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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Morality Part I: First the Really Dumb Ideas

One great thing about trekking is that you have lots of down time in the afternoons to read.  And I've finally just finished two books that have been staring at me from the bookshelf for over a decade.  Both concern Morality.  Now, I think an obvious reaction many might have is "Wutch you talkin' bout Willis?! I don't need no stinkin' books.  I already know what morals are, I learned from my friends, church and parents."  I used to think the same way.  And yet, I found myself not living a moral life even up to this very day.  I don't always do the right thing, in fact, I rarely do.  For instance, at this moment I am watching Justin Bieber and accidentally sang along for a bit.  Almost all my actions, which I know deep down should probably be more charitable, are in fact selfish.  I suppose this whole trip around the world is a fulfillment of my own ego's desire.

Organized Guilt Tripping
And I would venture to say that is how most all of my friend's live as well.  Yes, there are the few Mother Theresa's out there, but for most people charity is something they do for a tax write-off or something they drag themselves to do once a week out of a sense of duty.  Its never really an end in itself.  I don't want some stupid guilt-trip about hellfire from a preacher, or be told by my parents that I have to even if I don't want to.

Someone out there must have thought more about all this, and can give me a better, rational motivation to do the right thing.

Short and sweet
The first book  is James Rachels Elements of Moral Philosophy, which is a sweet easy read that provides the bare bones background of what morality really is, and also provides lots of practical examples.  One could just read this book and have a good idea of what its all about.  The second is Morality in Practice by James Sterba.  This daunting textbook is full of long bloated essays from academics on all sorts of topics, from welfare, charity, AIDS, homosexuality, health care, and more.  In the end I skimmed the introductions to all the topics, but only read detailed essays on stuff I really cared about.

Morality is really just a part of philosophy, but it tackles the most important part.  Its an attempt to reply to Socrates when he muses that philosophy "is no small matter, but how we ought to live."  Almost all of the great minds I read about in A Short History of Philosophy give their 2 cents on this topic, and it was really interesting to get another viewpoint about them.

Rachel's book is perfect.  First he explains why we can't just dismiss morality as a product of cultural relativism.  And its funny, that's exactly what I used to do.  A friend in my dorm was an ardent support of Amnesty Intl, but at the time I thought it was a bunch of hippie liberal garbage.  Who were we to judge the values of other countries and cultures?  Today I recognize that there are indeed universal values that all humans can agree on, and Rachels goes into detail on many of these.  Those hippies actually knew what they were talking about.  Well at least when they weren't high as a kite.  No culture can survive unless certain things are prohibited, such as murder, lying, and neglect of infants for example.  This idea can be extended further to things such as basic human rights.

Then he gets into the evolution of moral thought.

Divine Command Theory

First he does a brilliant job of explaining we can't look to religion for moral guidance.  "What???!" you might say.  This could be a bit of a doozy for anyone who is a hard-core Christian.  Here is his argument, which he borrows from older philosophers such as Leibniz.  Suppose you believe that God is good.  In fact, everything He does is good by definition.  This is called Divine Command Theory.  Suppose God kills or murders someone, or commands His followers to do so (which he does numerous times in Genesis).  Murder is morally wrong from the 10 commandments, but since God commanded it, it makes it right.  Thus, murder isn't intrinsically wrong at all.  Anything God commands is good by definition, whether it be rape, killing first-born sons, stealing, lying, setting your neighbor on fire.

Now clearly, setting your neighbor on fire isn't in Genesis, but the point is that if God commanded it, no matter how morally repugnant, then it would be a good act by definition.  Something is not right here.  Certain things are just intrinsically wrong, like setting your neighbor on fire or raping a stranger.  Thus, there has to be a standard of right and wrong that must be independent of God.  Therefore, the belief that anything God commands is good is problematic.

Liebniz in his Discourse on Metaphysics states the point this way:

"So in saying that things are not good by any rule of goodness, but sheerly by the will of God, it seems to me that one destroys, without realizing it, all the love of God and all His glory.  For why praise Him for what He has done if He would be equally praise-worthy in doing exactly the contrary?"

Socrates says there is another option.  He asks, "Is conduct right because the gods command it, or do the gods command it because it is right?"  Let's take the latter possibility.

Suppose God commands us to Love Thy Neighbor because its a good thing to do.  But if we say that God commands us to Love Thy Neighbor because that is the right thing to do, then we are admitting that there is some standard of right and wrong that is independent of God's will.  This is very different from His commanding it to be right.

If you believe the first of Socrates options, then you are forced to admit that God's commands are completely arbitrary.  If you believe in the goodness of God, you must pick the second option.  In fact, for this very reason one of the greatest theologians of all time, St. Thomas Aquinas, rejected the idea of Divine Command Theory.

Natural Law Theory

Management on top, employees on bottom
If we don't look to God's commands for moral guidance, then perhaps we can find it in the natural world.  This was a logical choice for many of the Enlightenment thinkers, who decreed that science and nature were just other windows into the mind of God.  But it first came about from Aristotle, who believed that everything existed for a purpose.  Eyes are for seeing, wings are for flying, Internet is for porn.  Aristotle liked to use the example of rain.  Rain is not a coincidence, the purpose of rain is to allow plants to grow.  The rain falls in order to provide water that plants need.  It is all part of the rational plan of nature.

For medieval Christians this was a perfectly acceptable view.  After all, God designed the world and everything in it.  Therefore, the rational plan of nature was simply the order that God established when He created the world.

Middle age scholars thus concluded that nature not only described how things are, they also described how things ought to be.  Things are as they ought to be when they are serving their natural purpose.  When they do not, things have gone wrong.  Moral rules can thus be derived from nature and applied to be human behavior, and it can be declared that some things are "natural" and good and some things are "unnatural", like the French preference for mayonnaise on fries, and therefore bad.

Then he considers the issue of homosexuality.  Never mind that homosexuality has been documented in over 1,500 species, from elephants to dolphins to gut worms (!), which would make it part of God's design.  Middle ages thinkers didn't yet know this and surmised that the purpose of sex was to procreate.  Thus, homosexuality (and contraception) was unnatural and therefore bad.  Interestingly, the ancient Greeks had no problem with homosexuality and its only indirectly referenced in the Bible.  This view came about much later from the natural law theories developed by St. Augustine and Aquinas; only then did became part of the Catholic Church orthodoxy.

Outside the Church, this line of thought has few advocates today.  There are two problems.  First, it has a logical flaw in that it confuses is and ought.  This is a confusion of facts with values.  For example, a wolf may naturally eat the sheep in a shepherd's flock.  But this does not make it a good thing from the perspective of the shepherd.  Thus, from his perspective a wolf ought not to eat sheep, even though it violates the wolf's natural inclination.

Plants taking advantage of a good day
Second, modern science has debunked Aristotle's world-view.  Galileo, Newton, and Darwin have produced explanations of natural phenomena that do not reference values or purpose.  Today, scientists would agree that rainfall is dependent on climate, oceanic temperature cycles, changes in the jetstream, and whole host of factors that can make rainfall very unpredicatable and even lead to long-term drought.  If plants benefit, it is only because they have evolved through natural selection to use this resource when it becomes available.


Rachels then has an aside on abortion to talk more specifically about the issue of using God's guidance to justify moral positions.  He brings up the fact that the Bible was written thousands of years ago, and the moral issues we face today aren't the same as they were back then.  As a result, scripture may not say anything about our issues, or it may be ambiguous at best.

He looks at the Biblical evidence that is used to support the Chuch's view on abortion and finds that it is taken out of context.  The piece of scripture (Jeremiah 1:5) is actually part of a longer discussion Jeremiah has with God.  Jeremiah is claiming that God told him he was "chosen" before he was born, thereby solidifying his right to speak as a prophet.  Here is the full text of Jeremiah 1:

"Jeremiah 1
 1 The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, one of the priests at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin. 2 The word of the LORD came to him in the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah, 3 and through the reign of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, down to the fifth month of the eleventh year of Zedekiah son of Josiah king of Judah, when the people of Jerusalem went into exile.
The Call of Jeremiah
 4 The word of the LORD came to me, saying, 5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, 
   before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
 6 “Alas, Sovereign LORD,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.”  7 But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. 8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the LORD. 9 Then the LORD reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth. 10 See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”"

Pro-life supporters use the 1:5 snippet to justify their view even though the context was really about Jeremiah asserting his authority as prophet.  The discussion didn't have anything to do with fetal rights or abortion.  Rachels finds that this sort of thing happens all the time whenever scripture is used to justify a controversial moral position.  Since abortion wasn't an issue at the time, the Bible didn't specifically give any teachings on it.  The result is that people today search scripture for something they feel will justify their position even if the text they find actually concerns a different topic.

Bizarre middle age belief that a sperm contained a fully formed human
Later in the book he has some interesting things to say about the Church's position on abortion, and the history behind it.  For instance, it is largely based on a "scientific discovery" that has since been disproved.  Middle Age investigators looked through a microscope and speculated that the fertilized egg they were looking at was actually a fully formed human being.  They called it a homunculus.  Today science has shown that a fertilized egg is in fact a single cell and does not resemble a human being at all, any more than an acorn resembles an oak tree.  But the Church adopted that position and has not revisited it since.


So if we can't look to God or the natural world for moral guidance, we are forced to rely on reason or Oprah to justify our moral positions.  And this is exactly what the greatest philosophers did.  There were four theories that became popularized: Egoism, Utilitarianism, Kantian Ethics, and the idea of a Social Contract.  There was also a fifth theory, Aristotle's Ethics.  Rachels says this one fell out of favor for reasons that aren't clear, but he seems to like it.

Egosim is the belief that there is no such thing as an unselfish act.  Even things that appear to be unselfish, say giving to charity, are only performed because it makes the giver happier.  In other words, the giver is driven only by their own selfish desires.  When I read this I couldn't believe it!  I had believed the same thing for years.  I remember when I was about 15 I was having my friend Luke over, and was trying to explain this very concept to him.  He didn't agree.  But it was so nice to see that I wasn't crazy, that there were other selfish pigs just like me.

Rachels first disproves that charitable giving is a selfish act.  Even if the charity makes the giver happier, it is still charity.  The giver is still sacrificing their wealth for those less fortunate.  This is the very definition of unselfishness.  So even if the giver derives happiness from this act, it is still secondary to the act itself.  And what does one say about the case of someone sacrificing their life for another, the so-called "jumping on the grenade"?  This supreme act of unselfishness is not only possible, but there are many documented stories of it actually occuring.

Even if we cover our eyes and somehow conclude that no act can be unselfish, Egoism simply doesn't work as an ethical theory.  If everyone only looked out for their own interests we could never resolve conflicts.  If two people want to run for President, it will be in each of the other's interests to prevent the other person from winning the election.  This might necessitate killing the other person if taken to the extreme, or at the very least calling him bad names.  So obviously Egoism doesn't resolve conflict, in fact, it only promotes it.  And finally, what reason can anyone provide that their needs are more important than anyone else's?  What makes you better than everyone else?  The luck of your birth?  Your vastly superior intelligence?  Your hard work?  These may be reasons that you have acquired more wealth, but they still don't give you the right of dominion over others.

As I noted at the beginning of this post, I have lived almost my entire life as an Egoist without fully realizing it, and its gotten me nowhere in terms of finding happiness.  I want to change my path.  Or at the very least, when I'm laying on the couch watching Jersey Shore and commercials come on, I want to be able to imagine myself as a spiritual guru.

So, is there a better way?

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