Adventures in Ethics and Science

I have misgivings about wading into Crackergate — indeed, even about dipping my toe into the edge of the pool (which is all I’m promising here) — but here goes.

First, let me commend the thoughtful posts by Mark Chu-Carroll and John Wilkins on the issue. If you haven’t read them yet, read them now. (If you’ve already read them, read them again.)

Next, let me set forth the disclaimers that I’d hope would be obvious:

Issuing death threats (or threats to do bodily harm to a person, or to his family) is wrong. It’s inexcusable (and I suspect in many jurisdictions it’s also illegal).

Insisting that others share your beliefs and trying to achieve this outcome by force or intimidation is also wrong.

Obtaining an item that is of value (for whatever reason) to the person from whom you obtain it under false pretenses looks, to my eye, a lot like theft, and it’s certainly a species of lying. I’m not down with that.

But I don’t want to make this a post about what, in a pluralistic society, is legally or ethically permissible, nor about whether the people on various sides need to recalibrate their outrage either downward or upward. There’s plenty of that in the posts already written on PZ and the communion wafer. I’d rather suggest an alternative framework for approaching such events.

There’s a refrain from a hymn that is frequently cited — often in response to pious people going off the deep end in their emotional response to something they find offensive: They will know we are Christians by our love. The idea is that it’s not what you say or what you believe that will matter to others in judging what kind of person you are, but how you live. If your life is a model of treating others with love and respect and kindness — even when it would be understandable to react to some of the things those other people do by lashing out at them — that speaks much louder than words. If you attribute this stance towards others, and towards steering your life, to your religion, the goodness of the life you are living is better testimony for the value of that religion than any sermon from the pulpit (or from the proselytizers on the doorstep) .

None of this, by the way, is to say that religion is a necessary ingredient of a good and ethical life. In a pluralistic society, we have choices about what variety of religious experience to follow, and about whether to partake of religion at all. But the hymns themselves suggest that religious faith ought to manifest itself in a certain kind of behavior towards others, that belief that is not lived is lacking.

By what will folks know scientists, or “the people of reason”*?

What kind of lived behavior — what kind of regard for others (or lack thereof) — will be the mark of those committed to navigating their world with their rational capacities and their sense organs in the driver’s seat?

Will it be the sort of life that inspires respect in those who witness it or participate in it? Will it be the sort of life that makes people say, “I want to find out how that guy manages it, to see if I could live that kind of life, too!”?

I don’t think scientists or people of reason are more on the hook to lead exemplary lives than are religious adherents. I don’t think they’re less on the hook to lead exemplary lives, either.

To the extent that a reason-guided life is something you feel is worth living, though — that it is something that others could benefit from living, too — it’s worth letting reason’s guidance shine through in your behavior. It’s also worth understanding that the darker human impulses we all have (including, perhaps, doing something for the sole purpose of pissing someone off) have the potential to be labeled as the typical behavior of a person of reason by those who haven’t yet been sold on the reason-guided life.

Pointing out the shortcomings of others is easy. Identifying and addressing our own is where the hard work of living comes in.
*Obviously there are plenty of scientists and self-identified people of reason who are also religious adherents. This makes it messy in terms of running the deconvolution to determine which parts of the life you’ve lived is driven by the P.O.R. vector, which part by the religion vector. The real world, however, is messy.


  1. #1 Zeno
    July 15, 2008

    I would be ever so much happier if people would base their actions and reactions on reality rather than rumor or ill-informed hearsay. Religious people may consider that a slam against them for blind faith in their sacred books and stuff, but I mean something else. For example, in the case of Webster Cook, many people are raging over the effrontery of Cook’s sneaking into a church and stealing a communion wafer. But Cook is Catholic and he was attending mass. (No sneaking.) He went to communion. (No stealing.) He didn’t desecrate it or anything; he merely intended to show it to a non-Catholic friend who was attending mass with him, after which he intended to consume it. Next thing he knew, Cook was being physically assaulted by people who saw he was still in possession of his communion wafer and instantly assumed the worst — and sprang into violent action.

    Chill, people.

  2. #2 Mark
    July 15, 2008

    Finally, a voice of reason!

  3. #3 PalMD
    July 15, 2008

    Thanks, Janet, for a wonderful post.

  4. #4 PuckishOne
    July 15, 2008

    Thank you for this post and for giving me the opportunity to tell my husband “I told you so” – I knew you’d weigh in on at least one of the many ethical issues raised by Wafergate. :) As I’ve grown fond of saying, it sucks to take the high road, but the view’s a lot better.

  5. #5 scicurious
    July 15, 2008

    Excellent post, I love reading your stuff, and this one is no exception.

    I was reading on the ethical views of Ludwig Wittgenstein the other day, and I think he would have applauded your view (though I could be wrong, apparently no one has ever understood his work except himself). He was a firm believer in both logic and living his ethics.

  6. #6 Louis
    July 15, 2008

    Excellent! Thank you very much.

  7. #7 Abel Pharmboy
    July 15, 2008

    Well-reasoned, Professor.

  8. #8 SteveWH
    July 15, 2008

    My gut reaction is to say, “Well said,” but I wonder if you are or are not begging the question on what a reason-guided life suggests is ethical behavior. Considering the messiness of the real world leads me to think that sometimes, the proper thing to do is to piss someone else off. A (metaphorical) punch in the gut can be an effective tool when used properly – some of the most important lessons I’ve learned have been at the hands of people who took me to task in direct and painful ways, not pulling any punches. For example, a teacher once told me point-blank that my writing style was pretentious and obnoxious (and he then offered suggestions for improving it). I remember that clearly, and far more clearly than I would have had I not been offended. I think I have improved as a result. Without the shock and offense, I don’t think the lesson would have been as well learned. Things that we value and take pride in are often like that – we don’t seriously examine them with an open mind unless that pride stings. Perhaps Crackergate is not an instance of the proper use of outrage, but all the same, I don’t think we should rule it out as a stain on the reason-guided life from the start.

    I also wonder about questions of integrity. Personally, as a gay man, I find many religious attitudes and actions towards homosexuals to be personally offensive and, even worse, to destroy lives (the attitudes of teachers and other students at the Catholic high schools they attended led more than one queer friend to attempt suicide before reaching their seventeenth birthday). This is made less easy to bear given that I’ve taken the other side’s arguments very seriously, and found the best among them to be weak and question-begging, and the worst downright ridiculous. However, I would be, in a sense, morally disappointed with people who, given their beliefs about us, did not act on them in consistent ways. They would be failing to live up to their own ethical beliefs, and even if those beliefs are unjustified, that is still a moral failing. Given what I can tell about Dr. Myers from his blog, this same point would apply as well. If we must choose between acting in ways that are consistent with what we believe, and act in ways that won’t piss a group of people off, what does the reason-guided life suggest we do?

    Also, I believe that sometimes the disapproval of certain people should be taken as a mark of honor, and that there are certain people who we do not want to have a good opinion of us. Whether or not that applies to those who violently defend transubstantiation, I leave to someone else to argue.

  9. #9 Pierce R. Butler
    July 15, 2008

    Pointing out the shortcomings of others is easy. Identifying and addressing our own is where the hard work of living comes in.

    Well of course: social progress has never come about except by the actions of those who waited until they themselves were absolutely perfect before raising a syllable of protest about anyone else.

  10. #10 Janet D. Stemwedel
    July 15, 2008


    The points you raise are good ones, and I agree with the larger point that sometimes living your values is bound to cause offense to others with different sets of values. Pluralism is hard. My own inclination is to err on the side of showing care for others, and to try to be reflective to determine whether my intended course of action is consistent with my values or simply with my emotional responses. (I agree with you, I think, that sometimes the best way to show care includes hurting his feelings. The hurt feelings are usually not themselves the goal, though.)

    Pierce, I’m not saying that one shouldn’t critique others until one is perfect. Critiquing others while not partaking of self-examination, though, seems to me a really bad idea.

  11. #11 James
    July 16, 2008

    @ SteveWH

    You are brilliant! I nominate you for whatever prize you want (be extravagant, it’s imaginary).

    You are quite correct to point out that shock and offense can lead to behavior change. That factor is a bedrock sociological/psychological concept in how the military changes the behavior of new recruits. They strip them down with shock and offense, then build them back up with structure and well placed guidance. It is highly effective. It is also why religious cults can be so effective, as well as being one of the foundation concepts of structured torture.

    Yet, when you do not have a ‘captive’ audience, as is the case with the above examples, you have a somewhat different situation. Superficially, it may appear that free will is introduced. But, that is somewhat of an illusion. One of the primary factors that appears to sway the individual (do I change or not) depends on the subject’s cognitive/emotional valence. That is, the negative or positive psychological value assigned by a person (subject) to another person (actor), event, goal, job, object, outcome, etc., based on its attractiveness to the person.

    If the valence is positive (i.e., the actor is viewed as: personal friend, important professor, person I love, well respected and acclaim book, etc.), then the person has a higher probability of tolerating the shock and accepting and, possibly, internalizing the content of the offense. There is also an increased probability of the person deciding to initiate the requested change in behavior or thought.

    On the other hand, if the valence is negative, the outcome can be strikingly different. In those instances where the person perceives the actor who presents the shock and offense as nonattractive, intense negative cognitions/emotions have a higher probability of occurrence. These cognitions/emotions can range from annoyance to intense hatred to blinding homicidal rage.

    That is why the very vocal and highly aggressive tactics of some of the new atheists engender such intense verbal responses and emotions from the theists. The atheists (actors) have not taken the time and energy to cultivate a positive valence with the theists. Thus, they have an increased probability of being thought of as…well, you know.

    As a social science practitioner (psychologist) of 35 years, I continue to be amazed at the information silo effect that is so apparent in the scienceblogs community. By simply altering their tactics, the new atheists could become so much more effective. But, I suspect that such advice falls on deaf ears, closed minds, and range restricted personalities.

  12. #12 bcpmoon
    July 16, 2008

    I am sorry, but I do not quite agree. Of course, it would be nicer if each criticism would be started with an extended mea culpa, but this should not be necessary between grown-ups. Also, the non-religious side does not have to be better than the religious, only as good as. That automatically means that the non-religious side has the higher ground, because it is not lying.
    Don´t forget, adherents to an ideology/reigion claim to be better people just because they believe. That´s enough in their eyes, but not enough according to approved ethics. And if they claim this higher standard, then they can be judged accordingly. I hold someone in higher regard who speaks his mind openly and without claiming superiority a priori than someone who says he is peaceful but stabs me in the back.

  13. #13 SteveWH
    July 16, 2008

    Janet – I think that Myers had more than just being offensive in mind when he offered to do nasty things to a host. He was publicly taking a stance and demonstrating his beliefs, and in doing so drawing wide-spread attention to what he sees as ridiculous beliefs and dangerous attitudes. Of course, maybe he did just want to piss some folks off. I think we can agree that the decision to post what he did was not made in a particularly reflective manner, and that is a fair point for criticism.

    James – Thank you, but I’m not really that smart. I just read a lot. You raise some good points about how relationships affect the effectiveness of damaged pride as a training tool. I will have to think more on that.

    And I humbly accept the I AM THE GREATEST PERSON EVER IN THE HISTORY OF THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD, EVER! award, and the $20 bazillion dollar prize that comes with it.

    Generally – I’ve been thinking about an analogy – “No, I will not allow this human sacrifice to take place, even if my doing so causes psychological harm to millions of worshipers of Quetzalcóatl,” and “No, I will not treat this cracker with undue respect and reverence, even if my doing so causes psychological harm to millions of Catholics.” The main difference between them seems to me to be that, in the first example, a positive harm to someone is being prevented, while in the second, the cracker defiler isn’t preventing any direct harm. I’m trying to decide if that makes a significant ethical difference. Any thoughts?

  14. #14 buck
    July 16, 2008

    i think your last paragraph is a misrepresentation…and i speak as someone who has moved from assigning a negative valence to pz to assigning him a positive valence…and this was done grudgingly initially, but with no choice eventually under the display of consistent intellectual honesty from pz…

    i say “roar on” and damn the valence…the insidious spread of religious influence in all spheres of life leaves very little avenue for cultivating such a positive valence in the first place…what use is a good example of civil response in a culture where it doesn’t even register on the radar?

  15. #15 Pierce R. Butler
    July 16, 2008

    Critiquing others while not partaking of self-examination, though, seems to me a really bad idea.

    Quite so, but what connection can you draw between this and PZ Myers, who scathes the perceived failings of the atheist movement with caustic regularity?

  16. #16 Brook
    July 16, 2008

    As a homeschooling, atheist, organic farmer, off-grid, tv free mother of children by multiple fathers, my belief systems are challenged on a regular basis.

    Folks make one of two automatic responses upon learning about whatever aspect of my life seems weird to them. Either “I could never do that. How can you possible do that?” or “You shouldn’t do that because your children will be messed up in any number of dire fashions.”

    This gets old. I rarely offer details of my life but it’s hard to avoid the direct questions. When you don’t know what grade your 9 yo is in, it’s a tipoff that he’s not at the local elementary school. It’s worse when relatives call every september asking if I’ve finally put my kids on the bus. (“Oh gee, I forgot. Maybe next year.”)

    Occasionally though, the question will be sincere and in trying to answer it I further my own understanding of some of the choices I’ve made that didn’t have much research behind them.

    When you poke a hornet’s nest, I think that delivering the jab electronically is different than a physical poke. (Certainly one of my kids, who, fortunately, isn’t allergic to hornets, would agree.) Electronically, the audience is both more diverse and, largely, anonymous. I don’t know whether this should raise the standard of behavior. I’m also not sure that all the responsibility for possible interpretations should fall on the writer, especially when the writer is clearly expressing an opinion that s/he has expressed many times before.

    In the “real” world, I’ve offended several Catholic co-workers because, at that moment, I believed they deserved it. It didn’t change our work relation, nor did it change their views of their religion. Which astonished me since one guy admitted that, to him, being Catholic had everything to do with following rules and nothing at all to do with loving one’s neighbor etc. The confrontation did lead to a note in the employee newletter publicizing the fact that “Plan B” was available otc at our workplace pharmacy. Perhaps my offenses have been forgiven because I framed them in terms of looking for an explanation about the bizarre to me world of hyper religiosity.

    I wouldn’t have chosen to write the post that PZ wrote. But I’m glad he did because I think it’s important to disagree. I just hope all his stuffed octopuses are named Mohammed.

  17. #17 James
    July 16, 2008

    @ Buck

    I thank you for your critique. You are correct. I withdraw the last paragraph and humbly apologize.

    I woke up in the wee hours of this morning regretting that I included that last paragraph of my previous post. You are correct to hold me accountable, especially for making attributions to others without knowing the circumstances under which they made their decisions. It was wrong of me to do so.

    While I am being so honest, I must admit that I made another mistake in that last paragraph. Although I do believe that there is an obvious information silo effect evident on scienceblogs, I lost sight of the undeniable fact that scienceblogs was created, in part, to combat that very same issue. Seed Magazine, in my opinion, did us all a great service by creating a forum for scientists and science enthusiasts to ameliorate that exact problem. Moreover, Dr. Free-Ride (our host, Janet D. Stemwedel) has done an excellent job is fostering a focused and intellectually stimulating dialog. I surely want to honor her efforts by being more precise in my comments.

    I also award you a prize, for being observant (be extravagant, your prize is also imaginary).

  18. #18 Doug Blank
    July 16, 2008

    I’ve been thinking about related issues: I have a tyrannosaurus eating a Jesus-fish car bumper emblem. Is putting this on my car an aggressive act by an uppity atheist? Or is it “just like” having a Jesus-fish on my car? Our other car has a FSM sticker, which is really subtle (and thus ineffective and non-confrontational).

    I decided to put it on the car. I think the world needs all kinds of people. I’m glad PZ called a cracker a cracker. I’m also glad that Dr. Free-Ride, too, is in the group of “people of reason”. We aren’t the problem here. Let’s work on the rest.

  19. #19 Tony Jeremiah
    July 17, 2008

    They will know we are Christians by our love…If you attribute this stance towards others, and towards steering your life, to your religion, the goodness of the life you are living is better testimony for the value of that religion than any sermon from the pulpit

    However, there are several Christian denominations, owing largely to a theological argument that initiated the Reformation, related to the sentiment above. This debate concerns the notion of justification (i.e., the question of how one becomes righteous in God’s eyes). Is justification achieved by faith alone, or, by good works? The above sentiment (although more of a secular version of the concept) falls on the side of justification via good works and is consistent with Catholicism.

    OTOH, Protestants fall on the side of justification via faith alone, which fundamentally means you can be Adolf Hitler and still be declared good by simply believing in God and Bible; no good works required. I suspect this particular doctrine is at the source of many fundamentalist reactions, as faith alone probably translates to the idea that everything written in the Bible should be followed to the letter. So the focus is more on the relationship between God and believer, rather than between fellow human and believer (which is more implicit to the good works doctrine).

    So rather than being ‘just a cracker’, it’s possible that the strong response to a cracker being taken away during a religious ceremony, could be symbolic of a disruption in the fundamentalists’ God-believer connection.

  20. #20 Margaret
    July 22, 2008

    SteveWH: The main difference between them seems to me to be that, in the first example, a positive harm to someone is being prevented, while in the second, the cracker defiler isn’t preventing any direct harm. I’m trying to decide if that makes a significant ethical difference. Any thoughts?

    PZ’s first post on the Frackin’ Cracker was made in defense of the student, Webster Cook, who was receiving death threats and facing the possibility of being kicked out of college. He was thus trying to prevent direct harm (though I’m sure the fun of pointing and laughing at delusional nuts was also a factor).

  21. #21 Thomas Lee Elifritz
    July 18, 2009

    Fuck your sacred wafer.

  22. #22 XD
    July 18, 2009

    I feel I should point out that Thomas Lee Elifritz has been trolling Pharyngula for the past few days. I see he’s now graduated to agent provocateur. Don’t feed the troll, guys.

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