Where Yuan Went Wrong (Part 1)

This is part of a series of posts which tackles sexual ethics and debating strategies (but not at the same time).

Although I thought Christopher Yuan presented a reasonably compassionate explanation of his beliefs about sexual morality when he came to Yale, there were some parts of his talk that made my hair stand on end.  I honestly don’t know whether some parts of his talk were intended to be subtly derogatory of gay people and gay culture.  I’m a debater, so I pay a great deal of attention to language and framing, and if I had used some of the narrative constructions of Yuan’s talk, it would have been with the intention of denigrating gay people, since the language he used was well tailored to that purpose.

However, especially when speakers are making a pitch to people who don’t share their principles and points of reference, it’s easy to put a foot wrong, and I try to remind myself to remember Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice what can be explained by ignorance.

I don’t know which influenced Yuan’s choice of phrasings, but I’m posting a rundown of what came off as nasty, so no one who reads this blog needs to give offence by accident.

“Of course that’s only my experience”
Yuan fell in with a promiscuous and drug-using crowd after he left his family.  Several times during the talk, he mentioned quickly that not all gay people live the way he did, but those disclaimers were fleeting and unlikely to register as much as his lengthy and sorrowful description of his experience.  Given that his usual Christian audiences may not know many gay people personally, he leaves an impression that most gay people are self-indulgent and self-destructive.

Christians can have a tendency to do this in more contexts than lectures on gay sexual ethics.  I’ve heard plenty of Christians talk about their prior-to-conversion experiences where they “deliberately and consciously rejected God’s love because they didn’t want to give up their vices” or because they “couldn’t accept any limit on their own actions.”  That is not the experience of every atheist, and it’s incredibly pejorative to assign your motivations to everyone else.

Christians should be able to offer more positive examples of gay life or non-Christian life than the kinds of anecdotes offered by Yuan, even if they ultimately believe that those lives are missing something essential.  If you can’t come up with any relatively healthy examples of atheists/gay people/etc, you probably don’t know very many of us, and we’re not inclined to listen to your perspective until you’ve done a modicum of research. Atheists like me often suspect Christians of offering false dichotomies like “bathhouse culture OR celibacy” or “nihilism or Christianity.”

If Christians want to persuade us, they need to be able to acknowledge the existence of stable, monogamous homosexual relationships and the reality of atheists who follow and promote moral law.  Then they need to find a way to persuade people like me that there’s something seriously wrong with those options.  When Christians don’t address these positive and common experiences, atheists like me assume Christians omit what they cannot answer.  When they do it persistently, I start to suspect them of just using rhetoric to puff up their allies and scare them with the caricatures of atheists and queer people they’ve presented.  It’s no foundation for discourse and persuasion.

More discussion of mistakes Christians make when talking to other audiences to come…

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04746612189094458441 Lukas

    "That is not the experience of every atheist, and it's incredibly pejorative to assign your motivations to everyone else."Yes. Also, it seems obvious that people who have a harder time staying on the straight-and-narrow are more likely to feel the need for salvation. "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." (2:17). So, to the extent that you are morally healthy you are less likely to be looking for a Savior. I don't think this point really favors either side of the argument.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04746612189094458441 Lukas

    Regarding, "the reality of atheists who follow and promote moral law." It's obvious that many atheists do a better job following the moral law than many Christians. But atheism is incompatible with moral absolutism. Here is the argument:1. Moral subjectivism means that the well-being of one person may be deeply and fundementally different from the well-being of another person. For example, one person may flourish through honesty, while another may flourish through lying and cheating.2. Moral absolutism means that there is a concept of "human flourishing" which applies to all humans. Some humans may flourish by playing the piano while others prefer to play baseball, but honesty is a universal principal of human flourishing.3. Assuming that moral absolutism is true, then why is it that the same things make all humans flourish? The Christian answer is that all humans flourish when they know and love because they are made in the image of God. The atheist answer is that humans are the way they are through evolution. Evolution leads to variation – some humans may flourish through honesty, others through lying.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Evolution leads to variation – some humans may flourish through honesty, others through lying.This is laughably oversimplified, Lukas. Evolution, which works through accumulated small changes and not gigantic saltationary leaps, could never bring about two members of the same species that differed as drastically from each other as you suggest. It could never create tribes of humans who were all good or all bad, like those aliens from Star Trek who were midnight-black on one side of their bodies and snow-white on the other. A more accurate description would be to say that the potential for both goodness and badness exists in every person, and the variation is in what quantities those two traits are combined and how likely one is to predominate over the other.The real question is, regardless of what you desire, what behavior do you want to see practiced by others? And there, the answer is always the same – honesty, generosity, benevolence, fairness, and the like – and thus, as Kant recognized, the best way to advance your own well-being is to promote and advocate a society where those traits are practiced and valued. A rational being will always come to this conclusion, regardless of their own desires. It is the universal applicability of this conclusion in virtue of which an absolute and non-subjective morality exists.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14408364244593519914 Matt DeStefano

    Leah, did you happen to catch the William Lane Craig / Sam Harris debate? They actually discuss the "atheists following moral law" a bit in it. Just an interesting debate overall.

  • http://grace-filled.net jen

    I'm an ex-atheist turned Christian and I didn't have any examples of crime or drugs in my life… mostly because I was 15 when I made the decision. Even then, other friends of mine who are converts don't have examples of grevious sin in their lives — some of them were just apathetic about faith while others came to faith over something else.I totally agree that atheists can be moral and upright people just as those identifying themselves as Christians can be hypocritical and engage in promiscuous behaviors. I'd rather have some of my lesbian and gay friends be parents than some of the "Christians" I know. (Do I believe that homosexuality is a sin? Yes. Do I believe that there are equally great sins? Of course — gossip and slander top my list based on their ability to hurt others.)Do I really want to debate all this? Not especially. I probably would have in my early 20's but there is just too much going on in my life to really do anything other than roll my eyes at things with which I disagree unless they pose danger to others.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13116034158087704885 March Hare

    Lukas, don't bring your deontology into it, wasn't the perfection of honesty conclusively shown to be a sham when the simple question was posed of whether you should admit to sheltering a Jew when the Nazis came knocking?Even the mighty Catholic Church engages in a mixture between heuristic rules for living (what they consider to be) a good life and a form of consequentialism?Not least when they shelter paedophiles in their ranks from secular authorities. I do like the juxtaposition of good people sheltering Jews from Nazis and the Catholics sheltering paedophiles from the Police.But, paedophiles notwithstanding, the point is that the Church, and people in general, make considered decisions about what to do, and what should be done, based on the expected outcomes to people (here or in the afterlife) rather than according to some objective law.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04746612189094458441 Lukas

    @Ebonmuse"It could never create tribes of humans who were all good or all bad." I never suggested it could."The real question is, regardless of what you desire, what behavior do you want to see practiced by others?"I desire that someone to send me a check for a million bucks. However, this isn't part of the moral law. Maybe you mean to say "what behavior do you think others ought to practice?""as Kant recognized, the best way to advance your own well-being is to promote and advocate a society where those traits are practiced and valued"What do you mean by 'well-being'? Aren't there at least some successful criminals, who promote their own well-being through theft? Unless you want "well-being" to mean "being morally good," in which case I think what your saying is circular.Here's another question for you – Do you think you should listen to your conscience? If so, why? What gives your conscience authority?@March Hare:"I do like the juxtaposition of good people sheltering Jews from Nazis and the Catholics sheltering paedophiles from the Police."You do? Yuck."…people in general, make considered decisions about what to do, and what should be done, based on the expected outcomes to people (here or in the afterlife) rather than according to some objective law."I think your account still leaves us with this question: Are some outcomes objectively better than other outcomes, or is it up to each person to decide what outcomes he or she should strive for? Is there any way to judge one outcome to be better than another?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Lukas,What do you mean by 'well-being'?Well-being is that which promotes human happiness. That's the short answer; the long answer would be a Ph.D thesis in philosophy. :) Aren't there at least some successful criminals, who promote their own well-being through theft?Yes, probably there are a few. But the better question is: What course of action is most likely to lead to happiness? Waging a war on society through acts of crime and depravity, ensuring that everyone else will have their efforts bent on stopping you? Or working to promote everyone's happiness, so that others are motivated to join and aid you in the effort?If you're familiar with the Prisoner's Dilemma, you may recognize this reasoning. The usual ("selfish") choice is to defect and betray the other player, but if you can establish stable cooperation, you both reap benefits that neither could have realized by going it alone.Do you think you should listen to your conscience? If so, why? What gives your conscience authority?Conscience isn't the be-all and end-all of morality, but one tool among others we can use for moral reasoning. It's not something to be obeyed without question, and it can go astray – obviously, for several centuries, there were people whose consciences weren't troubled at all by slavery, and as we saw in recent threads on this very blog, there are people whose consciences aren't troubled by genocide. But through the refining process of education and moral deliberation, you can train your conscience to be better-tuned, more sensitive, more responsive to the feelings and desires of others. That's an essential ingredient in establishing the moral cooperation which lets us realize greater benefits by working together.Now let me throw the question back at you: Should we obey God? If so, what gives him authority? Is it because he'll hurt us if we don't, or is there some other reason?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04746612189094458441 Lukas

    "What course of action is most likely to lead to happiness?"That depends on the situation and on the character of the particular person. There are times when cruelty or cheating turns out to be the best strategy for promoting one's own safety. If I'm a sadist, the thing that makes me happiest is causing pain to others. Now, I want to say (and I expect you do to) that the sadist either isn't truly happy when he is causing pain, or he is in some way a defective person. But I think you will have a hard time explaining what you mean by "truly happy" – you end up having to postulate a sort of secret-self, so that you can say the sadist isn't "really happy," which seems like wishful thinking."if you can establish stable cooperation"That is a big if. I find what you are saying to be incredibly naive. In the modern American context we have fairly low levels of corruption, so for a lot of people working hard and following the rules is a pretty reasonably strategy for sucess. But try this somewhere with rampant corruption."Should we obey God? If so, what gives him authority? Is it because he'll hurt us if we don't, or is there some other reason?"Great. So I think there are basically two schools of thought on this. One is where God commands things, and we are supposed to follow because, after all, God is God. The second is that man, in addition to being a biological entity that has come to be through material processes, is also a being made in God's image. Man is a being both physical and spiritual. Because of this man is only human when he acts as God acts – when he acts in love. Even if a person says feels happy, if they are failing to love then they are failing to realize their fundamental potential.At the biological level there is potential – a plant wither and die or it can grow and bear fruit. If it withers, it is not fulfilling it's biological potential. In the same way, if the moral order is to mean anything at all then it must mean that each person has some moral potential that we can either realize or fail to realize. I think Leah would probably agree with the previous paragraph. But the problem is that the atheist can't give an account of why there should be moral order. Evolution explains the biological order, but you need something beyond that to say that some things which may be good from a survival perspective but bad from a moral perspective.Remember before when I was making the argument from order about the universe? I guess you could say that this is an argument for God from the existence of a moral order in men.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    There are times when cruelty or cheating turns out to be the best strategy for promoting one's own safety.Yes, there are. But since those acts are generally detrimental to the well-being of others, it's in all of our interests to establish a society where those acts don't pay off.Now, I want to say (and I expect you do to) that the sadist either isn't truly happy when he is causing pain…No, I wouldn't say that. It's certainly possible that some people are wired so as to derive their happiness from inflicting pain on others. But since other people generally don't want to be in pain, their desires will naturally be toward creating a state of affairs where sadists' actions are restrained by law.Lukas, I think you have a fundamental misconception about my view of morality. You seem to think I'm saying that individual happiness is always an unqualified good, so that any action which brings happiness to the individual actor is morally permissible. I'm not saying that. I'm saying that because individual happiness is morally valuable, our desire should be for a society where all people can realize the greatest happiness, and therefore any action which benefits the actor at the cost of harming others is impermissible. Even if you live in a corrupt society, you can rationally see the conclusion that doing this would be beneficial to you, because corruption briefly benefits the individual at the cost of exerting a long-term drag on the entire society.Again, if you're familiar with the Prisoner's Dilemma (and if not, I'd encourage you to read up on it), this is Prisoner's Dilemma logic translated into real-world terms. In any one round, selfishness is the winning strategy, whatever your opponent does. But over repeated rounds, cooperation pays out more than selfishness. What is true in the limited domain of that thought experiment is, I'd argue, also true in the larger world.At the biological level there is potential – a plant wither and die or it can grow and bear fruit. If it withers, it is not fulfilling it's biological potential. In the same way, if the moral order is to mean anything at all then it must mean that each person has some moral potential that we can either realize or fail to realize.This just answers my question with further questions, I'm afraid. What is "moral potential"? How do we recognize when we've fulfilled it? Why should we care about fulfilling it?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13116034158087704885 March Hare

    Lukas: Are some outcomes objectively better than other outcomes, or is it up to each person to decide what outcomes he or she should strive for? Is there any way to judge one outcome to be better than another? Yes, yes and … yes.An outcome can be judged objectively better if you have common values. Assuming you take the values of those involved then an outcome that satisfies more of their goals and/or to a greater extent than another outcome is objectively better. Which is not to say it is objectively good, except as subjectively judged by the people involved.As it happens I subscribe, more or less, to Moral Error Theory. Wiki may provide more details about what that entails than I can fit into a comment here.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04746612189094458441 Lukas

    @Ebonmuse"But since those acts are generally detrimental to the well-being of others, it's in all of our interests to establish a society where those acts don't pay off."I'm not seeing this at all. If I'm a powerful tyrant, it's in my interet to establish a society where everyone serves me. EX – Stalin died because he smoked too much, not because he was a brutal murderer."I'm saying that because individual happiness is morally valuable, our desire should be for a society where all people can realize the greatest happiness, and therefore any action which benefits the actor at the cost of harming others is impermissible."Okay, I didn't understand that this was your view. However, I don't think this view is any better at responding to my objection. What is the basis for your claim that, "our desire should be for a society where all people can realize the greatest happiness." You say, "individual happiness is morally valuable" but valuably to who? Wild animals do not value individual happiness. In order for individual happiness to have value, there has to be a person who values it. Why not just say that some people value individual happiness, while other people value other things?"What is true in the limited domain of that thought experiment is, I'd argue, also true in the larger world."I don't think the Prisoner's Dilemma has the implications you seem to think it has. Even if I admit that everyone would be better off if everyone was generous and honest, it does not follow that I should behave generously and honestly when others are being selfish and corrupt. Further, the Prisoner's Dilema assumes that the participants all have equal power. What if I am the most powerful player in the game, and I can harm whoever I please with little fear of blowback? Also, the Prisoner's Delima really doesn't match up well with what we commonly understand to mean by morality. If the only reason I am not hurting you is because I don't want you to hurt me later, I am just being a rational strategiest. I am not being a generous person. A really good person would help out even when they expected nothing in return."But over repeated rounds, cooperation pays out more than selfishness."Over repeated rounds of the Prisoner's Dilemma thought experiment, this is true. However, if I am living in a very corrupt society it will not be true in real life.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04746612189094458441 Lukas

    "This just answers my question with further questions, I'm afraid. What is "moral potential"? How do we recognize when we've fulfilled it? Why should we care about fulfilling it?"Hmmm…. I thought my previous message addressed these questions. Do you understand what I mean by our biological potential, or does that also seem problematic for you? Can we agree that nutrition, growth, and reproduction are part of our biological potential, while death and infertility are a failture to achieve our biological potential? My idea is that certain types of entities have certain types of potential. A math problem has the potential for a solution… if you are given 2+4 and you answer 8, you have given an answer, but not one that properly satisfies the potential in the question. A plant has the potential to fruit and flower. A human has the potential to love and to know.Let's assume that you agree about the biological potential, and you think we can tell when we are fulfilling it. In that case, I'm saying that in addition to my bioligical nature with certain biological potentials, I have a spiritual nature because I am created in God's image. I can satisfy that spiritual nature by loving others, or I can fail to love others and distort God's image.>How do we recognize when we've fulfilled it? I think we can see this through our moral sentiments and through reasoning. Our moral sentiments are not perfect, but then neither are our other faculties.>Why should we care about fulfilling it?Because our nature is such that we will only be satisfied when we fulfill it. Augustine said, "You have made us for yourself, oh Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you." Our "hearts" are made in such a way that nothing other than love of God and neighbor will satisfy them. C.S. Lewis writes:"Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04746612189094458441 Lukas

    @March Hare"An outcome can be judged objectively better if you have common values"And if you do not have common values than it cannot be judges objectively better. And there is no reason to suppose common values. Hence, you are a relativist."Which is not to say it is objectively good, except as subjectively judged by the people involved."Right. This is relativism. Therefore, my argument won't work for you, since we disagree on a premise.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    If I'm a powerful tyrant, it's in my interet to establish a society where everyone serves me. EX – Stalin died because he smoked too much, not because he was a brutal murderer.Yes, and Hitler committed suicide as the Allies were closing in, Mussolini and Ceaucescu were summarily executed by firing squad, Saddam Hussein was sloppily hanged, Louis XVI was guillotined, and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak were toppled from power. Being a dictator is a career fraught with peril, to say the least. You constantly have to fear and take precautions against the people rising up, your inner circle betraying you, the international community deposing you… Don't you think it's easier and safer, if leadership is your goal, to seek power through democracy?Why not just say that some people value individual happiness, while other people value other things?All people value happiness. This is definitionally true.Even if I admit that everyone would be better off if everyone was generous and honest, it does not follow that I should behave generously and honestly when others are being selfish and corrupt.It follows that you should be generous and honest to people who are willing to treat you the same way in return. That's just what happens in game-theory simulations that model Prisoner's Dilemma-type interactions: cooperators seek each other out and form communities, and cheaters, if they can't infiltrate those communities, tend to die off when they can only betray each other.If the only reason I am not hurting you is because I don't want you to hurt me later, I am just being a rational strategiest. I am not being a generous person. I don't think it's a strike against a moral system to say that it's the rational choice, as you imply. But this understanding of morality encompasses more than simple one-for-one reciprocity. I think it leads to the further conclusion that it's in everyone's interest to live in a more peaceful and prosperous world, even if you don't expect any direct benefit from any single contribution toward that end. If I help someone, even if I don't expect to ever meet them again in person, I contribute to the kind of world where such things happen, and that's just the kind of world I want to live in.Do you understand what I mean by our biological potential, or does that also seem problematic for you? Can we agree that nutrition, growth, and reproduction are part of our biological potential, while death and infertility are a failture to achieve our biological potential?I'm still having trouble with this. I suppose you could say that a child has the "biological potential" to become an adult, but that's the result of a genetic program that will unfold on its own unless actively hindered. I don't see how this can be the model for a philosophy of volitional action, which doesn't have that same single, fixed end.A human has the potential to love and to know.Agreed. But a human also has the potential to hate, kill, and make war. Which of those competing potentialities should we encourage, and why that one and not the other one?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04746612189094458441 Lukas

    "Don't you think it's easier and safer, if leadership is your goal, to seek power through democracy"Sometimes, but not always. I would agree that being a tyrant is dangerous. But being a dissident is also dangerous – the safest path is often to be a moral mediocrity.You seem to be are making a very strong claim here – you are saying that the best way to maximize your own well-being is to work for the well-being of all. I can agree that that is often a reasonable strategy… but I think to say that it is always the best approach is pretty laughable."All people value happiness. This is definitionally true."Agreed."I don't think it's a strike against a moral system to say that it's the rational choice, as you imply."That wasn't what I was implying – I hope is the rational choice. What I was implying that it is a strike against a moral system to say that what appears to be other-concerned action is actually strictly self-concerned action. But as we are discussing, I'm not sure that that is your view."If I help someone, even if I don't expect to ever meet them again in person, I contribute to the kind of world where such things happen, and that's just the kind of world I want to live in."I think this is a laudable sentiment – you are trying to 'be the change you'd like to see in the world.' The thing I am less certain about is why you think others should have the same sentiment. As you pointed out earlier, it is "definitionally" true that everyone values happiness. But I would clarify that everyone values their own happiness… they don't always care about the happiness of other people. You seem to want to say that it is in everyone's interest to be generous and honest, but I don't see why that should be so. Is is (1) that the Prisoner's Dilema always works in real life, where if I don't cheat others will reward me? or (2) that you think everyone should rationally recognize the desireablility of living in a 'better world' and act in pursuance of that goal, even when it means foregoing their short-term interests?You asked about how the idea of potential can be combined with the idea of volition. Is that really so hard? Take Michael Phelps – I am sure that his genetics predisposed him to have a potential to become a good swimmer. But in order to actually win those gold medals, he had to choose to pursue a rigorous training schedule. So, in some cases a thing has a certain potential, but it will only be realized when we choose to take the steps needed to actualize that potential.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04746612189094458441 Lukas

    "But a human also has the potential to hate, kill, and make war. Which of those competing potentialities should we encourage, and why that one and not the other one?"I think the biological analogy is helpful. A human child has the potential to grow to adulthood and reproduce, but it also has the potential to grow up undernourished and stunted, to commit suicide or be murdered. All of these things are potentials of a kind, but I don't really have a problem saying that the fullest biological development would be in adulthood and reproduction… that is what we are made to do – other things sometimes happen, but the biologist or the doctor has no problem with labeling these as objective malfunctions. In the same way, we can hate, kill, and make war – these things are part of our potential. However, these things represent a diminishment of the person. The organism is ordered toward growth and reproduction (but can fall short and end up in atrophy and death), the spiritual being is ordered toward knowledge and love (but can fall short and end up in ignorance and selfishness). Does that seem reasonable?If you want to push it, I can agree that if you want to you can choose to hate, kill, and make war, and say that this is fulfilling your potential. In the same way, you can say that you pefer a withered plant to a lush and blooming plant. If you choose to hate, kill, and make war, you won't be acting in a way that jives with the orderness of your soul, but you will be fulfilling a potential in a certain sense.To put it another way – when a wild animal maimes someone, we don't say to ourselves, 'that bear really should have thought more about the good of society as a whole.' This is because we all understand that bears are not moral beings – they are not ordered to know and to love in the way that humans are.I may be wrong, but I'm getting the sense that you are working off a sort of Kantian categorical imperative. If that is the case, I really don't think it works. Reason alone will not get you off the ground, because you need to have a premise in order to begin to reason. But there is no reason to accept a moral premise unless you are a moral being with a moral nature.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13116034158087704885 March Hare

    Lukas, I don't like the term 'relativist' because it comes with the baggage of a naive relativist where nothing is wrong – that is simply not the case.While I see things that I think are wrong and know that it is only my opinion and the other person may think it's right, I am not impotent to act. My values are well thought out and likely to be in less conflict than the other person's as well as being better for the maximisation of freedom and happiness for the majority, hence I promote my values of right and wrong.Perhaps where the relativist term comes in is that I think I should only act in the cases where a non-consenting person is being harmed by someone's actions. Other than that people can do what they like.

  • http://www.thegroomsfmaily.wordpress.com Lea

    Ebonmuse: "Evolution, which works through accumulated small changes and not gigantic saltationary leaps, could never bring about two members of the same species that differed as drastically from each other as you suggest. It could never create tribes of humans who were all good or all bad, like those aliens from Star Trek who were midnight-black on one side of their bodies and snow-white on the other."Really? How do we know it couldn't? Evolution sometimes proceeds by gradual small changes, and sometimes by "saltationary leaps" – it's called adaptive radiation, and it's in your ninth grade biology textbook. And, insofar as moral dimorphism (some people being good, the other bad; pulling out my biology-major lingo!) doesn't pose an obstacle to mating, there is really no reason why evolution couldn't create some people who are good and some people who are bad and some people who are a little bit of both, and they can still all hang out in the same species.I'm not saying evolution necessarily did that. I'm just saying that evolution is not a good thing to rely on if you want to end up with something resembling a stable, shared human nature. Evolution is really most useful as a retrospective theory – it can be used to tell an enlightening story about what has happened, never about what could have or will happen.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    I don't know what biology textbooks you're reading, Lea. Adaptive radiation has nothing to do with saltation; it's what happens when a new species arrives in an environment with many unfilled ecological niches and splits into multiple species to take advantage of them. But all that change still has to occur by normal, slow mutation and selection, not by giant single-generation leaps.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Lukas,I would agree that being a tyrant is dangerous. But being a dissident is also dangerous – the safest path is often to be a moral mediocrity.Quite true, which is why most popular uprisings don't begin until the people perceive that they have nothing to lose. As a great observer of human nature put it, "All experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."You seem to be are making a very strong claim here – you are saying that the best way to maximize your own well-being is to work for the well-being of all. I can agree that that is often a reasonable strategy… but I think to say that it is always the best approach is pretty laughable.Yes, I am making that strong claim, and no, I don't think it's laughable at all. It's certainly far less laughable than the idea that the crimes of a guilty person can be absolved by the punishment of an unrelated innocent person.I think this is a laudable sentiment – you are trying to 'be the change you'd like to see in the world.'Thank you! I think this is a fair summation of my moral views.[Do] you think everyone should rationally recognize the desireablility of living in a 'better world' and act in pursuance of that goal, even when it means foregoing their short-term interests?Yes. I agree that everyone values their own happiness, not necessarily the happiness of other people. But I'm claiming that more people, if they knew all the evidence, would agree that working for the happiness of other people is in fact one of the best ways to secure happiness for yourself.In the same way, we can hate, kill, and make war – these things are part of our potential. However, these things represent a diminishment of the person.Well, in a certain sense I agree with this, although I suspect we'd differ on some of the details. But while I know what grounds my morality, I'm less certain about what grounds yours. You say that violence and hate represent a "diminishment of the person", but by what standard? How do you know that those things don't represent the highest potential of a human being? If I'm trying to judge whether some action fulfills or diminishes my human potential, is there an objective measure by which I can figure it out?And for completeness' sake, I can't let this go by: The organism is ordered toward growth and reproduction (but can fall short and end up in atrophy and death)…You are a member, are you not, Lukas, of a church which insists that its clergy should abstain from a certain basic biological function, even though they have all the necessary equipment for it? How does this fit into your view of it being proper to fulfill one's biological potential?

  • http://thegroomsfamily.wordpress.com Lea

    Ebonmuse – The fossil record suggests, awkwardly for evolution theorists, that during some periods in Earth's history a large variety of diverse species arose very quickly – perhaps due to climate changes that made a large number of new ecological niches available.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04746612189094458441 Lukas

    Ebonmuse, you agreed with the statement, "the safest path is often to be a moral mediocrity." You also agreed that, "the best way to maximize your own well-being is to work for the well-being of all" not just sometimes, but always. So which is it? Are we always better off working for the well-being of all, or isn't it sometimes safer to keep a low profile? The people killed at Tiananmen Square were trying to promote the good of all – look where it got them."But I'm claiming that more people, if they knew all the evidence, would agree that working for the happiness of other people is in fact one of the best ways to secure happiness for yourself."Right – I was just reading today about how science has shown that people who give to charity are happier (as compared to people who just buy new toys). I think that presenting the evidence can help people realize that working for the happiness of other people is often of the best ways to secure happiness for yourself. There's a reason special ed teachers have higher job satisfaction than lawyers. Where we disagree is just in that when I would say concern for others *often* leads to greater happiness, you seem to want to say that it *always* leads to greater happiness."You say that violence and hate represent a "diminishment of the person", but by what standard? How do you know that those things don't represent the highest potential of a human being?"I think I tried to explain this last time, so I don't know whether I'll do any better this time, but Iwill try. Man has a conscience or moral sense, which obviously various from culture to culture, but nevertheless I think has some capacity to transcend particular cultures. Also, man has the ability to experience fulfillment in various forms, some of which are superior to others. For example, the satisfaction of the drug addict is inferior in certain general ways from the experience of friend. With an addict, there's a big thrill at the outset, but then the more you get the more you want, and the more you want the more you need, and the whole thing becomes more and more sad… with the parent/child relationship or a marital relationship, the joy does not have the toxic and destructive aspect to it, and it doesn't wear out the way an addiction does. Does that help at all?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04746612189094458441 Lukas

    "It's certainly far less laughable than the idea that the crimes of a guilty person can be absolved by the punishment of an unrelated innocent person."Well, I think thing that makes your position particularly untenable is that it is empirically false. All I have to do to prove you wrong is to find one instance where someone became less happy as a result of their attempt to serve the well-being of others.As for the question of the laughability of the atonement, I suggest checking out this from First Things: http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2009/01/father-forgive-them"You are a member, are you not, Lukas, of a church which insists that its clergy should abstain from a certain basic biological function, even though they have all the necessary equipment for it?"Yes, though I attend a Melkite Greek Catholic parish which does have married clergy. But to respond to your point – if you have a biological and a spiritual or moral order, it seems pretty likely that sometimes they will conflict. Look at the military – you can find plenty of examples of service men and women putting themselves in the line of fire for the greater good… in other words sacrificing their particular biological purpose for a higher cause.


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