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“The Brothers Karamazov” – A Moral & Philosophical Critique (Part I)

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I wanted to write some thoughts on Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and I may end up writing this in several parts.  I’m interested in some of the themes that Dostoevsky develops, in particular, those pertaining to morality, moral responsibility, free will, moral desert, and their connection to theism and atheism.  Since I’m not going to go over the novel in great detail, for those not already familiar with this story, please at least read the plot overview (here’s a good link for that) before pressing on.

One of the main characters in this story, Ivan, is an atheist, as I am (though our philosophies differ markedly as you’ll come to find out as you read on).  In his interactions and conversation with his brother Alyosha, a very religious man, various moral concepts are brought up including the dichotomy of good and evil, arguments against the existence of God (at least, against the existence of a loving God) such as the well-known Problem of Evil, and other ethical and religious quandaries.  I wanted to first talk about Ivan’s insistence that good and evil cannot exist without God, and since Ivan’s character doesn’t believe that God exists, he comes to the conclusion that good and evil do not exist either.  Although I’m an atheist, I disagree with Ivan’s views here and will expand on why in a moment.

I’ve written a bit on my blog, about various arguments against the existence of God that I’ve come across over the years, some of which that I’ve formulated on my own after much reflection – and that were at least partially influenced by my former religious views as a born-again Protestant Christian.  Perhaps ironically, it wasn’t until after I became an atheist that I began to delve much deeper into moral theory, and also into philosophy generally (though the latter is less surprising).  My views on morality have evolved in extremely significant ways since my early adult years.  For example, back when I was a Christian I was a moral objectivist/realist, believing that morals were indeed objective but only in the sense that they depended on what God believed to be right and wrong (even if these divine rules changed over time or seemed to contradict my own moral intuitions and analyses, such as stoning homosexuals to death).  Thus, I subscribed to some form of Divine Command Theory (or DCT).  After becoming an atheist, much like Ivan, I became a moral relativist (but only temporarily – keep reading), believing as the character Ivan did, that good and evil couldn’t exist due to their resting on a fictitious or at least non-demonstrable supernatural theological foundation and/or (perhaps unlike Ivan believed) that good and evil may exist but only in the sense that they were nothing more than cultural norms that were all equally valid.

Since then, I’ve become a moral realist once again (as I was when I was a Christian), after putting the philosophy of Ivan to the test (so to speak).  I realized that I could no longer justify the belief that any cultural moral norm had as equal of a claim to being true as any other cultural norm.  There were simply too many examples of moral prescriptions in various cultures and religions that couldn’t be justified.  Then I realized that many of the world’s cultural moral norms, though certainly not all of them, were largely universal (such as prohibitions against, at least certain forms of, stealing, killing, and others) which suggested a common human psychological component underlying many of them.

I also realized that as an atheist, much as Nietzsche realized, I now had to ground my own moral views on something that didn’t rely on Divine Command Theory, gods, Christian traditions, or any other foundation that I found to be invalid, illogical, unreasonable, unjustified, or not sufficiently demonstrated to be true.  And I had to do this if I was to find a way out of moral relativism, which simply didn’t sit well with me as it didn’t seem to be coherent with the bulk of human psychology and the more or less universal goals that humans strive to achieve in their lives.  It was ultimately the objective facts pertaining to human psychology that allowed me to resubscribe to an objectivist/realist morality — and now my views of morality were no longer contingent on merely the whim or dictates of some authoritarian god (thus bypassing the Euthyphro dilemma), but rather were contingent on objective facts about human beings, what makes us happy and fulfilled and what doesn’t (where these facts often disagree with moral prescriptions stemming from various religions and Divine-Command-Theory).

After dabbling with the teachings of various philosophers such as Aristotle, Kant, Mill, Rawls, Foot, and others, I came to accept a view of morality that was indeed coherent, sensible, sufficiently motivating to follow (which is a must), and which subsumed all the major moral theories into one framework (and which therefore had the best claim to being true since it was compatible with all of them –  virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism).   Now I’ve come to accept what can be described as a Goal Theory of Ethics, whereby morality is defined as “that which one ought to do above all else – when rational and maximally informed based on reason and evidence – in order to increase one’s personal life fulfillment and overall level of preference satisfaction”.  One could classify this as a subset of desire utilitarianism, but readers must be warned that this is NOT to be confused with traditional formulations of utilitarianism – such as those explicitly stated by J.S. Mill, Peter Singer, etc., as they are rife with problems resulting from not taking ALL consequences into account (such as consequences pertaining to one’s own character and how they see themselves as a person, as per the wisdom of Aristotle and Kant).

So how can good and evil exist without some God(s) existing?  That is to say, if a God doesn’t exist, how can it not be the case that “anything is permissible”?  Well, the short answer is – because of human psychology (and also social contract theory).

When people talk about behaving morally, what they really mean (when we peel back all the layers of cultural and religious rhetoric, mythology, narrative, etc.) is behaving in a way that maximizes our personal satisfaction – specifically our sense of life fulfillment.  Ask a Christian, or a Muslim, or a Humanist, why ought they behave in some particular way, and it all can be shown to break down to some form of human happiness or preference satisfaction for life fulfillment (not some hedonistic form of happiness).  They may say to behave morally “because then you can get into heaven, or avoid hell”, or “because it pleases God”, or what-have-you.  When you ask why THOSE reasons are important, it ultimately leads to “because it maximizes your chance of living a fulfilled life” (whether in this life or in the next, for those that believe in an afterlife).  I don’t believe in any afterlife because there’s no good evidence or reason to have such a belief, so for me the life that is most important is the one life we are given here on earth – which therefore must be cherished and not given any secondary priority to a hypothetical life that may or may not be granted after death.

But regardless, whether you believe in an afterlife (as Alyosha does) or not (as in Ivan’s case), it is still about maximizing a specific form of happiness and fulfillment.  However, another place where Ivan seems to go wrong in his thinking is his conclusion that people only behave morally based on what they believe will happen to them in an afterlife.  And therefore, if there is no afterlife (immortal souls), then there is no reason to be moral.  The fact of the matter is though, in general, much of what we tend to call moral behavior actually produces positive effects on the quality of our lives now, as we live them.  People that behave immorally are generally not going to live “the good life” or achieve what Aristotle called eudaimonia.  On the other hand, if people actually cultivate virtues of compassion, honesty, and reasonableness, they will simply live more fulfilling lives.  And people that don’t do this or simply follow their immediate epicurean or selfish impulses will most certainly not live a fulfilling life.  So there is actually a naturalistic motivating force to behave morally, regardless of any afterlife.  Ivan simply overlooked this (and by extension, possibly Dostoyevsky as well), likely because most people brought up in Christianized cultures often focus on the afterlife as being the bearer of ultimate justice and therefore the ultimate motivator for behaving as they do.

In any case, the next obvious question to ask is what ways of living best accomplish this goal of life fulfillment?  This is an empirical question which means science can in principle discover the answer, and is the only reliable (or at least the most reliable) way of arriving at such answers.  While there is as of yet no explicit “science of morality”, various branches of science such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, and neuroscience, are discovering moral facts (or at least reasonable approximations of these facts, given what data we have obtained thus far).  Unless we as a society choose to formulate a science of morality — a laborious research project indeed — we will have to live with the best approximations to moral facts that are at our disposal as per the findings in psychology, sociology, neuroscience, etc.

So even if we don’t yet know with certainty what one ought to do in any and all particular circumstances (no situational ethical certainties), many scientific findings have increased our confidence in having discovered at least some of those moral facts or approximations of those facts (such as that slavery is morally wrong, because it doesn’t maximize the overall life satisfaction of the slaveholder, especially if he/she were to analyze the situation rationally with as many facts as are pragmatically at their disposal).  And to make use of some major philosophical fruits cultivated from the works of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, and Rawls (among many others), we have the benefits of Social Contract Theory to take into consideration.  In short, societies maximize the happiness and flourishing of the citizens contained therein by making use of a social contract – a system of rules and mutual expectations that ought to be enforced in order to accomplish that societal goal (and which ought to be designed in a fair manner, behind a Rawlsian veil of ignorance, or what he deemed the “original position”).  And therefore, to maximize one’s own chance of living a fulfilling life, one will most likely need to endorse some form of social contract theory that grants people rights, equality, protection, and so forth.

In summary, good and evil do exist despite there being no God because human psychology is particular to our species and our biology, it has a finite range of inputs and outputs, and therefore there are some sets of behaviors that will work better than others to maximize our happiness and overall life satisfaction given the situational circumstances that we find our lives embedded in.  What we call “good” and “evil” are simply the behaviors and causal events that “add to” or “detract from” our goal of living a fulfilling life.  The biggest source of disagreement among the various moral systems in the world (whether religiously motivated or not), are the different sets of “facts” that people subscribe to (some beliefs being based on sound reason and evidence whereas others are based on irrational faith, dogma, or emotions) and whether or not people are analyzing the actual facts in a rational manner.  A person may think they know what will maximize their chances of living a fulfilling life when in fact (much like with the heroin addict that can’t wait to get their next fix) they are wrong about the facts and if they only knew so and acted rationally, would do what they actually ought to do instead.

In my next post in this series, I’ll examine Ivan’s views on free will and moral responsibility, and how it relates to the unintended consequence of the actions of his half-brother Smerdyakov (who murders their father, Fyodor Pavlovich, as a result of Ivan’s influence on his moral views).

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Atheism, Morality, and Various Thoughts of the Day…

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I’m sick of anti-intellectuals and the rest in their assuming that all atheists are moral Nihilists, moral relativists, post/modernists, proponents of scientism, etc. ‘Dat ain’t the case. Some of us respect philosophy and understand fully well that even science requires an epistemological, metaphysical, and ethical foundation, in order to work at all and to ground all of its methodologies.  Some atheists are even keen to some form of panpsychism (like Chalmers’ or Strawson’s views).

Some of us even ascribe to a naturalistic worldview that holds onto meaning, despite the logical impossibility of libertarian free will (hint: it has to do with living a moral life which means to live a fulfilling life and maximizing one’s satisfaction through a rational assessment of all the available information — which entails BAYESIAN reasoning — including a rational assessment of the information pertaining to one’s own subjective experience of fulfillment and sustainable happiness). Some of us atheists/philosophical naturalists/what-have-you are moral realists as well and therefore reject relativism, believing that objective moral facts DO in fact exist (and therefore science can find them), even if many of those facts are entailed within a situational ethical framework. Some of us believe that at least some number of moral facts are universal, but this shouldn’t be confused with moral absolutism since both are merely independent subsets of realism. I find absolutism to be intellectually and morally repugnant and epistemologically unjustifiable.

Also, a note for any theists out there: when comparing arguments for and against the existence of a God or gods (and the “Divine Command Theory” that accompanies said belief), keep in mind that an atheist need only hold a minimalist position on the issue (soft atheism) and therefore the entire burden of proof lies on the theist to support their extraordinary claim(s) with an extraordinary amount of evidentiary weight. While I’m willing to justify a personal belief in hard atheism (the claim that “God does not exist”), the soft atheist need only point out that they lack a belief in God because no known proponent for theism has yet met the burden of proof for supporting their extraordinary claim that “God does exist”. As such, any justified moral theory of what one ought to do (above all else) including but certainly not limited to who one votes for, how we treat one another, what fundamental rights we should have, etc., must be grounded on claims of fact that have met their burden of proof. Theism has not done this and the theist can’t simply say “Prove God doesn’t exist”, since this would require proving a null hypothesis which is not possible, even if it can be proven false. So rather than trying to unjustifably shift the burden of proof onto the atheist, the theist must satisfy the burden of proof for their positive claim on the existence of a god(s).

A more general goal needed to save our a$$es from self-destruction is for more people to dabble in philosophy. I argue that it should even become a core part of educational curricula (especially education on minimizing logical fallacies/cognitive biases and education on moral psychology) to give us the best chance of living a life that is at least partially examined through internal rational reflection and discourse with those that are willing to engage with us. To give us the best chance of surviving the existential crisis that humanity (and many more species that share this planet with us) are in. We need more people to be encouraged to justify what they think they ought to do above all else.

Religious Beliefs & Their Behavioral Consequences

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President Obama made a speech about ISIS (referring to them as ISIL) in response to the horrific murder of journalist James Foley by a British Jihadist back in September (2014):

“ISIL speaks for no religion… and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents. No just God would stand for what they did yesterday and what they do every single day. ISIL has no ideology of any value to human beings. Their ideology is bankrupt…. we will do everything that we can to protect our people and the timeless values that we stand for. May God bless and keep Jim’s memory. And may God bless the United States of America…Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not Islamic. No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim…. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way…. May God bless our troops, and may God bless the United States of America. “

Really?  No religion teaches people to massacre innocents?  Perhaps president Obama is right here, if he’s willing to concede to the idea that “innocence” is entirely subjective and in the eye of the religious believer, which I doubt he would concede.  And really?  He thinks (or merely says) that “no just God would stand for what they did yesterday?”  Either Obama is unintentionally making the case that the God of so many believers is in fact unjust, or that the God of these believers simply doesn’t exist.  For I find it incredibly hard to believe that president Obama isn’t familiar with three of the most violent religions in human history: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  The Old Testament of the Christian’s bible, which is also the strictly Jewish contribution to that book, and the Islamic Qu’ran and various Hadiths (i.e. purported prophetic traditions of Mohammed) are riddled with violence and violent commandments including those urging the believer to kill the infidel, that is, the unbeliever (a group that should be included in the innocents that Obama refers to in his speech), and to kill apostates for leaving the faith.  Islam in particular also highly emphasizes the glory of martyrdom with a 72 virgin reward in paradise for believers that have died (only for men though, women get simply one man that will satisfy them), and this of course can fuel other behavior (terrorism and otherwise) that often kills “infidels” and “apostates” in the process of that sought after martyrdom.  The hostility toward unbelievers and apostates within much of Islamic tradition also explains fairly well why most of ISIS’s victims have been Muslims — simply because there are several Islamic sects living near one another and one sect of Islam doesn’t recognize the other sect(s) as being legitimate followers of Islam (thus they are either seen as infidels, or apostates if they converted from one sect to another).

If we look at the common root of all three of these religions, starting with Abraham, we hear the story of a man that is willing to slice the throat of his own child in the name of religious faith.  We find many instances of mass genocide, rape, enslavement, violence, and many other morally reprehensible acts that were condoned or ordained by the God of these faiths.  We find that adulterers and people that decided to work on the Sabbath were stoned to death.  We find cannibalistic threats of punishment for disobedience.  We find homosexuals getting annihilated.  We find a God that inflicts upon all Egyptians ten plagues including the death of all their first born children.  We even find a God that kills just about every land animal and human being on the entire planet by drowning them (except for Noah, his family, and a couple of each land animal as the story goes).  Needless to say, we find countless atrocities of killing innocents by the hand of God or instigated or commanded by this God through his chosen people in these religion’s scriptural texts.  Were those that died considered innocent in the eyes of their God and thus in the eyes of those believers?  Of course not.  Thus, in this sense and this sense only, president Obama was correct to say that “No religion condones the killing of innocents”.  Unfortunately, this just illustrates that what Obama said was utterly meaningless.

Is the president really being serious here?  Could he really be that unfamiliar with all of this basic scriptural and religious background knowledge to make a ridiculous claim like that?  Could he really be that unfamiliar with the countless lives lost over the years in the name of religion, including the Crusades, the Holocaust, or the many conquests of Islam, including the most brutal that took place throughout India (from the 12th to 16th century CE)?  Could he have missed the fact that the U.S. civil war itself was not only a result of the south fighting for state’s rights, but that it was also largely a result of many Christian southerners defending their “rights” to own slaves based on their straightforward interpretation of biblical scripture?  Surely these travesties had multiple causes behind them including geo-political, economic, and other social factors, but to deny the role of religion and specific religious beliefs in motivating much of that behavior would be simply absurd.  Then again, perhaps the president is merely in denial, asserting the delusional view that many people wish was the case, that is, the idea that all religions are equally peaceful, and that violence just comes from other non-religious sources of bad ideas.  However, how could he possibly square this delusion with the particularly liberal recognition that people are products of their environment, and thus, one’s behavior is affected by every environmental influence?  What exactly will have to happen before everyone is willing to accept the fact that all ideas (including religious ideas) lead to behavioral consequences?  In fact, religious ideas (when taken seriously) are probably one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful motivations for a person’s behaviors.  What seems to be most implicit in Obama’s delusional oration is the fear of criticizing religious ideas in particular.

Why are so many people so afraid of or uncomfortable with discussing and criticizing religion or religious beliefs?  In any other domain of our lives, rational inquiry and discourse are required and happily utilized to continue to progress intellectually as individuals and as an increasingly globalized society.  Every day of our lives we demand evidence and/or persuasive reasons for believing what we’re told by others including how to behave (with more extraordinary claims requiring more extraordinary levels of evidence and reasoning).  We discuss and debate issues openly and without disdain largely to find clarity in each others viewpoints, and to determine whether or not, in light of those arguments and evidence, we should change any of those viewpoints (and the behaviors they promote) for the good of our own lives and the lives of others.  It is primarily when the topic shifts to religion, and the various religious beliefs contained within, do many people start to cower away from an open discourse as well as a critical and rational analysis, thus abandoning their everyday moral values and whatever honesty and integrity they may have otherwise.  As a result, religion has now become one of the only (if not the only) existing domains where irrational, illogical, and often downright dangerous ideas can remain out of the reach of public scrutiny and criticism.  This is especially unfortunate since, as I mentioned earlier, religious beliefs in particular are some of the most powerful influences on people’s behavior that exists.  Thus, it is perhaps one of the most important domains to be criticized.

So why are religion and religious ideas so often seen as exempt from criticism?  I think this has likely been largely fueled by the fact that ideas such as cultural and moral relativism and the tolerance of cultural diversity have been used by many in order to condone or equally respect any belief whatsoever, which is obviously ridiculous.  There are certainly some beneficial concepts contained within the cultural or moral relativistic schools of thought, including the idea that there are different ways of looking at the world and living one’s life, that there isn’t only one absolute way that is “correct” or “right”, that there are different ethical frameworks that prioritize different moral goals, and that it is important to examine beliefs and customs both as an outsider and within the cultural context that they are found and implemented.  However, the fact that we shouldn’t try to see the world through some limited, absolutist lens does not imply that all ideas and beliefs are of equal merit, nor that they will all produce the same consequences.  To think that a cultural context can ever save a belief system from any criticism whatsoever or from the behavioral consequences that they produce is simply ludicrous, especially if we are to adopt them with a specific moral or societal goal in mind, such as the goal of increasing our physical and psychological well being.  In order to increase our well being (and for the long term), our ideas must be rooted in reality and must correspond to the world around us, even if that perspective changes over time in light of new scientific discoveries and philosophical discourse.  This allows us to properly examine ideas and beliefs in terms of the consequences they have on our behavior and how that behavior relates to our ultimate goals.  Thus, religious ideology can’t be an exception to this rule or methodology, nor can any other ideology for that matter.  All ideas and beliefs have an effect on our behavior and the sooner people accept that, the sooner we can start accurately assessing the real dangers that we face and discuss how to deal with some of these dangerous ideas, and the people that believe and promote them.  Furthermore, we can then work to abolish those beliefs that are dangerous, and continue to move forward and substantially improve the quality of everyone’s lives in the process.

It certainly hasn’t helped that many liberals have been exacerbating this problem by unjustifiably labeling critics of various religious beliefs as intolerant bigots or racists.  There have been many instances of this defamatory labeling, most recently against some prominent liberals and atheists that have criticized the dangers of Islam and its inherently violent ideologies, and this labeling has been entirely unwarranted, since these critics haven’t been criticizing any particular race of people nor any inert forms of cultural diversity, but rather are criticizing quite obviously bad and dangerous ideas that are prevalent within a particular religious ideology.  These religious beliefs that are being criticized are those that have only served to inhibit the well being of humanity, by inhibiting many important humanistic principles including the push for equality for all races, all sexual orientations, equal rights for women (including women’s reproductive rights), and also the push for democracy, free thought and rational skepticism.

The irony is that liberals have had a long history of advocating many of these noble principles, and the liberals that are being critical of the critics advocating those principles (by those critics pointing out the religious beliefs that conflict with said principles) are basically abandoning their own values — likely because they’re simultaneously employing an irrational interpretation of cultural relativism.  Admittedly, this irrational interpretation or implementation of cultural relativism certainly has many admirable intentions behind it (such as increasing the tolerance for cultural diversity), but promoting a tolerance for diversity can be (and has already been in many cases) accomplished without abandoning the very universal criticism that has been necessary for the humanistic progress we’ve made thus far.  In the case of president Obama and what I heard in his speech, I realize that most of his motivations are political, as he doesn’t want to alienate the large number of religious voters or his approval ratings, and he probably doesn’t want to upset the large number of Muslims that aren’t a direct threat to our safety (not a threat at this time anyway).  It is also likely that his speech reflects his own mistaken beliefs regarding cultural relativism that have been propagating around many liberal circles (unfortunately).

It’s time for everyone to embrace a world where we can speak openly and honestly about any topic, so we can solve many more of the problems we face, rather than simply remain in denial, potentially putting ourselves and many innocent lives in danger.  Not all people have belief systems that are amenable to reason (in fact most religious belief systems aren’t amenable to reason), and so one must face the harsh reality that in some cases the only option is to detain people with certain dangerous beliefs such that they no longer pose a threat to everyone else in society (just as we currently do with violent criminals).  If they can’t be reasoned with nor detained for the protection of the populace, then they may have to be eliminated through other militaristic means.  Personally, I consider myself to be a pacifist, a humanist, and a progressive in many ways.  However, I’m also pragmatic and realistic, and understand that if there are people that can’t be reasoned out of a dangerous ideology, and that are willing to kill everyone around them that stands in their way — those people need to be stopped in one way or another, if everyone else expects to live happily, let alone survive.  I’d always opt for the most peaceful and diplomatic solutions whenever possible, but once those options have been exhausted, then it becomes a matter of humanists fighting for happiness, cooperation, and well being, versus those that couldn’t care less about human happiness, cooperation, or well being.  In that case, I think humanists need to do what is necessary to survive.  For if they fail to survive, then the violent, totalitarian, theocratic ideology will eventually monopolize the ideology of whichever human beings remain.

On the bright side, I’m also hopeful that even if religions don’t disappear altogether, though I think they will eventually based on the current trends of increasing numbers of agnostics and atheists, many dangerous religious ideologies can continue to be reformed as they have been in the past so that violence and aggression in the name of faith can be reduced.  To be sure, reformation of religion can only go so far if one is to continue to take the scriptural texts (especially as a whole) seriously.  In cases where the message coming from religious scriptures is quite clearly dangerous, then the inability to “reinterpret” one’s way out of the moral predicament leaves only two options:  1) change the text, or 2) no longer abide by all the text.  Unfortunately most religious believers have a fundamental ideological barrier that forbids them from changing the text (if only these texts could be amended over time like the U.S. Constitution has been).  That leaves the second option.  In fact, religious “moderates”, including those in the Abrahamic religions have done just that, by ignoring at least some of the commandments and teachings that are heinous.  It’s a good start either way, but it has taken centuries to accomplish with a lot of blood spilled to get there.  In any case, we can’t make these kinds of positive changes very effectively (if at all) until everyone is willing to start talking about them critically.  Let’s do so.