in the groin.

    To make a distinction, inter-subjectivity is used. Confirming people’s opinions and feelings when the raw emperical facts won’t solve a problem.

    Only after all of the available non-metaphysical subjective heuristics are used up (by way of reason’s right of deferal) without prevail would I ever consider the metaphysics. Importantly, if using metaphysics in any critical way (which I avoid and make a posteriori to reason) I recognise that it doesn’t impart knowledge, but rather just inspiration.

    There is nothing nihilistic, moral relativistic, or absolutist about any of this. Of course, straw men of relativism and nihilism abound. This is where the big lie repeated uncritically comes in.

    The hard cold fact that some theists are going to have to learn to accept is that atheists can be moral people. They do it by doing more or less what I do; act on a utilitarian imperative. The reason theists need to take this on board and the reason that the contrary is “the big lie” is because most good, functioning Christians do the same thing; act on a utilitarian imperative.

    If they didn’t we’d have more Christians demonizing the D&C proceedure irrespective of how many women it kills. We’d see more Terry Mark Mangums following their metaphysical impulses. Sure, some people can interpret away the apparent nastiness of parts of the Bible, but many can’t.

    Why don’t those who can’t become psychotic killers?

    It’s because they don’t actually use the Bible for moral guidance when reasoned empericism and intersubjective notions of suffering cotridict their interpretation of the gory bits. They intuitively use the same means that atheists use.

    In fact, I strongly suspect to some extent we are hard wired to behave this way (not that biology dictates morality, but rather gives us the faculties to consider it).

    Why on Earth then are theists asking where atheists get their morals from if so many rank and file theists are getting their morals from the same place?

    I don’t mind discussion ethics at all, which admittedly is why I’ve engaged in this debate. This is even if my discussion of ethics is actually somewhat off-topic from what is really going on in this debate.

    The question “can atheists have morals?” is a question posed by theists, theists who should really know better. It can be treated as a genuine question of ethics, but in reality, to borrow the virus meme, the question is a carrier body for a memetic virus that spreads a smear against atheists.

    I’ve answered the question as an ethical question as is my desire for genuine ethical discussion. Theists engaging in this debate however should not assume me credulous that their motivations are at the core genuine.

    With the ascent of our host Hermant, I’d like to ask the theists; what precisely do you hope to acheive by asking such a question?

  • http://thinkerspodium.wordpress.com Bruce

    In fact, what you are doing here is showing how very good reasons can be put forward for why these rights should be recognised and protected, without having to pretend (or assert without substantiation) that they are absolute or inherent.

    He’s exercising utilitarian reasoning to back up the validity of these rights, not absolutism. See what I mean about they use the same criteria mostly irrelevant to theistic status, but fail to acknowledge that the faculty exists in non-theists.

    Talk about cherry picking.

  • http://thinkerspodium.wordpress.com Bruce

    So he is the atheist pope, then? I thought it was Hitchens. Or Harris. Tell me who my pope is, please?

    First they decided on why we are atheists.
    Now they are telling us who our Pope’s are now.

    Wait. We have a Pope?!?!?!?

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    I can assure you that most of the Catholics I know pay less reverence to the Pope than most blog atheists pay to Dawkins, Harris and now Hitchens. Most of the Catholics I am familiar with think Ratzinger is a jerk.

  • Vincent

    He was good as cliff though, but I think his best performance was in the Warlords of Atlantis.

  • Lee (the Theist)

    To ash, and Vincent, and AV (and all others)

    First, thanks against for sticking with this, and your continued attempts to help me understand.

    There is a difference between stating what something is, and stating an example of what something is.

    To demonstrate, for the question “What is a prime number?” one can respond in two ways.

    Definition: A prime number is one which can not be divided without a remainder.

    Example: 3

    The confusion here, I think, is that I keep asking “What is the definition of right and wrong”, and people keep responding, “I can give you no exact examples because it is dependent on so many things.”

    Ash made the comment: “moral relativism – i need more details before i can decide whether this would be a right moral action.” I can understand that you need a great deal of details and information to determine what action is right, but the very statement suggests that right itself has been defined. Do you see the difference in what I am asking?

    To AV, you said “What I meant is that you seem to be asking for an Atheist Guide to Right and Wrong–a kind of Atheist Code of Ethics or Bible–and I responded that there is none.” I am not asking for a list of examples or rules. I am not asking for all the prime numbers in the world or how to find them, I am just asking what a prime number is.

    I am not asking for examples, I am asking for a definition. I think, whether people like it or not (and so many people clearly do not like it), right and wrong throughout the ages has been entrenched with religious concepts. I want to know what a definition of right and wrong is once it is liberated from religious concepts.

    I will pose a challenge. For any definition of right and wrong given, I can show it doesn’t exist. Or that it becomes in effect something different, and therefore we no longer need the word.

    I’ll start. And don’t accuse me of the straw man thing, I am not saying anyone else is using the following definition; I’m just starting things off.

    “Right: That which ought to be done.”

    Why using this definition right and wrong doesn’t exist:

    I understand that many people are appealing to the idea that the “feeling” of right and wrong are “hardwired” into our cognition, as is a bird is “hardwired” to fly south for the winter. This has a clear survival advantage, and I would agree. But then, if a bird chose not to fly south for the winter, I would not say that bird is wrong, just that the bird chose to ignore its instincts, or had aberrant instincts, and now will likely freeze to death. So it isn’t that the bird “ought” to fly south, it is simply that if it wants to live it should. In that respect, there is nothing a person “ought to do”, it depends on what a person wants to achieve. For example, “you ought to tell the truth if you want to live in a society where you can believe what people say” involves the condition “if.” There is no “ought” without an “if.”

    To respond to the criticism against my “self evident” reasoning.

    As against “self evident” as people are , I see an interesting trend in reasoning. If someone gives a rule for determining right from wrong, the counter argument is to give an example of how that rule leads to bad outcomes. For example, if someone says “Killing is wrong,” someone might respond “That would mean that you can’t defend an orphanage against a mass murderer.” Giving an example presumes that we all agree on the rightness and wrongness of the example. Discussions of right and wrong often appeal to self evident ideas in this way. Another example, someone might say “If what you are saying is true then you could justify slavery” which is to say that they presume that slavery is self-evidently wrong.

    To Bruce who stated, “The question “can atheists have morals?” is a question posed by theists,” I hope you don’t think this is what I am asking. I have clearly stated above the answer is yes.

    For Bruce’s question: “With the ascent of our host Hermant, I’d like to ask the theists; what precisely do you hope to acheive by asking such a question?” I’d like to acheive abolishing the stereotype that those of us who embrace faith have abandoned reason and will undoubtedly destroy society.

    -Lee (the Theist)

  • http://thinkerspodium.wordpress.com Bruce

    I’d like to acheive abolishing the stereotype that those of us who embrace faith have abandoned reason and will undoubtedly destroy society.

    Oh well, it’s a bit hard for me to entertain stereotypes about reason and faith when I see them measured in a kind of fuzzy logic from person to person.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    Can atheists have morals, I can answer that with complete confidence, yes. How do I know? Because I’ve known atheists with morals.

    The problem starts when people demand absolute proof of a moral position or assertion, that kind of proof is simply not available for that area of life. The problem is with the superstition that absolute proof is possible when even a mildly rigorous look at the question shows that it is almost certainly not. There has never been universal agreement as to what constitutes morality, even such a moral stand as a prohibition to murder has been shown to be infinitely flexible depending on the interests and prejudices of different people and populations.

    Bruce accuses those who admit to faith as practicing “fuzzy logic” but there isn’t a person alive who doesn’t practice fuzzy logic, certainly not the heros of positivism or scientism. They lie about their adherence to strict standards of reason while practicing subjective and self-interested bending of definitions, facts, etc. No one goes through a day without depending on ideas and assertions they have adopted without testing them for their soundness, not even those who are engaged in real, as opposed to so-called, science. It is only in the relatively specialized area of math that absolute proof is possible and even in math it is possible to find new apparent contradictions. As a kind mathematician once pointed out to me such apparent contraditions, if sufficiently proven, are assumed to be part of a larger, as yet unfound and proven integration.

    Those atheists I’ve known who are moral, they were mostly the old-fashioned kind who didn’t have great belief in psychology and its allied faiths. They tended to be too skeptical of the assertions and claims of the social sciences and they weren’t too big on following heros and leaders. I miss that kind of independent thinking.

  • Vincent

    Lee, your challenge is meaningless.
    You want a definition of right but what we’ve been saying all along is that the definition of right is situational.
    You haven’t given me any reason to believe any system in the world, religious or not, will give you an absolute.
    Why do you criticize atheism for not giving you what no system can give you (my unicorn analogy)?

    Good/right depends on the ethical system you practice.
    For example, in desire utilitarianism, good is that which fulfills the most desires (I think. I’m not a professional ethicist).
    In epicurianism, good is that which reduces pain and increases pleasure.
    In christianity, good is the salvation of intangible, undetectable immortal souls.

  • http://fivepublicopinions.blogspot.com AV

    Vincent: I think Lee is asking what the terms “right” and “wrong” mean from a non-theist standpoint, rather than examples of right and wrong.

    Lee: I’ll respond to your post later.

    olvlzl (re: Bruce’s comment): Keep bashing away at those strawmen!

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    AV, as long as you and your pals keep presenting me with what you keep calling “strawmen” you can be assured that I’ll keep pointing out that they are not based in science, logic or experience. See what I first said to you about my conclusions about the contemporary use of the term “strawmen”. It’s almost as bad as the use of “Occam’s razor” around here.

  • http://fivepublicopinions.blogspot.com AV

    AV, as long as you and your pals keep presenting me with what you keep calling “strawmen” you can be assured that I’ll keep pointing out that they are not based in science, logic or experience.

    See, not only do you continue to bash strawmen, you don’t even appear to know what the term means. This makes your position doubly untenable, and makes it abundantly clear that you are far less interested in reasoned debate than you are in engaging in your one-note anti-atheist diatribe. Yes, we know the so-called “New Atheists” piss you off. We get it. What I want to know is: why should we care, and what relevance does it have to the topic of this thread? Why don’t you leave your pet hatreds aside just for a moment, and actually participate in this discussion in good faith?

    (BTW: I’m also unclear on where “me and my pals” have allegedly erred in with regards to science, logic and experience. But then I don’t see why I should recognise your authority to deliberate upon these subjects.)

  • http://fivepublicopinions.blogspot.com AV

    The problem is with the superstition that absolute proof is possible when even a mildly rigorous look at the question shows that it is almost certainly not. There has never been universal agreement as to what constitutes morality, even such a moral stand as a prohibition to murder has been shown to be infinitely flexible depending on the interests and prejudices of different people and populations.

    We do seem to be on the same page here, however.

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    AV, “new atheists” don’t piss me off, bigots do and people who pretend to rigorous argument but who don’t go all the way annoy me. People who hold their side to a lesser standard of evidence than it does other sides is asking for that to be pointed out. I can assure you, if this was a blog frequented by religious fundamentalists I’d be pointing similar things out.

  • http://fivepublicopinions.blogspot.com AV

    I am not asking for examples, I am asking for a definition. I think, whether people like it or not (and so many people clearly do not like it), right and wrong throughout the ages has been entrenched with religious concepts. I want to know what a definition of right and wrong is once it is liberated from religious concepts.

    I thought I had addressed this earlier.

    Earlier, you said “Without faith it would be more accurate to replace right and wrong with terms describing actions as “legal, illegal, advantageous to survival, detrimental to society, a cause of suffering, against the social contract, etc.”” And I replied that these are what I mean, and I daresay it’s what some others in this discussion mean, by the terms “right and wrong.” (And there is also the harm consideration that Bruce talked about.)

    I also added: “But I think that, in the absence of any evidence of absolute right and wrong, independent of these, it is the best we–any of us, theist and atheist alike–can do.”

    I don’t see how defining “right” as “right” and “wrong” as “wrong” gets us anywhere. (Actually, neither are definitions, really.) You tried to define “right” as “the good,” “the good” as “God’s will,” and “God’s will” as “love one another.” (In short, “right” = “loving one another.”) As I showed, “love one another” is practically useless as an ethical foundation, given that there is no authoritative definition of what “loving one another” entails. Love is a motivation, not an action, and sometimes people who describe themselves as so motivated can do unspeakable things (see: Terry Mark Mangum, who also, as Bruce observed, saw himself as doing God’s will).

    Actually, there’s something I think you need to clarify here. Does “right” = “doing God’s will,” or “loving one another?”

    So it isn’t that the bird “ought” to fly south, it is simply that if it wants to live it should. In that respect, there is nothing a person “ought to do”, it depends on what a person wants to achieve. For example, “you ought to tell the truth if you want to live in a society where you can believe what people say” involves the condition “if.” There is no “ought” without an “if.”

    This applies to theistic morality as you have defined it, also. “You ought to do x if you want to do God’s will.” (Which opens up several questions: “What is God’s will?,” “How do we know that it’s God’s will?”, “Why ought we do God’s will?”, etc.)

    But I would say that there’s no “ought” without a “because” (and maybe that’s the same thing). You yourself have affirmed this, when you said that you could think of several good non-theistic reasons for people not to murder each other. Theistic morality is all well and good when people share your theistic presuppositions, but what happens when they don’t? Other than by force, how are you going to convince them to share your views on right and wrong? At some point, you’re going to have to resort to (bum bum buuuuuuuuuuum) reason.

    There’s a point Bruce made earlier which I think you ought to address:

    “Sure, some people can interpret away the apparent nastiness of parts of the Bible, but many can’t.

    Why don’t those who can’t become psychotic killers?

    It’s because they don’t actually use the Bible for moral guidance when reasoned empericism and intersubjective notions of suffering cotridict their interpretation of the gory bits. They intuitively use the same means that atheists use.”

    Discussions of right and wrong often appeal to self evident ideas in this way. Another example, someone might say “If what you are saying is true then you could justify slavery” which is to say that they presume that slavery is self-evidently wrong.

    Perhaps. But what’s stopping you–or anyone else–posing the question: “Why is slavery wrong?” And who’s to claim they might not be capable of offering reasons, if you did ask? (And what reasons would you offer?)

    I’d like to acheive abolishing the stereotype that those of us who embrace faith have abandoned reason and will undoubtedly destroy society.

    I think you protest too much. You yourself are arguing for a morality that is based on faith rather than reason.

    I don’t think anybody is entertaining the stereotype you claim they are. I don’t think theists are altogether unreasonable, but I do maintain that they abandon reason to the extent that they embrace faith–faith (belief without justification, evidence, or substantiation) being the antithesis of reason.

  • http://fivepublicopinions.blogspot.com AV

    Another question for Lee:

    You advocate a role for faith in government. Which faith? Wouldn’t we have to resort to reason in order to determine which?

  • Steelman

    Lee said, regarding the difference between definitions and examples: “Definition: A prime number is one which can not be divided without a remainder.
    Example: 3″

    Oh, dear. This is quite telling of the problems I think you’re having, Lee. You are trying to derive a palatable system of ethics from a single principle. And, as others have mentioned, a system of ethics is unable to yield the same deductive certainty as mathematics. At least not without tyranny, and consequences that might entail the antithesis of its objective. When it comes to ethical dilemmas, it seems to me, sumthins gotta give.

    Earlier you said: “I can put my definition of right and wrong clearly and simply. Right is in accordance with what is good. Good is defined by God’s will, which is that we love one another. You can argue this is wrong, and I can’t defeat you, but at least I defined it.”

    Then you say: “AV, I asked you what is good, and you told me you could not define it in an absolute sense. But then you didn’t define it in a non-absolute sense.”

    Um, when did you define right and wrong, absolute or otherwise, Lee? You’ve completely sidestepped the definition by saying, “Right is in accordance with what is good. Good is defined by God’s will, which is that we love one another.” You have provided a “definition” that requires quite a bit of unpacking:

    How do we choose the right version of the God concept?

    If God’s will of “love one another” comes from a holy book, how do we choose the right book, passage, and interpretation to gain insight into its application?

    If God’s will does not come from a holy book, how did we come by it?

    If we have the right God, holy book, and interpretation of will, how do we properly apply something as nebulous as “love on another” in a myriad of complicated, real world situations, the solutions to which are bound to leave someone feeling that they haven’t been treated with “love”?

    In addition, as has been stated here and earlier in the thread, a single absolute principle does not an ethical system make. There must be more than one, and then there will ultimately be a situation in which they conflict, causing one of them to be shown not to be absolute. This is why, I think, you are now choosing “love one another” over “do as you’d be done by.” You are switching now? It seems that this discussion, as discussions regarding the existence of God also often do, has progressed to the point where a definition of the object under consideration must become increasingly vague in order to avoid criticism.

    Lee said: “The confusion here, I think, is that I keep asking ‘What is the definition of right and wrong’, and people keep responding, ‘I can give you no exact examples because it is dependent on so many things.’ ”

    I think what we’ve given you are plenty of examples which show that any definition of right and wrong cannot be applied outside the context of other moral principles with which it might conflict. It may even conflict with itself, necessitating the employment of some process to decide the proper application of the principle (i.e., who wins the dispute).

    Lee said: “I’d like to acheive abolishing the stereotype that those of us who embrace faith have abandoned reason and will undoubtedly destroy society.”

    Your definition of right and wrong leaves wide open the question of how it will be applied in an as yet undefined ethical system. Since you have determined the definition of absolute right and wrong with the aid of religious faith, it causes non-believers to wonder if you might also use religious faith to build the ethical system required to apply your definition. It causes me to wonder if your system will need to be as vague as the principle it applies.

    I don’t think those “who embrace faith have abandoned reason.” I think they have allowed themselves the unwarranted and arbitrary trump card of faith when they cannot persuade others of the correctness of their position through reason. It doesn’t matter if the theist’s opponent has logic and evidence on their side; the theist can always play the faith card, which is always available and never wrong. The same game can be played by non-religious individuals who declare absolute definitions by fiat (e.g. rabid nationalism equals “true” patriotism).

    Non-religious ethical stances can be persuaded by appeals to logic or emotion, and human beings are solely answerable for the consequences of the formulation and use of such systems. Ethics that are based on religious faith can ultimately be held as unassailable by logic or emotion, once formulated. A system of ethics that has God as its final arbiter is truly an “anything goes” proposition since God is apparently unavailable for comment.

  • http://fivepublicopinions.blogspot.com AV

    Steelman: thanks for putting so eloquently what I have made such a hash of.

    I don’t think those “who embrace faith have abandoned reason.” I think they have allowed themselves the unwarranted and arbitrary trump card of faith when they cannot persuade others of the correctness of their position through reason. It doesn’t matter if the theist’s opponent has logic and evidence on their side; the theist can always play the faith card, which is always available and never wrong. The same game can be played by non-religious individuals who declare absolute definitions by fiat (e.g. rabid nationalism equals “true” patriotism).

    I would add that when a government operates according to these principles–abandoning rational persuasion for argument by fiat or appeal to supernatural consequences–what you get is despotism.

  • ash

    I can understand that you need a great deal of details and information to determine what action is right, but the very statement suggests that right itself has been defined.

    i can only resort to personal opinion, and i’m going off the top of my head, so please don’t see this as definitve or absolute, but;

    right;- an action that results in a desirable outcome

    a desirable outcome as judged by -
    - the benefit to social cohesion
    - the benefit of species survival
    - the avoidance of doing harm to others
    - the wish to respect others
    - the avoidance of legal penalties
    - the desire to be affirmatively recognised by others

    all these can result from a historical observance that if these ideals are not practised, there is conflict which can only be advantageous to a minority elite (until the masses revolt, removing the advantage), from a possible genetic predisposal to recognising such things as advantageous, from an upbringing with moral precedents and from individual reasoning of wanting equal treatment so affording it to others (see? you can have ‘do as you would be done by’ without the need to resort to a god!)

    i have to re-state here that this is only my personal opinion, the way that i would approach a situation that required moral judgement. the reasons i have stated here are open to fluctuation, and so can work in conjuction with each other with no particular reason taking priority as matter of course. i’d also say that this list, once you take away the ‘trump card’ of religion, sounds remarkably similar to that of which most theists operate on. given that, and given that religion seems only to stifle debate in the terms of ‘god said so. end of.’, why do you still see the need for religious faith especially in government when it comes to the matter of morality?

    For any definition of right and wrong given, I can show it doesn’t exist. Or that it becomes in effect something different, and therefore we no longer need the word.

    call a spade a spade, yeah?…except ‘spade’ does not define the dimensions of the blade, the material of the shaft, the handle as a T or D shape, etc. does ‘spade’ then not truely exist, or are labels inadequate to describe the complexity of ‘spade’? we resort to such labels as ‘spade, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ because they give us a point of access and mutual comprehension of the subject which leads to an ability to discuss them. i see your point of abandoning these words in favour of ” terms describing actions as ‘legal, illegal, advantageous to survival, detrimental to society, a cause of suffering, against the social contract, etc.’ “, but besides this being a mouthful, i think it would actually make it harder to communicate effectively, especially with one not privy to this conversation.

  • Darryl

    AV, you’re wasting your mind on olvlzl. I doubt he’s here to get to the bottom of anything. He seems to think that believing nothing and criticizing everything is a safe intellectual position, only because advancing no argument or thesis means there is nothing for anyone to invalidate or debunk. He triumphs by risking nothing. I suspect this is intellectual cowardice with a touch of misanthropy—masquerading as virtuous, enlightened self-deprecation—thrown in.

  • Darryl

    I check in on this thread every couple of days or so, and I find the same arguments being made. Pretty much everything that we can think of has been said about this topic at least twice. Anybody got a new angle on this? As I said previously, Lee is not going to be convinced. This is not about a discussion intended to lead to a conclusion. When reason is played out, what remains is unreason—this is the last support of religious conviction, and the hardest to remove.

    Isn’t it obvious that if our shrinking world is going to be able to live in peace, ultimately, there will have to be a global set of ethical principles? Do you really think that an ethic in this context can be derived from any particular religion, or religion at all? The possibility only exists in the least common factors of humanity. No matter what becomes of religion in this century, our global ethic will emerge in spite of religion, not because of it. Do not believe what the preachers and priests claim when the time comes; they are liars and fools.

    Steelman, as usual you have played the ace.

  • Maria

    I can assure you that most of the Catholics I know pay less reverence to the Pope than most blog atheists pay to Dawkins, Harris and now Hitchens. Most of the Catholics I am familiar with think Ratzinger is a jerk.

    Take it from a former Catholic-this is SO true. As for Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens ironically I’ve started to see more criticism of them lately by blog atheists. I don’t most of it is deserved for the first two.

  • Lee (the Theist)

    Just letting everyone know I will respond to the above posts tonight.
    Thanks for the replies.

    -Lee (the Theist)

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    Darryl, how can you have missed that I believe in personal rights? Intellectual freedom, democracy? How can you have missed that I advocate the freedom of people to believe what they believe as long as their actions don’t impinge on other peoples’ rights? Let’s see, separation of church and state, the Bill or Rights and the Civil Rights amendments to the constition. How can you miss that I am in favor of science when it is based on physical evidence and not on story telling in the service of theories?

    Perhaps you would like me to advocate things that aren’t based in the assumption that people have rights to their own experience and ideas, maybe you’d like me to be as much of an ego-driven bigot as Sam Harris or as ideology driven as Daniel Dennett, but pretending that things are absolutely certain when they are not is something I’ve always thought was the height of intellectual dishonesty, especially when practiced by a respected professional. You might like me to pretend certainty in its absence, as your heros do, but I’m not into that kind of let’s pretend.

  • Vincent

    pretending that things are absolutely certain when they are not is something I’ve always thought was the height of intellectual dishonesty

    Isn’t that the MO of every religion?

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    Vincent, no, it isn’t the MO of every religion. It’s the MO of fundamentalists who claim to know what is not knowable and the people who pretend that are not limited to those pontificating on religious topics. Hardly limted to the religious. You start looking under the walnut shells of the evolutionary psychologists or Pinker-style cognitive scientists and watch the reaction. When you get right down to it, most of those kinds of pseudo-sciences are faith-based to a greater or lesser extent.

    Deny the existence of “memes” and see what happens.

  • monkeymind

    Darryl asks:
    Anybody got a new angle on this?

    I think I may have one. I tried to articulate it earlier but let’s see if I can do a better job here.
    The original question posed was “Can we have government without faith.” Lee’s argument as I understand it was that government requires some idea of absolute right and wrong, and that an atheistic worldview is incompatible with moral absolutes. Others have done an excellent job of pointing out the flaws in this position from a secular standpoint, and I heartily agree with them.

    I’d like to look at it from the standpoint of one who is more sympathetic to religious belief.

    This is Lee’s definition of good:

    Good is defined by God’s will, which is that we love one another.

    Lee, how can you propose that people be forced, through the state’s apparatus of power and control, to love one another? How can a human government ever approximate infinite love or infinite justice (as Bush tried to name the operation to invade Afghanistan)

    Now, I am guessing that this idea of God’s will comes from a reading of Jesus’ words in the Gospels (thought other religious texts say similar things). Do you really think Jesus was imparting guidelines for the running of a state, or for a radical counterculture?

  • monkeymind

    olvzl, this is pulling the thread off topic but I agree that memetics seems to be something that has caught on in the popular imagination before it could be developed into a real academic discipline… if it even can be.

  • Lee (the Theist)

    Vincent,

    Remember, I am not asking for a list of all the prime numbers in the world, or a formula by which all prime numbers can be derived. I am just asking what in the world prime is.

    I find your answer very interesting. You can not define right because it is situational. Words that are difficult to define are words that are subjective (taste, beauty, etc.) Yet, everyone has rejected calling right and wrong similarly a matter of taste.

    If you were to write a dictionary, would you leave the words “right and wrong” out of it, or would you just put them in there and say “sorry, there is no definition.”

    You said my question to define right and wrong is pointless, I find the use of a word one can not define pointless.

    You said:
    “Good/right depends on the ethical system you practice.
    For example, in desire utilitarianism, good is that which fulfills the most desires (I think. I’m not a professional ethicist).
    In epicurianism, good is that which reduces pain and increases pleasure.
    In christianity, good is the salvation of intangible, undetectable immortal souls.”

    Yes yes, I agree, this seems to be saying “right” is a matter of personal preference.

    AV,

    I think where I am getting confused is that you write several paragraphs, then state that therein lays the definition of “right.” I am looking for the sentence, or sentences, or a short paragraph you would put in a dictionary. I understand right and wrong is too complex to embody in short format. So is science, or archeology, or astrology… but you can still define them in simple format. Can you compose a dictionary definition of right?

    Ash,

    Thank you so much for giving a precise definition! The definition you gave is very good. I realize you aren’t claiming that this is a formula by which you can determine all right from all wrong. I still would like to examine it closely. I am going to ask a bunch of rhetorical questions that I don’t expect an answer to. And I realize that you have already thought of these questions, and aren’t claiming to have answers, but I am asking the questions to illustrate a point.

    There seem to be two parts to the definition. The first part: “right- an action that results in a desirable outcome” can’t stand alone, or it would be saying the same thing as “right, whatever gets you what you desire.” So it has to be qualified, as you have done.

    Now look at the qualification: “a desirable outcome as judged by the benefit to social cohesion, the benefit of species survival, the avoidance of doing harm to others, the wish to respect others, the avoidance of legal penalties, the desire to be affirmatively recognized by others.”

    This first question that comes up is how the outcome is defined, and I see at least two ways to do this. There is an actual outcome, what actually occurs (objective). Many faults can be found with looking at objective outcomes. For example, if I get drunk and drive but I don’t crash, hurt anyone, get caught, and no one knows then the outcome would not be judged as undesirable. Also, there is the problem of not knowing what is right until after the fact. To the question “Is invading Iraq right?” One might answer “We won’t know until we see what happens.” Then comes the question of how long to wait for objective outcomes (6 months, 1 year, etc.) Another way of viewing outcomes is the idea of what outcomes are likely or possible to occur, subjective outcomes. In this case even if I don’t crash, the possibility is there so it can be judged wrong. Then there is the problem of how to determine subjective outcomes. Possibilities include what is intended (hence the defense ‘but I didn’t mean too’), what you foresee (hence the defense ‘I didn’t know that was going to happen’), or what should be foreseeable by a reasonable person (hence the argument ‘you should have known that was going to happen). Obvious questions arise, how much should good intentions matter, can you blame someone for not knowing a bad outcome was going to occur, etc.

    As you can see, using objective, subjective intent driven, subjective foreseen driven, and subjective foreseeable driven outcomes can all result in different answers to what is right and wrong.

    Then there is the problem of conflicting judgment aspects. Benefit of species survival can often conflict with respect for an individual. Sending someone off to die in war might benefit the community, but not the person. Do you rank certain aspects as more important than others, do they all have to be fulfilled to be right or just some?

    All of the above falls under the category of consequentialism. There is another school of ethics, deontology, which does not think rightness or wrongness depends on outcomes. For example, if a doctor tells the truth about a diagnosis to an insurance company resulting in denial of claim, lack of appropriate therapy, and death, then consequentialism could argue telling the truth was wrong. Deontology might judge the situation regardless of the outcome.

    There are hundreds of questions which come from the definition. You can view the answers to these questions in two ways:
    1) There are actual real answers to these questions, resulting in absolutism. Absolutism has been effectively argued above not to exist.
    2) There are no answers to these questions. If this is the case, almost anything can be judged right and wrong at the same time. This would seem to be pointless.

    So my conclusion is that without absolutism, everything is right and wrong. Right becomes a matter of opinion. It becomes whatever you want it to be. This isn’t the same as saying right and wrong isn’t absolute, it is saying that right and wrong has no meaningful definition.

    One argument against faith and theism is, “who decides such ambiguous concepts as what is love.” I think all the questions above illustrate that non-theist based right and wrong is just as ambiguous, and presents the same problem of who answers all of these questions. These moral concepts have been argued for thousands of years, literally, without any consensus or advancement on consensus.

    No one seems to have a problem using the words right and wrong, but everyone seems to have a problem defining it. I think it is not because it is so complex, it is because its meaning is rooted in faith or theistic concepts that, in atheism, do not exist.

    Why is the concept of “That which is done out of love for others is right” any more ambiguous than all of the questions that are posed above, which also have no answers and no designee to answer them?

    To Darryl, my concept that right is defined by actions that embody love of others is not specific to Christianity. Which is why I think religions can work together. You certainly can’t force anyone to love through laws. The concept is that a person shouldn’t be the means to an end, they should be an end. No one should be a pawn to achieve another purpose, and I have no problem with our government embracing these concepts. So for questions such as “Should we liberate Iraq,” need to come questions such as “Are we really doing it for the benefit of the Iraqi people, are we judging their lives and deaths as important as our own?” Looking at motivations of politicians and laws, particularly concern for others, I think is necessary in good government and good interpretation of laws.

    To AV, I can understand why you would call love for one another pointless with no ability to define it, but isn’t the same true for all definitions of right and wrong, as shown above? I find it useful to examine a person motivations when deciding right from wrong, which is why I find concepts of love useful, and of paramount importance.

    Look at it this way. If someone you are close to (a spouse, a friend) does something that results in great harm to you, think of how you might view the situation. The first things I think of are not species survival, good of the community, etc. My first thought is whether the action was based on love for me.

    -Lee (the Theist)

  • Vincent

    No, right is not a matter of taste any more than fanaticism is a matter of acceptance.

    Okay, here’s one if you must. Right is that which conforms with a principle.
    I can live with that in a dictionary.

  • Lee (the Theist)

    Vincent,

    If that is your definition, would you agree then that since there a multitude of principles out there, every action is right and wrong at the same time due to all of the principles? (Consequentialism, deontology, utilitarian, hedonism, etc…. and don’t forget the pirate principle: “Take what you can, give nothing back.” :) )

    I like Shakespear’s view on this: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

    -Lee (the Theist)

  • Vincent

    You have to have some system by which you decide which principle takes precedence in any given situation.
    That is what we call ethics.
    I wouldn’t say that every action is both right and wrong because I suspect there are actions that conform to a principle without opposing any others.

  • ash

    hi Lee, good points to which i can think of further points/clarification/room for debate, but right now i’m busy – and harry potter’s out tonight! i’ll get back to you soon as possible, just wanted you to know i’ve not abandoned this thread! ;¬)

  • monkeymind

    OK, Lee, you’ve proved that you can give an “absolute” definition of right by pulling one principle out of the grab bag of the divine’s purported communications with mankind. How can you be sure that your choice of that principle is not based on personal preference? Why is your interpretation of God’s will correct, and those of Islamic fundamentalists or Christian Dominionists incorrect?

    The concept is that a person shouldn’t be the means to an end, they should be an end. No one should be a pawn to achieve another purpose,

    Remind me again why would I need to believe in God to accept that as an overarching principle for an ethical system.

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  • http://www.thelockeronline.blogspot.com G-man

    I found this post after reading the Atheist Ethicist’s response

    I don’t have much to say, except to note that you have an enviable readership :)

  • monkeymind

    … atheism leaves to man reason, philosophy, natural piety, laws, reputation, and everything that can serve to conduct him to virtue; but superstition destroys all these, and erects itself into a tyranny over the understandings of men: hence atheism never disturbs the government, but renders man more clear- sighted, since he sees nothing beyond the boundaries of the present life.

    Percy Bysshe Shelley, On the Necessity of Athiesm, 1811

  • Lee (the Theist)

    Vincent, I understand you suspect there are actions which conform to a principle without opposing any others. Maybe simple ones, like donating money to a charity (then again, one might argue a principle that one shouldn’t enable others to he helpless.) But for the controversial issues that face society, like war, I would say no. If you have found them for these issues, please enlighten me. Otherwise, you are asserting something exists without any proof. Kind of like me saying “I suspect there is a God.”

    Vincent also said “you have to have some system by which you decide which principle takes precedence in any given situation. That is what we call ethics.” The same problem arises as that which does in theism, who decides which principle is better? What gives them authority?

    Let me draw this parallel. What if I created a word, called “artism.” This would be a process by which one determines which piece of artwork is better than another. It would seem kind of silly, because there is no way to do it in any “real” sense. It becomes a matter of opinion.

    There are many principles (as Ash has pointed out) which by themselves seem good. Autonomy, social cohesion, survival of the species, avoidance of doing harm, respect for others, affirmation by others, etc. What atheism does not answer is how to rank these. There have been some posts alluding that it is possible to achieve them all, for them not to be in conflict. There is no evidence of this. I think they are mutually exclusive.

    Here is a very simple example. Let’s say you are in charge of an apartment complex, and you must set a music policy. You think it is important for people to be able to sleep undisturbed. You also think autonomy is important. The minute you make any type of rule regarding how loud music can be played, or during what hours, you have limited a person’s autonomy. The majority of people in the complex might agree to the rules, and thus it can be argued no one’s autonomy was violated if everyone agrees, but what about that one person who doesn’t (maybe the person who works the nightshift and enjoys loud music at 3:00am when he gets home).

    For every principle (autonomy), there comes so many qualifications (as long as it doesn’t impact another’s autonomy) that it eventually ceases to exist as a principle.

    From the beginning, it was never my purpose to “convert” anyone, or change anyone to my viewpoint. I started this post because I do care and think about these things and enjoy discussing them, and because I want the flaws in my ideas to be pointed out so I can modify them. I also have the hope that at least a few people can see that theists have the ability to give a lot of thought and reason to discussions, and might have arrived at their beliefs through reason.

    I do not claim to be a professor, but have spent a great deal of time reading on ethics, including topics like consequentialism, considering objective and subjective outcomes, deontology, utilitarianism, etc. I have done this to try to decide a system of ethics by which I can make decisions on controversial issues, like the war in Iraq.

    After giving it a lot of thought, I could not come up with any system of ethics by which various principles can either all be satisfied, or be ranked.

    The fact that I couldn’t find the magic answer is no surprise, as great philosophers have not been able to find it for thousands of years. Anyone who has read Plato’s Republic knows how far off track he was. Who am I to think that I can find them. While this doesn’t prove they don’t exist, I have stopped believing such a system of ethics exists. I see myself similar to atheist in this respect, who might decide not to believe in God given the absence of any evidence that God exists.

    If people want to keep believing there is a system of ethics, or definition of right and wrong, which can achieve, balance, or rank principles like autonomy, respect for others, survival of the species, social cohesion, etc. than I think people believe it because they want to, which is no different than the reason some believe in God. Ethics to me from a non-faith perspective is personal preference, and I don’t think anyone has been able to show otherwise.

    I think right and wrong boils down to whether a person has love for others, or has disregard for others. I think that most people, whether they recognize or admit it, view right and wrong in this same light.

    A simple example: If someone steps on my foot, what do I think about it? If it was my spouse in the process of making a birthday cake who did it on accident, it is not wrong. If it is a person at a concert who is pushing me out of the way to get closer to the front, this is wrong.

    A more complex example. Aptly named, Good Samaritan Laws protect healthcare providers from liability for providing care at the scene of an accident. In this, the law has decided it is better for a person to care, try to help, and cause harm than it is for a person to have indifference for those injured. These laws have limits, and don’t protect in instances where actions had other motivations besides help for the injured, like assault.

    I have no problem incorporating this concept into our laws. It might not be written in as directly as the Good Samaritan Laws, put it still is applied by juries who interpret the application of the law.

    So one might say that great harm can come from what one person perceives as love. As I had mentioned earlier, I have read Osama bin Ladin’s statement concerning 9/11, and he did not orchestrate it based on love for America. I have no evidence that suicide bombers are doing it out of love for the victims. In cases where a schizophrenic is on a psychotic break and causes harm, I would argue they are not wrong, but medically sick.

    Failure to do right I think has two man causes:

    1) Inability to see things from others perspectives. Rights of minorities have been neglected in part due to people seeing minorities as different, and being unwilling or unable to put themselves in the minority’s position and view things from there. As was discussed in Gladwell’s book “Blink,” the severe end of being unable to “mindread” another’s perspective is autism. Some things that might block accurate perspective viewing are pride and anger.

    2) Choosing not to do what one knows is right. If one gets extra change from a teller, and chooses to keep it without caring how it will impact the teller or the business, this is just choosing to do wrong, it is not a matter of not having enough information or perspective.

    So why do I need God if this is my definition of right?

    In this definition, right involves personal sacrifice. It is putting the interest of others ahead of your own. In extreme instances, it might mean sacrificing ones life for that of a stranger or even enemy. From an atheist perspective, one could make an argument that if everyone loved each other, we might live in a utopia, so everyone should do it. But when it comes down to a time where I will be the one sacrificing, and another will be benefiting, I don’t think one could make a compelling logical argument for me to be the one who looses while another gains. Believing in a principle like “One must loose one’s life to gain it” does give a compelling reason.

    The bottom line, I can think of no compelling reasons to convince someone they should do right when they don’t stand to gain, without incorporating faith or theistic concepts. If there is no reason to convince someone what should be done, than that action can no longer be seen as right, and right ceases to exist.

    There might be no God. If there is none, in the words of Michael Gerson, liberating me from my belief in God is like liberating a whale from the ocean.

    -Lee (the Theist)

  • Vincent

    so you choose faith out of a sense of desperation?
    You cannot think of a valid system, so you just hand over the decision making power to someone else?
    I can’t respect that.

  • ash

    back again!

    thought i’d stick to to comparing my definition;
    1 the benefit to social cohesion
    2 the benefit of species survival
    3 the avoidance of doing harm to others
    4 the wish to respect others
    5 the avoidance of legal penalties
    6 the desire to be affirmatively recognised by others

    to (how i view) Lee’s definition;
    a Good is defined by God’s will, which is that we love one another.
    b ie, do as you would be done by

    using his examples…

    donating money to a charity (then again, one might argue a principle that one shouldn’t enable others to he helpless.)

    me; fulfils 1,2,3,4+6, so a right action (of course dependant on the charity, the nature of which would possibly change how i ranked/correlated said principles). even with helping one to stay helpless, you can resort to logic and reason to inform yourself of whether this is the case or not, just as a theist would.
    Lee; fulifils a+b, unless you take into account his clarification, in which case it could actually negate both a+b, which would make such principles non-absolute (in that there is no system other than ‘personal taste’ to tell us how these principles should be applied – to follow Lee’s argument, right cannot then exist)

    you are in charge of an apartment complex, and you must set a music policy. You think it is important for people to be able to sleep undisturbed. You also think autonomy is important.

    me; using principles 1,3,4,5 +6, i would set a music policy of no loud music after a majority agreed evening hour, reasoning that most people work during the day. logic would lead me to deduce that the availability of wireless headphones would therefore not impact on the autonomy of the few, further in the interests of the few, i could also ask for the same respect when setting a music policy during daylight hours.
    Lee; same problem, using his principles you would still have to decide whether there should be absolutely no music on the principle that it will always be inconvenient to some, music all the time as they should all have a right to it whenever, or a happy medium (deduced by logic and reasoning rather than following absolutes) by which you will risk upsetting some but not others. further, if one hates rap but loves rock, and another is opposite, should there be a policy of which music is acceptable and when? simplifying morals only seems to complicate the matter…

    I think they are mutually exclusive.

    no, as seen above, they can be used in conjuction with another, in fact i’d argue that many theists use them in conjuction with their thinking. the part we agree on is that there is no system of ranking them; however, this is the point of relativism – that each situation demands careful consideration of which principles you use and how; ie not to prejudge by an absolute. if you did not get the point earlier, let me clarify – even absolutes are used relatively, and their application is relative to each individual that lays claim to them. also, this relative perspective is usually justified by means of logic and reasoning – as Lee himself has indicated.

    given that the only reason belief in a god seems to be upheld is as giving ‘proof’ for views held, that may be arrived at through logic and reasoning without the need for any deity, i’d have to ask…why the need for a god in the specific instances of government or moral standards? from most theists it appears to be from some kind of fear, that they can produce this ‘trump card’ without needing to debate whether their views are valid, true or ‘right’ – just watch, ie, Bush, fall back on it in hard times!

    I also have the hope that at least a few people can see that theists have the ability to give a lot of thought and reason to discussions,

    never doubted that in your case, or most liberal/moderate theists

    and might have arrived at their beliefs through reason.

    hmm, i can see people arriving at agnosticism and possibly mysticism through reasoning, (and i get that even if it’s not for me) but believing in a specific god is where i disagree – to take the art example, it’s kinda like saying ‘i have given much thought to art, and this particular picture provides an ultimate definition of it’ !

  • Lee (the Theist)

    Ash,

    Thanks again for responding.

    I’m going to try to keep defending my idea that autonomy, social cohesion, survival of the species, avoidance of doing harm, respect for others, affirmation by others, etc are mutually exclusive.

    Lets keep going with the apartment complex example. For anyone reading this who doesn’t want to go back through previous posts, here it is: “Let’s say you are in charge of an apartment complex, and you must set a music policy. You think it is important for people to be able to sleep undisturbed. You also think autonomy is important.”

    So let me see if I get your proposal strait. You set a volume limit which corresponds to an hour on the day, as agreed upon by the majority, and ask people to use wireless headphones otherwise.

    So let’s say I’m the guy that works the night shift. I get home at 3:00am. I like to listen to music while cooking dinner. Clearly, wired headphones will make this difficult. Wireless ones are expensive, but even if I bought them it is not all that convenient. Or, in other words, it’s not the same thing. And if I have a friend, or several friends over, we can’t all listen. My irritation turns to resentment when I have trouble catching up on sleep during the day because others are playing music that I can hear. I start to see this as a double standard. Why should I care about their sleep when they don’t care about mine?

    So then I think this violates your principle #4: respect for others. This doesn’t sound like anyone respects me. So then comes the question of whether it is ok to break principle #4 in the case of a minority, while upholding #4 for a majority. Does that make it right? Also, principle #1: the benefit to social cohesion, #3: the avoidance of doing harm to others, and #6: the desire to be affirmatively recognized by others are not fulfilled from my perspective. So is it ok for these to be broken from my perspective but not from others?

    One would have to set this policy with the thought of “Too bad for the night shift guy.” One might argue it is the best one can do, but it would be hard to defend it as right to the night shift guy. And if you can’t defend it as right to the night shift guy, is this really right?

    So again, I think all of these principles are mutually exclusive.

    So what would my policy be based on my definition of right? You can play your music whenever you want, as loudly as you want, as long as you don’t think it is disturbing anyone. You should turn it down or off if anyone asks you to.

    Vincent, my point is that you can’t think of a valid system either, unless you have and are just keeping it from me. I hear a double standard from you. It is ok for you not to have a valid system and keep defending it, but not for me. Also, I have never argued to hand over the decision making power to anyone. Faith to me is not desperation. I have logically concluded that right and wrong do not exist. Yet, no matter how much I try to force myself to not believe they exist, I continue to believe they do. So I believe in God (in part) because I believe in right and wrong. What I find fascinating is that you believe in right and wrong and are unable to prove they exist, yet don’t have any problem with it. At the same time, using your words, you “can’t respect” the belief in God. Seems that you are applying inconsistent standards.

    -Lee (the Theist)

  • ash

    Lee, nice comeback ;¬) let’s examine it…

    “in other words, it’s not the same thing.”. no, it’s a compromise reached using my principles of right and wrong coupled with and informed by logic and reason. the exceptions which you mentioned can be reasoned out this way – cooking dinner – he does have an alternative, having friends over – if they wish to talk they would not need the volume loud, if they wish to party, there is nothing stopping them from either pre-planning with neighbour consent, or partying at a time when the policy is not in force, daytime hours – would be covered by the daylight music policy i suggested.

    i noticed that you didn’t answer how your view of morality could possibly work in this situation, or how, when it would appear the absolutes you suggested are in conflict you could resolve this issue without either abandoning them in preference of reason, or admitting that using absolutes could result in anything but unfair treatment for some.

    i also need a bit of clarity – when you argue that my principles are mutually exclusive, do you mean to each other, or to the idea of right + wrong?

  • Vincent

    Lee,
    I spoke hastily and as a result was unclear.
    If you have some evidence by which you arrived at faith, I can respect that, even if the evidence would not be sufficient to convince me.
    It sounded as though you chose faith because you could not find any system that provided what you were looking for. In choosing faith you accepted someone else’s word for it that the faith provided what you were looking for.

    I believe in God (in part) because I believe in right and wrong. What I find fascinating is that you believe in right and wrong and are unable to prove they exist, yet don’t have any problem with it. At the same time, using your words, you “can’t respect” the belief in God. Seems that you are applying inconsistent standards.

    I never said I believed in right and wrong as you define them. I don’t believe they exist as you define them. Right as I defined it above does exist.
    And I can respect a belief in god if it is arrived at through some evidence. What you said was that you had an intuition that there is something called universal right and that theists told you that god provides universal right. Since you couldn’t find in anywhere else, you took their word for it (since they can’t prove it either).
    (and if you define god based on scripture, you took the word of whoever wrote the book).

  • Lee (the Theist)

    Vincent, (Ash, I will get back to your reply later)

    There are some assumptions you are making about my beliefs I would like to clarify.

    You said, “theists told you that god provides universal right.” Actually, no theist ever told me that. I concluded it myself.

    You said, “Since you couldn’t find in anywhere else, you took their word for it.” I never said I took anyone’s word for anything. The only thing I believe is that there is a God. Beyond that, which denomination is closer to understanding God, I have no opinion on. I did say earlier that I practice Christianity, but this doesn’t have to mean I am saying it is better than anyone else’s religion. I don’t know if the New Testament is inspired. I am trying to find God through Christianity. I am not saying this is the best, right, or only way.

    You said, “and if you define god based on scripture, you took the word of whoever wrote the book).” I don’t define God based on scripture. To tell the truth, I don’t know what to make of scripture.

    You said, “If you have some evidence by which you arrived at faith, I can respect that, even if the evidence would not be sufficient to convince me.”

    Here is how I arrived at it, lets see if you respect it.

    I have explored, and continue to explore, atheism. In discussions with my friends who are atheist, I have asked myself similar questions they have asked about religion (religions justifying atrocities, who has authority, where is proof, the problem of suffering, authority of scripture etc.)

    One conclusion I came to is that in atheism, there is no right and wrong outside of personal preference, no matter how you define right and wrong (absolute, non absolute). In my reasoning, it takes a concept like “God” to make right and wrong exist. No matter how much I think about this, I can not convince myself there is no right and wrong. Since I continue to believe in right and wrong, I continue to believe in God.

    In a continued effort to explore atheism, I often ask atheists how they deal with this. The answer I get is that many atheists still do believe that right and wrong exist. The difference I would say between me and you, or me and many (I can’t speak for everyone) atheist is not that I abandon reason, it is that my reason has drawn the conclusion that right and wrong doesn’t exist in any form. It sounds like your reason has drawn the conclusion that right and wrong does exist. I can see then why you don’t believe in God. Can you see why I do if I have drawn that conclusion?

    Can you respect that?

    The useful thing for me then, is to explore how right and wrong can exist without God. If someone can show me, I might actually become atheist. I am not just saying this, I am being honest.

    Whenever I ask atheists to define, or prove the existence of, right and wrong (or admit there is no right and wrong) I often get no answer or a change in conversation. I value everyone here for staying with the blog, and everyone’s continued efforts to explain it to me. I still see people struggling with a definition of right, and struggling to prove it exists. At the same time I still see people refusing to admit it doesn’t exist.

    So, I look at your definition: “Right is that which conforms with a principle.” Given the plethora of principles, that is the same to me as saying right is that which conforms to whatever you want. But I see you saying that right is not a matter of personal preference.

    I assure you (for whatever my assurances are worth) I am not trying to be obtuse or stubborn; I just don’t understand how you reconcile that right is not personal preference and argue its existence.

    One more time, can you tell me what right is, and show me that it exists but is not personal preference? If you can’t, can you explain why you continue to believe it exists?

    -Lee (the Theist)

  • Vincent

    I’m in the party that right (as you define it) does not exist.
    So, several of us have now said right does not exist (it’s an invisible pink unicorn, perhaps you didn’t get that part of my analogy).
    You have yet to provide any evidence that right exists.
    All you have said is that you believe it exists.
    That because you can’t find evidence of its existence using rational thought, rather than give up that belief, you choose to adopt a wold-view that includes what you want to find, even though there is no evidence of such.

    I guess there is a way that you can have come to theism without taking anyone’s word for it, and that would be by yourself inventing a concept of god out of whole cloth. That I doubt you did. I’m sure someone told you about god at some time.
    It sounds now as though you have come up with a unique concept of god as that which is always right – since you can’t give up the idea that there is something always right.
    So, perhaps you define god in a unique way. But where is the evidence for this god, and what does he give you? What evidence does he provide that your gut feeling is correct?

    So, one more time, I don’t have to prove anything because as the one claiming right exists, you have the burden to show it does. You haven’t shown anything to that effect.

  • Lee (the Theist)

    Vincent,

    Ok, I’m a little confused. Are you saying:

    A) Right does not exist at all.

    or that

    B) Right by my definition does not exist, but exists in some other form.

    If you are saying B, than I want to know what your definition is and why it is different from right being personal preference. You are correct; you don’t have to answer this question. But the burden of proof is on you to answer it, since I am the one saying right doesn’t exist from an atheist perspective.

    I keep asking “What is right”

    And I keep hearing:

    “It’s not what you think it is.”

    So what is it then? Your one attempt to define it (that which conforms to a principle) sounded to me like saying right is a matter of personal preference, but you are denying that.

    Every time you get close to saying right doesn’t exist, you qualify it by saying “as you define it.” Leave me out of it and tell me what you think.

    I keep hearing you say B. Then when pressed for what your definition is, or how it exists in a form that is different from personal preference, you seem to be dodging the question. This is what I keep finding among atheists. I think it is intellectual dishonesty.

    Either tell me what right is as you define it, and why it is not personal preference, or admit it doesn’t exist.

    Ash,

    Thanks for your continued attempts to define right for me (the above comment of atheists dodging the question doesn’t apply to you.)

    Can you clarify, what would be the daytime rules that would allow the night time guy to sleep during the day?

    Saying it is a compromise assumes the nightshift guy agrees to them. When I view things from his perspective, I don’t think he would agree to them. It seems that others get all the benefit with little sacrifice, and he gets no benefit but makes all the sacrifice. I wouldn’t agree to that, which would result in rules I don’t like being thrust upon me, and I would see lack of respect, lack of social cohesion (by me being separate from them), avoidance of doing harm, and affirmation by others (as I wouldn’t look kindly on them) were not upheld.

    I am saying the principles are mutually exclusive, not right and wrong.

    For your question: “i noticed that you didn’t answer how your view of morality could possibly work in this situation, or how, when it would appear the absolutes you suggested are in conflict you could resolve this issue without either abandoning them….”

    I did try to answer it with this in my above post:
    So what would my policy be based on my definition of right? You can play your music whenever you want, as loudly as you want, as long as you don’t think it is disturbing anyone. You should turn it down or off if anyone asks you to.

    For the question about absolutes, the only absolute I see is that we should love one another. This rule would satisfy that.

    -Lee (the Theist)

  • ash

    Can you clarify, what would be the daytime rules that would allow the night time guy to sleep during the day?

    well seeing as we’re presuming that the others need to sleep at night in order to work, i think it would be fair to say ‘no loud music until 4pm’, this would give everyone a chance to be obnoxious during the hours of 4-10/11pm, and let mr. night shift have a chance at decent sleep.

    It seems that others get all the benefit with little sacrifice, and he gets no benefit but makes all the sacrifice. I wouldn’t agree to that, which would result in rules I don’t like being thrust upon me

    by my rules, they would all get benefits with little sacrifice. i’d like to introduce the subject of racism here to make a point – a racist is forced to live by rules of equality he doesn’t like being thrust on him and from his point of view, he sees people of a different colour as being sub-standard, or a sub-species to him, therefore neatly negating the need to treat them as human. ie, the need to love one another as only applying to members of ‘his race’. using logic and reason, we can both prove this man to be wrong, but it does not negate the fact that even if he believes in the same absolute as you, he can bring it to bear in a completely different way. (for that matter, should your absolute be extended to more than just humans? how do absolutes inform our opinions on non-human ethical dilemmas, such as animal welfare?)

    i don’t think my principles have to be mutually exclusive, in that they can work in conjunction with each other, as seen by my previous answers. however as i agreed before, i’d say that there is no definitive system of ranking, hence the subjectivity to each situation. i’d imagine that there might be situations where only one could be prevailed upon, but i can’t think of any instances off-hand.

    So what would my policy be based on my definition of right? You can play your music whenever you want, as loudly as you want, as long as you don’t think it is disturbing anyone. You should turn it down or off if anyone asks you to.

    sorry, missed this earlier. i’d say that you’d still need to make some kind of ruling, as most people do not operate by ideals (and what if one of them’s hard of hearing?!). story from personal experience – i live in a small block of flats, so know this problem firsthand. there are guidelines from our housing corp., but i doubt many here have read them. i also know that most residents here are agnostic or only lip-service theists (ie, not a question most are interested in). most people operate their personal music policy on the guidelines you suggest, but arguably reasoned in my terms. the issues come when someone doesn’t. 2 teenagers live across from me, and quite often have parties. following your rules, should i expect them to love me and keep it down? should i love them and their freedom to be teenagers? should they love me enough to forego their wishes, or should i love them enough to forego mine? once again, it seems simplicity introduces complexity…

  • Vincent

    Lee,
    How do you define personal preference then? You seem to be equating it with principles.
    My preference is for dark chocolate, but that does not mean dark chocolate is a principle. Nor does it mean dark chocolate is inherently better than milk chocolate.

    You can’t switch the burden on me. You have said right exists. When you present questions you imply that you want a “right” that is always true. I said such a thing does not exist. You say it does, so show it to me.

  • monkeymind

    The bottom line, I can think of no compelling reasons to convince someone they should do right when they don’t stand to gain, without incorporating faith or theistic concepts. If there is no reason to convince someone what should be done, than that action can no longer be seen as right, and right ceases to exist.

    It would help me if you could explain further what you mean here. By “incorporating faith or theistic concepts” , do you mean rewards in the afterlife for sacrifices in this one, or to hear the words “Well done, thou good and faithful servant?” from the Absolute Judge of Right and Wrong? If so, that just seems to be a re-definiton of “gain”.

    You described “right” above as “God’s will” which you equate with “loving one another.” How can you be sure that you interpreted God’s will correctly? What do you say to Christian Dominionists, who say that it’s God’s will to stone rebellious teenagers?

  • http://fivepublicopinions.blogspot.com AV

    So, several of us have now said right does not exist (it’s an invisible pink unicorn, perhaps you didn’t get that part of my analogy).

    Vincent: I’m no longer participating in this debate, mainly because I have limited access to the internet right now and even less time on my hands. But you have highlighted out another reason. I have articulated in response to Lee what you say above several times–and there are only so many times one can make the same point and be ignored before one can reasonably conclude that one’s interlocutor is not acting in good faith.

    Here’s what I said:

    Earlier, you said “Without faith it would be more accurate to replace right and wrong with terms describing actions as “legal, illegal, advantageous to survival, detrimental to society, a cause of suffering, against the social contract, etc.”” And I replied that these are what I mean, and I daresay it’s what some others in this discussion mean, by the terms “right and wrong.”

    The ineffable, indefinable, theistic, absolutist right and wrong . . . Like yourself, Vincent, I don’t see any evidence that such a thing exists, and therefore I see no reason to believe in it. The burden of proof that such a thing exists remains upon the one who insists that it exists, no matter how earnestly he wishes to avoid it.

    It’s bad enough that Lee ignores the very well thought-out contributions of Bruce and Steelman, and then complains that nobody is answering his questions. But he also has the arrogance to accuse us of being “intellectually dishonest” by “dodging” his questions, when in the very next breath he dodges yours.

    The topper, though, has to be his repeated strawman: that non-theistic ethics are a matter of taste, and only a matter of taste. Perish the thought that non-theists are not in the control of a Great Non-Theistic Hive Mind and might actually take varying approaches to ethical questions: these varying approaches are for Lee nothing more than evidence that our ethics are based solely on personal preferences–like choosing between Pepsi Max and Coke Zero. (Even if they suggest no such thing.) Nor is it allowed that we might adopt critical thinking in attempting to address questions of ethics.

  • Lee (the Theist)

    Ash,

    we can probably go on for ever arguing what Mr. Night Shift would do. I might introduce Mr. Late Shift who sleeps from 4pm – midnight. Now you would either have to extend the daytime policy and have no music ever, or not respect Mr. Late Shift. I proposed this example because for a time, I was Mr. Night Shift. As a medicine resident working nights, noise often interrupted sleep and study during the day. I never felt that, when it came to noise, people respected me. I believe the sentiment was, “It’s not my fault you work such hours.” I admit that I too was being selfish, not respecting the impact daytime silence would have on their lives. The point is that, no matter how hard you try, someone is going to be left out when “balancing” principles. There are always people at either end of the bell curve who won’t see it the same as the 95% within the first standard deviation. To that person, the principles won’t seem balanced; they will seem stacked against them. If it can’t be shown to everyone involved why something is right, I don’t think it actually is right.

    We could go on with countless examples. I can’t imagine having the job at the NIH of deciding where research dollars get allocated. Trying to decide, should we research the diseases that are most likely to be cured, ones that affect the greatest number of people, ones that effect the youngest, or people in the prime of life? Whatever is decided, to the person dying of a fatal disease which is not being researched, it will seem that no one cares about them. The classic is the sinking ship / life boat example. You know, the ship is sinking, there are more people than life boats, too many people will sink a life boat, and who do you save? No matter how the decision is reached, to the person being forcibly thrown overboard, or forcibly left behind, it will not be viewed as the “right” thing to do.

    To me, balancing principles is the same as compromising principles. So the only thing I can see as being right are actions done out of love for others, and viewing this as something which can never be compromised and still be right. This requires personal sacrifice. In the life boat example, I think the right thing to do is to give up ones seat and give others a chance, instead of deciding who should be tossed. Anything apart from this might be understandable, but not justified. Your question about the loud teenagers: “should i love them enough to forego mine? once again, it seems simplicity introduces complexity…” I have no idea, and don’t claim to have answers to complex scenarios. The problem of love is that it is often not returned, making the one giving it often benefiting others more than they receive. This is why none of us are really capable of doing it perfectly; it is rather something we strive for. When I find my kids fighting over a toy, depending on the circumstances, often times I disregard who’s toy it is, or who had it first, and tell them they are both wrong for treating each other in such a manner. I think most parents do this, because as humans we share a similar sense of right and wrong. I think most people apply right and wrong differently to their own family than they do society. Balancing principles doesn’t seem to factor in on a personal level.

    Hiroshima would be an example of balancing principles. I can understand why it was done, and do not judge those in the position who had to make the decision. I also realize I benefit from that decision every day. Yet, since I wouldn’t be able to explain to the mother of a 5 year old why they had to be blown up, I wouldn’t view the action as right.

    Vincent,

    for your question of how do I define personal preference. You defined right as that which is in accordance with a principle. There are countless principles with no system of ranking them, so it would boil down to whatever principle I prefer. Therefore right would be a matter of personal preference, because someone who chose a different principle has no way to prove me wrong. For example, how in the world could anyone ever prove what is more important, survival of the species or respect for others?

    You have asked me to show you “right.” Right, simply defined, is that which a person should do. (I believe a person should love others.)

    How do I show right exists? By observation.

    Lets look at two scenarios of when bad things happen. In the first, let’s say I get stung by a bee. I might be mad, and I might wish the bee hadn’t stung me, but when I really think about it I don’t think the bee shouldn’t have stung me. This is illogical. I have no reason to think a bee can decide what should or should not be done; it just does what it does. Who am I to say what a bee should and shouldn’t do, it is what it is. Even if it is not in my best interest, when I think about being stung I don’t use the word “shouldn’t.” I say, I am mad that I was stung.

    When it comes to human beings, it is different. If someone wrongs me, let’s say they stab me and take my wallet, I say they shouldn’t have done that. I imply there is a way they should and should not behave. Saying “You shouldn’t have done that” is different than saying “I am mad that I was hurt.”

    Go up to any human being who has been hurt by another human, and in some form they will say that the other person “shouldn’t have done that.” “Right” or “should” is a universal concept. There are two ways to view this:

    1) This feeling of “should and should not” is an instinct, a product of evolution for survival. If this is true, then “right” has been debunked, and is a myth. There really is nothing we should or shouldn’t do; we only think that’s the case. Ignoring my instinct for “should” would be the same as a bird ignoring an instinct to fly South for the Winter. Perhaps it wouldn’t be smart, but it wouldn’t truly be wrong.

    2) There really is something out there called right and wrong. The obvious questions arise of what is it and where does it come from.

    These are the two ways I view right and wrong. If there are other ways, I’d like to hear them. I am not trying to prove anything, I am merely drawing logical conclusions. Either #1 is correct, or #2 is correct. You are saying #2 is incorrect, but you are refusing to say #1 is correct, and you are refusing to provide another view of right and wrong. Then you say you shouldn’t have to.

    I have heard the argument, “if God exists, surely God wouldn’t be mad that I am using my God-given intelligence to question God’s existence, or be angry that my intelligence concluded there is no God.”

    Here is the problem with that. Are you really simply using intelligence? Selective use of intelligence I would not define as intellectually honest. Like the scientist who gathers all the information saying there is no global warming, but ignores all the evidence that says there is. This is not intellectually honest. I’ve met a lot of people who will spend hours reading “The God Delusion,” but when asked “Is there a right or wrong” will suddenly have no further time to devote to considering such matters. Vincent, you are doing the same thing. Suddenly, you don’t have to prove anything to me, and can dismiss the question of what right and wrong is. I call this intellectual dishonesty.

    If an atheist does run for president some day, I hope they prepare a better answer to the question “Do you believe in right and wrong, and if so what is it?” than the answer, “I shouldn’t have to tell you.”

    AV,

    In your quote, you say:

    Earlier, you said “Without faith it would be more accurate to replace right and wrong with terms describing actions as “legal, illegal, advantageous to survival, detrimental to society, a cause of suffering, against the social contract, etc.”” And I replied that these are what I mean, and I daresay it’s what some others in this discussion mean, by the terms “right and wrong.”

    Interesting that in your claim that you have clearly defined what right and wrong is, you simply quote me. Where are your words? Most of your “definitions” of right are saying what it isn’t, not what it is. I find a definition of right that is simply a list of things which are mutually exclusive pointless.

    Interesting also you took the time to criticize me for ignoring your supposed previous definition of right and wrong, but didn’t take the time to restate it. If you really had stated it precisely, I would think you would have stated it again in a capital letters or something.

    Either say what it is, in your own words (not mine), or say it doesn’t exist. Saying it doesn’t exist as an absolute, and saying what it isn’t, isn’t answering the question.

    -Lee (the Theist)

  • Vincent

    I’ll give this one last poke.
    Lee, what color is an invisible unicorn?
    If you tell me they don’t exist, then I say you just are using a different definition of color.

    That’s all this discussion is.
    I say your 2 is incorrect. I also say your 1 is incorrect because it is circular. You are still using “right” as an absolute. You say if it’s defined any differently, it doesn’t exist even with the new definition. In fact, the new definition does exist but is not absolute. I can’t prove the existence of universal right because I don’t believe in the existence of universal right. Because I believe right is situational does not mean it doesn’t exist. It means universal right doesn’t exist.

    I’m sorry you can’t comfortably live in a world of uncertainty.

  • Richard Wade

    I’m sorry you can’t comfortably live in a world of uncertainty.

    LOL! That really is the underlying issue behind all this, isn’t it? Some people just can’t accept the absence of absolute certainty.

  • Steelman

    Lee said to Ash, actually, regarding seat assignments on a lifeboat: “To me, balancing principles is the same as compromising principles. So the only thing I can see as being right are actions done out of love for others, and viewing this as something which can never be compromised and still be right. This requires personal sacrifice. In the life boat example, I think the right thing to do is to give up ones seat and give others a chance, instead of deciding who should be tossed. Anything apart from this might be understandable, but not justified.”

    Unless your kids are sitting next to you in that lifeboat, depending on you for their survival, right? The tough nut to crack there is who do we include in the category of “others”, and in whose favor we should commit “actions done out of love” (whatever that may mean). Who to love, how to love them, and how much? I don’t think you offer the same consideration to strangers, in or out of lifeboats, that you do to family members. Otherwise you’d be just as apt to feed, clothe, and send their kids through college as you would your own. Even the most loving theists shouldn’t abandon their familial obligations and behave in that fashion; that would be wrong, yes? Doesn’t giving up your seat in a lifeboat depend on the application of principles beyond just loving others?

    Lee said: “Your question about the loud teenagers: “should i love them enough to forego mine? once again, it seems simplicity introduces complexity…” I have no idea, and don’t claim to have answers to complex scenarios.”

    This is a complex scenario? It seems the single-principle system of ethics is nearly impossible to apply, even for its most ardent advocate. You say you’re unable to solve such a simple dispute? Am I reading you wrong here? I think the trouble you’re having with this one (and a few others) is that there is no universally right answer. A best possible answer for this particular case, all things considered, a number of principles applied, and compromises offered, but not a universally right one. Otherwise, conflict resolution would be a solely logical enterprise, devoid of emotion on all sides. Without emotion, without desire and preference, there’s no conflict in the first place. Without consideration of desire and preference, how would one resolve the question above? We must rank desires and preferences, and the way such things are ranked may change over time, or with the situation. More on this below.

    Lee said to Vincent, regarding the failure of ranking of principles in ethical decision making: “There are countless principles with no system of ranking them, so it would boil down to whatever principle I prefer. Therefore right would be a matter of personal preference, because someone who chose a different principle has no way to prove me wrong. For example, how in the world could anyone ever prove what is more important, survival of the species or respect for others?”

    Lee, you do indeed, as you’ve stated a number of times, prefer a certain principle above all others (loving others because it is the will of God). The fact that you’ve chosen this principle beforehand does not rescue you from the heavy lifting of deciding how to apply it, in various situations, in the way you think is best. That is, the way you most prefer to apply this principle in any given situation. It seems none of us can escape from our own preferences when it comes to ethical decisions. Or do you claim that the vague principle on which you base your ethics can be applied in a manner that has nothing to do with what you’d prefer?

    I think your puzzling aversion to preference has to do with that, in your mind it seems, preference is defined solely as trivial, capricious whim (e.g. “I prefer chocolate to vanilla, and like helping little old ladies across the street more than murder…usually.”) I think preferences can go well beyond what we choose at a moment of high emotion. I think ethical systems are based on preferences; hopefully, well considered in light of reason and consequences. And even those operating under the same system can arrive at different answers as to what is right or wrong in a given situation. That’s one of the reasons why those Christians who wish to love their neighbors, according to the will of God, are split into hundreds of different sects, regardless of the fact that most of them claim to live by the same overriding principle.

  • monkeymind

    I’m feeling ignored :(

  • Lee (the Theist)

    Steelman,

    You said: “I don’t think you offer the same consideration to strangers, in or out of lifeboats, that you do to family members. Otherwise you’d be just as apt to feed, clothe, and send their kids through college as you would your own.”

    You are correct, I don’t. This doesn’t mean I’m right by not doing so. I fail to love in countless ways every day. To me, love is treating everyone on the planet as equally as yourself. Wrong is when you start thinking of some (including yourself) as more important than others. It might be natural to love family and those close to you more than others, but it does not make it right. Consider this. Many Americans get a lot more upset about reports that American soldiers have died than they do when Iraqi civilians have died. This is understandable, but not right. Would the United Nations see this as right?

    You said: “Even the most loving theists shouldn’t abandon their familial obligations and behave in that fashion; that would be wrong, yes?”

    Uh, no. It would be a sign of love for me to say that my kids college education is equally as important as everyone else’s. Favoring one’s child’s education is the kind of logic of people who opposed desegregation. “Why should my kid be the one to suffer to help your kid?” Again, understandable, but not right. (I understand there are other reasons for opposing desegregation, I am just using this example.) Loving others is really hard to do, and no one does it all the time, which is why in my theism we are all seen as sinners.

    You said: “This is a complex scenario? It seems the single-principle system of ethics is nearly impossible to apply, even for its most ardent advocate. You say you’re unable to solve such a simple dispute? Am I reading you wrong here?”

    Yes, you are reading me wrong. It is hard to get in the middle of Ash’s dispute without all of the details. What is important is to act out of love, which is something a person needs to judge for themselves. The barrier is the difficulty of seeing things from another’s perspective. I would argue that most wrongs committed are either failing to see from another’s perspective (blocked by pride, greed, anger, etc.), or simply choosing to do wrong.

    You said: “I think the trouble you’re having with this one (and a few others) is that there is no universally right answer.” Well, according to that, then rape is not universally wrong. Kind of a chilling thought. Defend that one.

    Monkeymind,

    Sorry for not answering your previous post. Its not all that easy to try to respond to multiple different points.

    You said: It would help me if you could explain further what you mean here. By “incorporating faith or theistic concepts” , do you mean rewards in the afterlife for sacrifices in this one, or to hear the words “Well done, thou good and faithful servant?” from the Absolute Judge of Right and Wrong? If so, that just seems to be a re-definiton of “gain”.

    You make a good point. And hence the question: “If the meek shall inherit the Earth, how meek will they be when they do?”

    You could argue that if a theist does “right” it is simply for personal gain. I have no idea what the afterlife is, or what “gains” there are to be had.

    I look at it this way. Lets say someone above gave a wonderful definition of right. If I then were to ask: “Why should I do right?” The answer might be something like: “Because if you don’t, bad things will happen.” If I then were to ask, “What if I don’t care if bad things happen, why should I do right?” There really is no answer. This is where my theism comes in. The answer is, because God requires it.

    Vincent,

    Here is how I see the current debate:

    Me: What is right?
    You: It’s not what you think it is, its not absolute.
    Me: Then does it exist.
    You: Yes.
    Me: Then what is it?
    You: I’ve already told you what right is.
    Me: Sorry, I missed that, can you repeat what right is?
    You: I told you, it’s not what you think it is. It’s not absolute.
    Me: You’ve told me what it isn’t, can you tell me what it is?
    etc.

    You said: “In fact, the new definition does exist but is not absolute.” I wonder why you won’t tell me what this new definition is?

    You are using a word you have no idea how to define. If you did, all of your emails would say: “I told you already, right is defined by…… “ You did this once, saying it is that which gives you a desired outcome, but then you quickly abandoned this.

    I have learned from this debate that atheistic arguments commonly involve the terms straw man and pink unicorn. I’ve also learned that the word absolute is used as a smoke screen. “Question: Is there right and wrong? Answer: Not in an absolute sense.” That isn’t answering the question. I think you are the one who can’t bring yourself to say there are no pink unicorns. Why don’t you admit that you do not believe there is a right and wrong? I think it is because you do believe in right and wrong even when logic tells you it isn’t real. A closet theist perhaps?

    -Lee (the Theist)

  • Vincent

    Lee, you are so exasperating!
    I can’t give you a definition of right that will satisfy you because you want one that applies in all situations.
    No definition of right applies in all situations.
    Does that mean the word is a fiction in the English language? No. Not every word has a uniform definition. In fact it’s the norm that a word can have numerous definitions.
    I think you’re using an incorrect definition, or at least a fantastical one.

    In the olympics, the person who throws the javeline the farthest gets the gold medal. That is right.
    Does that mean the definition of right is rewarding the person who throws the farthest? Not if he’s throwing malatov cocktails or kittens.
    It’s right in the olympics because those are the rules of the olympics.

    Right is that which promotes a principle.
    Principles are prioritized according to the situation you are in.

    “Question: Is there right and wrong? Answer: Not in an absolute sense.” That isn’t answering the question.

    Okay, is Yes, but it is different in any given fact pattern. Is that answering thequestion?

  • Steelman

    I said to Lee: “I don’t think you offer the same consideration to strangers, in or out of lifeboats, that you do to family members. Otherwise you’d be just as apt to feed, clothe, and send their kids through college as you would your own.”

    To which Lee responded in part: “To me, love is treating everyone on the planet as equally as yourself. Wrong is when you start thinking of some (including yourself) as more important than others. It might be natural to love family and those close to you more than others, but it does not make it right.”

    There is a practical limit to how many people a person can actually “love,” whatever actions this loving might entail. Human beings can only spread themselves so thin. Can you imagine a man telling his wife that he was late getting home because he needed to love three other ladies down the block equally? From what I understand of Christian family values, a good solid marriage is one of them, and I don’t see how that can be achieved without a husband spending an unequal amount of time with his wife as opposed to others. Yet this is wrong in your book of moral love?

    I think you and I have completely parted company when it comes to this particular moral obligation, Lee. I agree with you that it is “natural to love family and those close to you more than others,” but disagree that it is wrong to do so. I’m not sure why you’re advocating unnatural behavior as an ideal. I don’t mean unnatural in the sense of controlling natural impulses to achieve a desired outcome, I mean literally denying a large part of what I think it is to be human. Humans, like most mammals, naturally care almost exclusively for their own young. That’s one of the things that makes more humans possible, yes?

    Lee commented further on this subject: “It would be a sign of love for me to say that my kids college education is equally as important as everyone else’s.”

    What if parents told their kids they’ve been contributing an equal amount of money to both their college fund and a charity one for disadvantaged children? The result for many parents might be that a number of disadvantaged children would go to college, while their own would be under funded and, due to the parent’s income level, would be unable to benefit from the charity fund. It seems here that loving others is limited by financial resources, and splitting the money up equally results in unequal opportunity (love). Due to external factors, you simply cannot send everyone else’s kids to college. Instead of treating all college bound children equally, perhaps you could contribute less to the charity fund while fully funding your own children’s education (if able). And your own children might use their education, and resulting financial resources, to spread even more love and opportunity (however you think that might best be accomplished).

    An even greater limiting factor than finances, when it comes to loving others, is time. You may be able to make more money, but you can never make more time. Each weekday I leave for work before my two small children are up (8hr job, 1hr lunch, 1hr commute each way), and arrive back home 2 hours before their bedtime (8pm). In those two hours I eat dinner with them, talk and listen to them, help the 1st grader with his reading and martial arts practice, read them bedtime stories (which often include aspects that contribute to their academic or moral education), then get them ready for bed (pajamas, tooth brushing, etc.) I then have approximately 2hrs before my own bedtime in which to do daily chores, exercise, prepare for work (pack lunch, lay out clothes, etc.), and spend time with my wife.

    Of course, things can happen that break the above routine. Then I have to spend time on the weekend (which has its own set of duties, including spending time giving “love” to people other than my wife and kids) to make up for the regular family obligations which have been neglected due to life’s little interruptions. However, I maintain my routine because I consider it the minimum necessary for having a healthy, happy family. I think this type of family generally has greater potential to do more to help others than one in which the parents are out trying to love everyone else in the world equally.

    A counterexample to the good of loving equally: I’ve seen Christians in ministry involve themselves in so many projects, in an attempt to love others, that none of those projects fared well, and their own family suffered from neglect. This isn’t about a sinful lack of moral effort, it’s about the zero sum game of what humans are literally able to do. And I don’t care if you believe you have God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and all the saints helping you out, there are physical and temporal limits to how thin you can spread yourself, and there are consequences to be considered in how you do the spreading.

    Lee said: “Favoring one’s child’s education is the kind of logic of people who opposed desegregation. ‘Why should my kid be the one to suffer to help your kid?’ Again, understandable, but not right. (I understand there are other reasons for opposing desegregation, I am just using this example.)”

    So you’re basically admitting that you realized opposition to desegregation is a poor example for making your (rather bizarre, I think) point the moment you typed it?

    Lee said, regarding the noisy neighbor dispute: “Yes, you are reading me wrong. It is hard to get in the middle of Ash’s dispute without all of the details. What is important is to act out of love, which is something a person needs to judge for themselves.”

    It’s a hypothetical situation, Lee. Make up any details you like, and solve the problem using your single, universally applicable, ethical principle. Although, according to your last sentence there, it seems this would involve the preference of the decider (which you eschew), so no universal answer is possible. Everything I said to you in my last post, about the problem of preference in the application of an absolute ethical principle, once again rears its ugly head. How can something be absolute when such absolutes can only be applied in a relative fashion, thereby resulting in non-absolute outcomes? You still haven’t dealt with this problem, and it’s a deal breaker.

    Lee quoted me and said: ” ‘I think the trouble you’re having with this one (and a few others) is that there is no universally right answer.’ Well, according to that, then rape is not universally wrong. Kind of a chilling thought. Defend that one.”

    By “no universally right answer,” I meant you cannot apply an “absolute” principle in a myriad of situations to always arrive at the same outcome. The idea of absolutism fails. If anyone goes back and reads the rest of the paragraph, from which you pulled my quote, I think it will be abundantly clear to them that that is what I meant. You sidestepped the issue I was presenting (preference) by quoting out of context.

    You’ve asked me to explain why rape is wrong in an ethical system that isn’t grounded in concepts of absolute right and wrong. At the end of my 7/14 7:43 pm response I likened the development of social morals to a business model of “best practices” (I’ve corrected a grammatical error in the original):

    I think of social morals like the business model of “best practices.” The best practices of today may or may not turn out to be the best ones for tomorrow. Some of those practices may stay the same indefinitely, others may change at the next board meeting (and then continue to be accepted, or later rejected). The ones that stand the test of time unchanged do not continue to do so because they are absolutes, or just because the business owners have faith in them; they are simply the ones that continue to result in success. The difference between practices accepted on faith as absolute, and the best practices that stand the test of time, is that the best practices may be reviewed to determine if they still are indeed the best. This, I think, is how relativists can still be strongly principled without turning to absolutism, which lends itself to authoritarianism.

    I would apply the business model by equating “success” with the prevention of unnecessary and non-consensual human suffering. Unless we’re talking about the survival of a small band of prehistoric humans who will cease to exist unless they reproduce, and whose females are all sexually reticent, it would be my desire to place the prevention of human suffering above all other principles, and so be opposed to rape. It is true that members of that prehistoric band might consider their ultimate survival a lesser principle in that scenario, in which case we would be assured that none of us are related to them.

    Now, I’ve presented “the prevention of unnecessary and non-consensual human suffering” as one of my strongly held principles. It’s been quite “successful” in meeting the goal of building the type of society in which I (there it is again!) prefer to live, and have my children live in as well, so I’m keeping it for the foreseeable future. If others disagree with my application of this principle in a given situation, I can try to talk them into accepting it through appeals to reason and emotion. The only thing I can’t do, in good conscience, is push my agenda by claiming the right of divine purpose (although I can appeal to the moral agreement of other’s religious beliefs with my position on an issue, even if we agree to disagree about the metaphysical origins of our shared moral stance).

    Could it be said that I’m holding this as an absolute principle? In the sense of it being universally applicable, no; “unnecessary” opens it up to subjective interpretation. In the sense of it being objectively true, regardless of differing opinions (i.e., a moral fact), no; I have no reason to believe that any moral principles exist outside of human minds. We make the rules. We make them in response to outside influences, and our genetic predispositions, but human beings are solely responsible for their formulation and application. In your “system” (and, sorry, I fail to see even a hint of any actual system) God formulates the rules correctly, and human beings always apply them incorrectly. It seems the fix is in, and humanity has been played the fool, since they’ve been designed to be incapable of hitting the moral mark. But I digress…

    Look, Lee, you’re welcome to follow the path of the bodhisattva if you like. And as long as you weren’t neglecting your family by doing so, then I’d say more power to you. Otherwise, and to put it back in the Christian paradigm:

    “Some people are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.”
    -Oliver Wendell Holmes

  • Lee (the Theist)

    Vincent,

    Yes, I know I can be exasperating. But I still don’t think you understand what I am asking.

    I am saying that right doesn’t exist. You argue it does. The only way I can show you it doesn’t exist is for you to tell me what you think it is, that way I can show you it doesn’t exist even by your definition. As long as you don’t tell me what it is, you are safe. Clever. Like a politician who won’t answer a question and therefore can never be told he is wrong.

    You said: “I can’t give you a definition of right that will satisfy you because you want one that applies in all situations.”

    Remember, I am not asking for a formula by which all prime numbers in the world can be derived, I am just asking for a definition of prime.

    For your example of the javelin throw, look at is this way. The definition of “win” is “to be a victor in a contest.” If asked how one is a victor, I can refer one to the rules of the contest in question. Defining win doesn’t mean I’m defining how every contest of the world is won, and I am making no statements about throwing a javelin, I am just saying what wining is.

    You said: “No definition of right applies in all situations.” This is like saying that you can’t define “win,” because there are many different ways you can win.

    My definition of right is “that which one should do.” The right action is the action one should take. This definition doesn’t incorporate God, it is just a definition of what people mean when they say “right.”

    There is really nothing anyone should do. What people should do depends on what people want to achieve. The nice thing is that most of us have shared goals, so actions we should do to achieve our shared goals have a lot in common. This makes it seem like there is an actual right. But if someone has a different goal, then what is right for them is different. This is why I claim right either doesn’t exist, or is a matter of personal preference.

    For example. Lets say Joe is going to commit suicide. He is deciding whether he should just kill himself, or kill his family as well. How do you tell him he is wrong to kill his family with him? You could argue principles of preservation of society, not inflicting human suffering, etc. But he will just say, “I don’t care about those things.” You can’t use the logic that harming his family is bad for him, because whether he does or not he will be dead and it won’t affect him. If you tell him it is wrong to hurt people, he will say “Why is it wrong to hurt people?” You have no answer, unless you appeal to some base by saying “it’s just wrong.”

    Words can’t have shifting definitions. Everyone disagrees on what they consider to be art, but everyone can still agree on a definition of art.

    You said: “Right is that which promotes a principle. Principles are prioritized according to the situation you are in.”

    Who organizes the principles, and based upon what? I realize you can write books for that answer, but those books will be personal preference, not anything objective.

    Steelman,

    You said: “How can something be absolute when such absolutes can only be applied in a relative fashion, thereby resulting in non-absolute outcomes? You still haven’t dealt with this problem, and it’s a deal breaker.”

    Ok, I’ll defend my definition of right.

    I say, right is that which one should do. Everyone, no matter who you are or what you desire, should love each other. I can say that because I think God requires that we do it.

    So, in essence, love is the judge of right and wrong.

    Does this mean I am inflexible or rigid? No. Because trying to decide what is love requires viewing things from others perspective, and having a lot of information.

    For example. Let’s say I am a wealthy plantation owner. I work hard. I might think that stealing is wrong, because certainly if people stole from me they wouldn’t be loving me, would they?

    Next, by a change in fortune I am homeless and penniless, with a starving child. Suddenly, going on a plantation and taking apples to feed my child doesn’t seem wrong, because it is an act of love for my child. The plantation owner who is hoarding food while others starve now seems not to be acting out of love.

    You see, in both examples love is the judge, so there is consistency. But what actions are deemed right and wrong might change with perspective and information.

    Figuring out what is right and wrong involves getting information to judge things from all perspectives.

    You said: “There is a practical limit to how many people a person can actually “love,” and you said “An even greater limiting factor than finances, when it comes to loving others, is time.”

    There might be a limit on how much time you can spend with other people, but this doesn’t impact whether you love them. Limiting time isn’t the same as limiting love. As a parent I can share your perspective of the difficulties of finding enough time to spend with your kids. But let me ask you this. If you were pulled away from your kids for a year, lets say to go off to Iraq or because of an illness, does that mean you love them less?
    If I don’t have time to fly across the globe to help tsunami victims, that doesn’t mean I don’t love them. If I vote against sending any financial aid to tsunami victims, that might mean I don’t love them.

    You said:
    “I think you and I have completely parted company when it comes to this particular moral obligation, Lee. I agree with you that it is “natural to love family and those close to you more than others,” but disagree that it is wrong to do so. I’m not sure why you’re advocating unnatural behavior as an ideal.”

    You are correct, we have parted company.

    Consider this scenario. I am an American father. I don’t want my son to go off to war where he has a high percentage chance of dying. I know if we drop a bomb on Hiroshima, he won’t have to. Seems right. Now, I am a father of a child in Hiroshima. I have nothing to do with the war. I have just seen my child killed by an atomic bomb in an effort to terrorize and stop the war. Seems wrong.

    If you allow for unequal valuation of life, then result MUST be that right and wrong will simply be a matter of perspective. Both sides will view the same situation, yet disagree on what is right with no hope of arriving at a common view. Love demands equal valuation. Logically, if we ever hope to achieve a harmonious society, we will need equal valuation.

    Think of all of those “natural” statements that seem to pop up when wrong occurs. “How would you like it if… “ , “How would you feel if…. “ , “I’ll show you what its like to…. “

    So much of right has to do with viewing things from other’s perspective, and so much of wrong comes from when we are unwilling, or make an error, in doing so.

    If I am on the board at a medical school, are you saying it is ok for me to grant my child acceptance, slip him in the back door because I love him more than other people’s children?

    You made the comment: “Due to external factors, you simply cannot send everyone else’s kids to college.”

    True. But lets use the example of healthcare. If I can’t afford to send everyone’s kid to college, then I certainly can’t afford to pay everyone’s child’s healthcare. But lets say someone has no insurance, and their child has leukemia. Is it right that child gets no treatment? What I can do is vote for federal support of indigent care. I can also support federal programs to make sure every child has equal access to education.

    You said: “there are physical and temporal limits to how thin you can spread yourself, and there are consequences to be considered in how you do the spreading.”

    I agree with you there. But again, just as American soldiers fighting in Iraq still love their families at home, temporal limits don’t equate to less love.

    I still think you are sidestepping the rape issue. Is rape universally wrong?

    You said: “it would be my desire to place the prevention of human suffering above all other principles.” And “meeting the goal of building the type of society in which I (there it is again!) prefer to live,” and “The only thing I can’t do, in good conscience, is push my agenda by claiming the right of divine purpose.”

    So, if someone holds that survival of the species is more important than prevention of human suffering, do you seem them as wrong, or as having a different preference? If you see them as having a different preference, it seems to mean that right is a matter of personal preference.

    -Lee (the Theist)

  • ash

    i’ll start with the hard one…

    I still think you are sidestepping the rape issue. Is rape universally wrong?

    Steelman’s answer;

    Unless we’re talking about the survival of a small band of prehistoric humans who will cease to exist unless they reproduce, and whose females are all sexually reticent, it would be my desire to place the prevention of human suffering above all other principles, and so be opposed to rape.

    i’d go with the fact that rape is now universally unjustified in terms of survival of species (the only one of my reasons that could possibly apply to oppose wrong) due to technological advance (ie species propogation now available with artificial insemination), therefore there is no reasoning to justify rape as morally right. i’d also throw in the idea of statutory rape…2 kids, both 15 (i’m going by english law BTW), both consenting, both responsible in that they used contraception etc…the male is arrested, charged + convicted of rape. now i see that as morally wrong, but the law + any member of society without the facts see him as a rapist. to confuse things further, you could also introduce beastiality, but i really don’t want to go there…!

    Lee I am not asking for a formula by which all prime numbers in the world can be derived, I am just asking for a definition of prime.
    Vincent Right is that which promotes a principle.
    Principles are prioritized according to the situation you are in.

    i’d say Vincent has given a definition of right here, no he hasn’t qualified it at all, but Lee has said again and again that he didn’t need to

    Lee, the biggest problem here is that we’re coming at the same conversation from completely different purposes, you appear to be saying that you view right and wrong as tangible concepts that exist whether there is a concious mind to observe them or not, i and others view right and wrong as concepts that exist only as inventions of a concious mind. as such, principles of right and wrong can only be relative, to the situation, to the beholder, to the judged etc. as yet, i’ve heard plenty of things to support my view, but nothing to even start convincing me of the way you view these concepts. i know you keep saying that by my view, you can prove right + wrong don’t exist, but i see nothing to prove that your right + wrong exist either. so should we just take these concepts as given and focus on how we understand them?

    to pick up on a much earlier point, i have actually heard the suicide bomber ‘done out of love for others’ argument – that is that not only are westerners worshipping the wrong god, but they live and worship in the wrong way, risking the eternal damnation of their souls; a minority of both sides should be willing to pay with their lives in order to bring the majority to their senses, and therefore allow more to be saved; nothing but love for their god and their fellow man compels them to become instruments for that love. totally sick in my view, but arguably following both ‘do as you would be done by’ (i would wish to be saved from hell) and ‘everyone should love each other’ (i am willing to die for your sake).

    Words can’t have shifting definitions. Everyone disagrees on what they consider to be art, but everyone can still agree on a definition of art.

    ok, here’s a simple one – please define ‘art’ for me without referring to an example of it…?

    If you tell him it is wrong to hurt people, he will say “Why is it wrong to hurt people?” You have no answer, unless you appeal to some base by saying “it’s just wrong.”

    i could actually have a convo with him regarding why i felt it was wrong based on logic and reasoning. however, if i had to resort to an absolutist base of ‘because it’s wrong because it’s wrong because it’s wrong…’, what stops him from just asking ‘why?’ once more?

    temporal limits don’t equate to less love.

    no, but try telling the iraqi child that you have never seen, that has never heard of you, and has not benefitted from your vote or money that you love them as much as your american son at home that you spend time with and money on…and then explain to them how the temporal effects don’t really mean as much as your love…and maybe then forgive them for their disbelief.

  • Lee (the Theist)

    Vincent, Ash, and Steelman,

    Ok, I think I’ve come up with an example to illustrate my point.

    Lets say there are two political parties. The “No pain” party, which believes that the prevention of human suffering is the most important principle. And, the “Survival” party, which believes survival of the species, is the most important principle.

    New legislation is proposed. It should be legal to do forced (non-consented) medical experimentation on death row inmates.

    The “No pain” part argues that it is wrong because it is causing more suffering.

    The “Survival” party argues that the benefits derived to society will far outweigh the suffering, which is less important.

    By Steelman’s definition of right, that which promotes a principle, both sides are arguing for the promotion of their own principle. Then the qualification, “principles are prioritized according to the situation you are in.” Both sides are prioritizing their principles according to the situation. So both sides appear right by that definition.

    So it would seem that medical experimentation on death row inmates is both right and wrong depending on who is viewing it. It seems a matter of personal preference.

    What atheism doesn’t answer is how to prioritize these principles everyone keeps talking about. The hope is that with lengthy discussions everyone will just agree, but clearly in so many circumstances humans do not. If the “No pain” party and the “Survival” party never bend on their principles, than it seems to me right and wrong either don’t exist, or becomes a matter of personal preference.

    How would you determine who is right and who is wrong in the medical expirimentation example?

    To the issue of rape. I think it is wrong because, clearly, it is not out of concern / love for the other person. It is treating a person as an object. It is causing suffering which clearly is not love. If you allow prioritizing of principles, you open the door that it can be accepted. Currently, many argue to justify torture. If one accepts that torture can be justified, why can’t rape be a part of torture? Terrorism is a military tactic. Many gorilla fighting units use rape as a military tactic. Once you open the door to things like Hiroshima being justified, one can argue rape is justified. It is only if you hold to an absolute, the principle of love and that people shouldn’t be a means to an end, that you can condemn such things as wrong. Otherwise it becomes a matter of opinion, perspective, and what principles are prioritized in what way.

    Ash, to the issue of terrorist acting out of love. I have surfed the net, read Osama bin Laden’s statement on 9/11, and read some terrorist websites. I don’t get the feeling anyone is doing terrorism out of love for America. Anger seems to be the driving force there.

    -Lee (the Theist)

  • ash

    the ‘no pain’ vs ‘survival’ party theory, for me, just illustrates why my principles do not have to be mutually exclusive and why the ranking of such principles cannot be set in stone. no pain is desirable as an individual would not wish it to be so for themselves; this is a good argument based on reason. for the survivalist point, they would have to prove that this method is a) the best method and b) would actually produce the desired results, for it to be a truly reasoned logical argument. if this cannot be proved, then though the point would still be valid and could be used as part of the reasoning involved in reaching a decision, in this particular case it would count less in deciding right than the more logical argument of the no pain principle.

    the counter example would be this; 2 political parties – ‘love each other #1′ and ‘love each other #2′. #1 believes medical experimentation on death row inmates should be allowed because it will help all those currently suffering, they further believe that if they had done harm to others such as the inmates had, they would wish to atone by loving others in this way. #2 believes medical experimentation on death row inmates should not be allowed because their love for those who are suffering should not impose further suffering on others, regardless of any previous wrongdoing committed.

    So it would seem that medical experimentation on death row inmates is both right and wrong depending on who is viewing it. It seems a matter of personal preference.

    ***********************

    re; the terrorist issue –

    although i’d agree with you in the majority of cases (and i’m not just talking about those in america), i do believe that some islamic extremists act out of genuine concern for others, just as i believe that some fundamentalist christians are prompted by the same motivations. this is not to say i appreciate the words or actions of either, however…!

  • http://olvlzl.blogspot.com olvlzl, no ism, no ist

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen a comment thread last this long. Looks like a miracle, folks.

  • Darryl

    Wow! You folks have gone chasing rabbits on this topic. I suppose that means that no progress was being made on the original question. I see that Lee is still typing his excessively long rejoinders and that he is being surrejoined by the faithful handful. Thinking deeply about morality is useful so long as it does not become too abstract. I think the meta-commentary on this thread is more interesting and useful than the topics discussed so far.

  • Steelman

    Lee gives an example of a plantation owner who first opposes theft then, due to a change in circumstances, engages in it. He then comments: “You see, in both examples love is the judge, so there is consistency. But what actions are deemed right and wrong might change with perspective and information.”

    So, stealing is both right and wrong, depending on perspective and information, and you find a consistency in this? What if the landowner wasn’t hoarding food, he was just going about his business as the formerly wealthy, now starving, person was doing previously? Still okay to show love by stealing? What about the person who holds to the absolute principle that stealing is always wrong? It seems you’re now arguing in favor of preference in assessing morality. I think we all can stop spending so much time refuting your absolutism now that you’re doing such a fine job of it yourself. :)

    Lee said: “There might be a limit on how much time you can spend with other people, but this doesn’t impact whether you love them. Limiting time isn’t the same as limiting love.”

    It impacts how much you are able to love them. Remember, you were talking about loving all people equally. Are you saying that you can demonstrate this belief of yours by actually doing more for your family than others, and then telling the rest of the world that you’re just thinking about them? I continue to find it (mildly) interesting how you introduce concepts as morally necessary (e.g. do as you’d be done by, equal love), then drop them when they prove to be indefensible.

    Lee said: “If you were pulled away from your kids for a year, lets say to go off to Iraq or because of an illness, does that mean you love them less?”

    You’re proving my point about the impossibility of equal love. I would be there for my kids if those extenuating circumstances you propose weren’t preventing it. The extenuating circumstance that keeps anyone from loving all others equally is that of being human. There aren’t enough hours in the day for anyone to even think of each individual person on the globe, let alone be able to actually do something for all of them. Therefore, equal love seems practically impossible. My Christian ministry example shows why it is also inadvisable; it takes love away from one’s own family, which I think is the stronger moral obligation (I know you disagree with that).

    There’s more suffering in the world than I can ever even know about, and I can’t love (or even think about) everyone equally, so I have to settle for picking a cause or two and doing something about it. That’s my take on loving others.

    Lee said: “Figuring out what is right and wrong involves getting information to judge things from all perspectives.”
    …and…
    “So much of right has to do with viewing things from other’s perspective, and so much of wrong comes from when we are unwilling, or make an error, in doing so.”

    It seems we’re back to “do as you’d be done by.” You are able to view things from another’s perspective because you think about how they feel, yes? You apply “do as you’d be done by” by thinking about how you would feel if someone did to you the thing you’re considering doing to them, right? It seems to me that what’s going on here is not just a gathering of information, but a consideration of preferences, in order to assess right and wrong. More on this later.

    Lee said: “If I am on the board at a medical school, are you saying it is ok for me to grant my child acceptance, slip him in the back door because I love him more than other people’s children?”

    I could consider my desire to help my son, along with the short and long term consequences of breaking the rules (I might lose my job, and my son his future opportunities). I could include another aspect of my own self-interest, my goal of building the type of society I would want to live in (and the real fact that my actions entail the actual building of that society), when considering if I’d find it desirable to have a medical board that I couldn’t trust to admit only qualified students. In this case it seems using personal preference, to arrive at a self-centered view on this question, gives me the answer I think you would consider right (i.e., “no”).

    Lee quotes me here and responds below:

    I think you and I have completely parted company when it comes to this particular moral obligation, Lee. I agree with you that it is “natural to love family and those close to you more than others,” but disagree that it is wrong to do so. I’m not sure why you’re advocating unnatural behavior as an ideal.

    Lee said: “You are correct, we have parted company.”

    So, since you believe you should love everyone equally, when it comes to deciding between the welfare of your children and the welfare of strangers you have no preference? If you only had enough money to buy food for your kids or for the homeless guy that just showed up on your doorstep, what would you do? Flip a coin? Unless you’re just paying lip service to this ideal of loving everyone equally, (and considering some of the things you’ve said since about just thinking of others, rather than taking action, I think you might be) your kids can’t trust you to care for them any more than you would a stranger. I wonder if they’d prefer to be raised like many of their friends; by someone who loves them more than some random person off the street? Maybe your kids are on board with your version of morality, and they have no greater love for you than the guy who feeds the pigeons in the park, so they might as well spend as much time with him as they would you. Sorry, Lee, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I’m really having a hard time believing you live by this principle of equal love.

    Lee quotes me here and responds below:

    How can something be absolute when such absolutes can only be applied in a relative fashion, thereby resulting in non-absolute outcomes? You still haven’t dealt with this problem, and it’s a deal breaker.

    Lee said: “Ok, I’ll defend my definition of right.
    I say, right is that which one should do. Everyone, no matter who you are or what you desire, should love each other. I can say that because I think God requires that we do it.
    So, in essence, love is the judge of right and wrong.”

    Lee, I completely fail to see how your response addresses my question in any way. Using love to judge right and wrong is dependent on a person’s interpretation of that word in any given situation. Their interpretation depends on what they prefer to call love according to their desires. Don’t you personally first have to desire, to prefer, to do what God requires to be moral? It seems desire, and the preference it entails, is an integral part of morality. People have to care about right and wrong to even begin to consider whether their actions might fit in one category or the other. They then have to care about, have preferences for or against, different parties and positions on issues. An example:

    A police officer arrives at a domestic dispute call where a man is pointing a gun at a woman. The man refuses repeated commands by the officer to drop the weapon, is highly agitated, and says he’s going to kill her. The officer believes that the commission of a homicide is imminent and, according to the law and police procedure, the use of lethal force is justified. He cannot love both parties in the dispute equally, he cannot consider both human lives of equal value, it is his duty to shoot and kill the man. His desire to uphold the law, and protect the innocent party, exceeds his desire not to kill. He’s not putting desire aside in this moral decision, he is favoring one desire over another.

    Lee said: “So, if someone holds that survival of the species is more important than prevention of human suffering, do you seem them as wrong, or as having a different preference? If you see them as having a different preference, it seems to mean that right is a matter of personal preference.”

    Personal preference is a factor, but not the only factor, in determining right and wrong. Having any position at all on an issue entails preference, yes? You can arrive at that preference out of prejudice and ignorance, or from a well informed and reasonable perspective, but you can’t even want to resolve a moral question unless you have a desire to do so. Again, you can’t have morality without desire.

    You seem stuck on believing that non-absolutist morality is either solely based on heartless logic and reason, or capricious desire alone. Emotion provides the impetus to make moral decisions, reason tempers emotion’s ability to cause human beings to act without considering consequences. No matter how many times I’ve explained it, you can’t seem to get your head around the idea of employing both logic and emotion in decision making. Which, by the way, is exactly what I think you actually do in practice, despite your seeming insistence that you’re some kind of faith-based robot who can’t make his own decisions.

    With that, I’m done posting in this thread (I swear!). I’ve appreciated your responses as they’ve helped me explore my own thoughts on morality according to Lord Acton’s aphorism: “Learn as much by writing as by reading.”

    Unfortunately, I’m still not sure what to think about your professed moral stance(s), and I doubt further discussion will clarify it for me. I can only conclude that I’ve either completely misunderstood you, that you’ve been totally disingenuous about what you actually believe and do, or you do believe what you say and are therefore a confused and untrustworthy individual.

  • monkeymind

    Lee:

    Let me propose an example to test your immutable Law of Love.

    Let’s say that a young woman has an opportunity to attend a prestigious college a thousand miles away from her parents. Her parents are strongly opposed. They feel that women don’t need to go to college, but should stay at home until they are married. In this way, they will be protected and safe from all the dangers of the world.

    Furthermore, let’s say that the daughter wants to study fashion design (the most frivolous occupation I can think of) and the far-away college she has won a scholarship to is the top school for fashion design. She would be virtually guaranteed a job in a very competitive field is she attended this college. Her reasons for wanting to go away to college are that it will be interesting and fun and she really, really loves designing clothes. No altruism there, just a desire for self-fulfillment.

    The parents are completely convinced that their view of the duties of parental love is the only correct one. The daughter also believes that their love for her is sincere. If the daughter accepted your idea of love as the only moral imperative, she would have to stay home and forgo her chance of self-fulfillment, correct?

  • Lee (the Theist)

    I need to preface this by saying I will not be able to respond until Monday, as I am indisposed for the weekend. The difficulty with this blog format is that there is one of me, and there are multiple people posting, with multiple questions, generating multiple directions and lengthy replies. At some point it reaches diminishing marginal utility.

    For those who are interested in continuing this, I will be back on Monday. I realize that this has gone on for a long time, but I have found it helpful. I can understand that at some point the utility of this post is lost.

    I want to refocus my question, then I will try to respond to everyone.

    If I had to boil down my point to one question, it would be to ask how atheists rank the value of opposing principles (survival of the species, avoidance of suffering) when they are in conflict. If they can not be ranked, it seems that right and wrong become a matter of opinion.

    I think this question is best illustrated in the medical experimentation of death row inmate example, so I will state it again, and would appreciate some perspective on it.

    There are two political parties. The “No pain” party believes that the prevention of human suffering is the most important principle. The “Survival” party, which believes survival of the species, is the most important principle. A law is proposed to do forced (non-consented) medical experimentation on death row inmates. The “No pain” part argues that it is wrong because it is causing more suffering. The “Survival” party argues that the benefits derived to society will far outweigh the suffering, which is less important. If the “No pain” party and the “Survival” party never bend on their principles, than it seems to me right and wrong either don’t exist, or becomes a matter of personal preference.

    To ash,

    You said: “for the survivalist point, they would have to prove that this method is a) the best method and b) would actually produce the desired results”

    So lets say that the “Survival” party could prove that this is the best method and would produce the desired results. I say this because it is true it would be the most effective method of research. Progress is quick when researching lab rats. You can give them diseases, study drug toxicity, biopsy organs at any given time to test drug effect / adverse effect. When you move to humans it becomes incredibly slow. The trial has to be safe, severely limiting what can be studied. Randomized placebo controlled trials require at least the standard of care for the placebo arm (ie, no cancer trails can be done with just placebo anymore as it would be unethical), require recruitment and voluntary enrollment, require constant preliminary review of results and terminating the study early if harm is shown…. I can go on. Treat humans like rats, you’ll have a quick answer. Want to know if Estrogen replacement is really good or bad for women, it would take about six months. We will likely never know with current ethical retrospective observational data in humans.

    So, what now. The Survival party and No Pain part both have strong arguments given their principles. Is it even possible to decide who is right? Isn’t this saying right is a matter of preference?

    For the example you pose of people who might think that loving death row inmates could be interpreted as forcing them to be involved in experiments for atonement. It can easily be shown that atonement has to be voluntary. A forced apology is not an apology, forced atonement is not atonement.

    Regarding the argument that some extremists might be acting out of love for others, I would still argue that that rare person is still either 1) Blinded by pride, which blocks them from perspective viewing, or 2) Mentally Ill, which brings up a whole new topic as to what extent the mentally ill (schizophrenic) is responsible for their actions.

    I realized I did not answer your previous question to define art. “Art: That which produces pleasure by nature of its form, substance, or style.”

    To Steelman,

    I understand that was your last post, and I would like to say thanks for exploring some ideas with me. Since that was your last post, I will ask only rhetorical questions, with no need to respond.

    You said:
    “So, stealing is both right and wrong, depending on perspective and information, and you find a consistency in this?”

    Nope, it’s not what I am saying. When Newton proposed the laws of gravity, from his perspective they seemed correct. Einstein and others later noticed they didn’t predict planetary motion, and motions of objects at high speed. Now we have relativity theory that does. Newton was incorrect. I do not think of him as being correct back then, but incorrect now. He was incorrect then. Einstein is also probably incorrect. Their theories are incomplete, but the correct theory does exist.

    There is a right and wrong for stealing. To determine it, you have to judge things equally from all perspectives. We are limited in our ability to do it, but if we want to get closer to right and wrong we have to keep trying, and allow for modifications as we get more information. Recognizing human limitations does not mean love as a principle is wrong.

    I lot of your argument against love being a good judge for right and wrong seems to stem from the fact that I don’t do it. I’ll respond to that by saying that you are correct, I don’t do it. I am selfish. I still think this is wrong.

    To the concept of love being equated with time, you said: “It impacts how much you are able to love them.” I don’t agree with equating love with action.

    Are you saying a stay at home father loves their children more than you, a father with out of home employment?

    I agree we can’t do everything for everyone. But I disagree that just because we aren’t there for everyone it means we can’t love them equally. It is indifference that is wrong, not lack of omnipotence.

    To the issue of you continuing to argue it is ok for one to love ones family more than others. You seemed to backtrack.

    In the father on the medical board letting his son in example, you argue against nepotism by saying: “I could include another aspect of my own self-interest, my goal of building the type of society I would want to live in (and the real fact that my actions entail the actual building of that society),” Sounds like you are backtracking. Sounds like you are putting the interest of others at least equal to those of your child. People have shown favoritism in this way (nepotism) for hundreds of years without the downfall of society, yet you still argue against it. Sounds like you are admitting you shouldn’t look at your own family as more important than the rest of society. Now it is my turn to say you are doing a fine job at arguing my point.

    You said: “the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I’m really having a hard time believing you live by this principle of equal love.” And “I can only conclude that I’ve either completely misunderstood you, that you’ve been totally disingenuous about what you actually believe and do.”

    I’m not sure I understand this logic. I am not too good at quantum mechanics, that doesn’t mean quantum mechanics doesn’t exist. I fail to love on a daily basis in countless ways. Instead of saying this means loving everyone equally isn’t right, I see that I am a flawed human being, selfish, a sinner to use a religious term.

    You said: “No matter how many times I’ve explained it, you can’t seem to get your head around the idea of employing both logic and emotion in decision making. Which, by the way, is exactly what I think you actually do in practice”

    I agree with you. Love is determined with emotion, hence the question “How would you feel if that were you.” Logic is needed to ask the question of how everyone will view a situation, and to suppress unhelpful emotions such as anger and pride.

    You said: “you can’t have morality without desire.”

    Yes, if you believe that than perhaps we do agree after all. Every “ought” requires a “if.” You need to want something to know what the “ought” should be. If a person has no desire, you can’t tell them what they “should” do. There is no right. It is only with a theistic concept, an idea that no matter what a person desires, they should love others, that you can do this.

    You said: “your seeming insistence that you’re some kind of faith-based robot who can’t make his own decisions.”

    If that is your impression of me, or faith, then perhaps this purpose of this blog was lost.

    My impression of you is that you do make your ethical decisions based on the principle of love, and the idea that people “should” love others no matter what their desire. Hense your imperative of non-suffering.

    Monkeymind,

    Ok, I’ll address your scenario.

    Love, in part, is doing what is in another’s best interest.

    If the parents are making a decision to protect their daughter from danger, than the best thing to do is explore what the danger is. An honest exploration of the dangers at the far away college (crime rate, homicide rate, etc.) and comparing it to their home town will likely show it is no different. Hence the parents will change their mind.

    If the parents are making their decision because women don’t need to go to college, then the best thing is an analysis of why they feel that way. If they are able to view things from their daughter’s perspective, they will see her as equal to men. They will also see that it will cause her happiness, and will want that for her.

    Now will you answer my political scenario at the beginning of this post?

    -Lee (the Theist)

  • ash

    Lee, final points before i abandon this thread (i think most points have been made and argued pretty well already).

    So, what now. The Survival party and No Pain part both have strong arguments given their principles.

    now we’d have to look at all the other lines of reasoning i suggested and see whether they gave any further rationale to add to the decision, the correct moral decision would then be the one that concurred with most of these guidelines, was guided by historical precedents, was influenced by instinctual examples, etc. i do not believe that right and wrong are already tangible concepts that we can just stumble across by any method. the art definition you gave exemplifies this for me; the definition means as little as ‘that which is desirable’ means to you as a definition of right and wrong; it may define a word, but gives absolutely no meaning to it’s content. ie by this definition, art is butter, a tree, a bird, marshmallows etc. does this mean there either is no art? or that art does not exist? or that art is already there, just waiting to be discovered by an artist? i would say not, and that its similarity lies to right and wrong in that it is a man-made/defined reality. i hope i have made the way i view these concepts clear to you.

    i also feel that arguing from an absolutist stance is possibly more open to abuse than moral relativism – with relativism, one has to argue the point from a logical reasonable base, and seek agreement/comprehension from another by appeals to the same. with absolutism, one proposes that there is only one right answer, so with less/no room for compromise, by appeals to a higher authority that no-one can argue with. if we’re talking about government, i would always rather one that had to prove it was right on any moral issue, than one that claimed it was right and any disagreement was heresy.

    anyhoo, i’ve appreciated you being polite, honest + reasonable. cheers for the discussion x

  • monkeymind

    Lee:

    In my example of the parents who didn’t want their daughter to go away to college, let’s say that their fears they expressed weren’t amenable to reasoning, because they were in fact rationalizations of their desire for control. My point was that in a society where “love” is characterized as acting out of concern for others, and is seen as the highest or indeed the only value, manipulators will always have the upper hand unless there is a concept of fairness and justice to balance the concept of “love as acting out of concern for others first”.
    In this case regardless of the rights and wrongs, the daughter knows that she will cause her parents much pain by going away to college. My concern is that in your universe, the daughter would not only have the pain of a break with her parents, but also the burden of sinning against “God’s will,” unless her worldview is balanced by the idea that fairness demands that everyone has the right to the pursuit of happiness or self-fulfillment.

    I think the reason you have a sense of right and wrong, is that we all have an innate sense of empathy for others, and an innate sense of fairness. You can see this in very young children. These capacities can be developed or suppressed, in our society, most people agree that they should be developed.

    You seem to have some anxieties about moral choices being debated by people who may have different opinions about how different moral principles might be ranked, etc. It’s hard to envision an alternative, however, since even those who believe they have insight into the will of God come to different conclusions about what to do about various social questions. In such a discussion, it seems like the most important thing is to decide HOW the question will be discussed, so that all the interested parties (which includes all citizens for the most important questions before society) have a voice in the discussion. And it seems to me to be a fair condition of an open discussion like this, that no one can make the claim that “this is how it must be, because God told us so.” Everyone in the discussion should be able to phrase their particular view in universal terms. This is in fact the premise of discourse ethics, developed by Jurgen Habermas and others.

    With regard to your Survival party vs. the No Pain party, in the first place, the scenario is implausible because I doubt there would be much medical benefit from experimenting on such a non-representative population. I think the best argument against the Survival Party is through the accepted prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, from the standpoint that the state’s power to punish must be limited within strict bounds for the health of society as a whole.

    The discussion of what constitutes the Good, the True and the Beautiful has been going on for a long time, and I for one find it hopeful that these questions remain open, and that the search for ways to resolve the tensions between various competing values goes on through the process called civilization.

  • Lee (the Theist)

    It does appear that we have come to a close.

    Ash, I also thank you for your honest answers and non-judgmental tone. Your answers, and the answers of others, have helped shape my thoughts.

    Monkeyman, I very much agree with your closing statement:

    “The discussion of what constitutes the Good, the True and the Beautiful has been going on for a long time, and I for one find it hopeful that these questions remain open, and that the search for ways to resolve the tensions between various competing values goes on through the process called civilization.”

    Even though I believe that the Good exists as an absolute, admitting that I don’t know what it is can still leave me as open to ideas and rational discourse as any atheist. I hope that atheists can find a way to view theism as not necessarily mutually exclusive with being open and flexible.

    As it does a good job of expressing my thoughts on the difference between atheism and theism, I will close with a quote from Michael Gearson:

    “None of this amounts to proof of God’s existence. But it clarifies a point of agreement — which reveals an even deeper division. Atheists and theists seem to agree that human beings have an innate desire for morality and purpose. For the theist, this is perfectly understandable: We long for love, harmony and sympathy because we are intended by a Creator to find them. In a world without God, however, this desire for love and purpose is a cruel joke of nature — imprinted by evolution, but destined for disappointment, just as we are destined for oblivion, on a planet that will be consumed by fire before the sun grows dim and cold. This form of “liberation” is like liberating a plant from the soil or a whale from the ocean. In this kind of freedom, something dies.”

    -Lee (the Theist)

  • Richard Wade

    Lee and everyone else who have worked so hard, I’ve enjoyed lurking around your long conversation. I only now want to respond to Lee’s last offering of Michael Gearson’s remarks. Gearson just doesn’t get it about atheists. If he became one he’d need Prozac until he caught on. The events he described will happen, but it really isn’t so glum like that. It only looks that way from the point of view of someone who thinks he is getting all his meaning, purpose, love, happiness, what have you from what he thinks is an outside source, and he can’t imagine the possibility of having those things without that source. I hope you don’t agree with him Lee, because that means you still don’t understand us on an emotional level at all. Our outlook is not like that at all.

  • Vincent

    Even though I believe that the Good exists as an absolute, admitting that I don’t know what it is can still leave me as open to ideas and rational discourse as any atheist. I hope that atheists can find a way to view theism as not necessarily mutually exclusive with being open and flexible.

    Or as closed to rational discourse. I think rational discourse has to include considering the possibility that you are wrong. Atheists and Theists can be equally dogmatic. Admitting you don’t know what absolute good is, you are only partly open to ideas. You have closed out the idea that there is no absolute good.

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  • Hi + Lo

    Poop Scoop
    I see a spec as the Atheist fly,Only poop they value high.They look down upon life and take aim,and curse to stink our nation to shame.
    Listen and you will hear this Hawk’s cry,Me, Myself and I fly high in the sky.All others below are like stink in dung,no matter how old or how young.
    Life to them is a big mistake,as they look through their eyes of hate.Their love is thundering poop crap,while they sit back and laugh.
    Many would not put up with this Kook,yet a few always fall with poop.Atheist worms slimes I am great,and loves a Hawk with tummyache.
    We can’t stop Hawks from stooping,as they curse America with pooping.Can’t stop these birds flying overhead,but will never let this mess nest in my head.
    Life is Past-ther-eyes,Where Poop flies can’t fly.Where worms can’t crawl,Yes Atheist sure loves a good fall.


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