Pharyngula

Rabbi Avi Shafran wants to argue

I’ve received a personal email from Rabbi Avi Shafran—the fellow whose graceless and ignorant opinion piece I criticized a while back. It’s a peculiar thing: he wrote a public editorial, I criticized it publicly, and now he asks that we have a private discussion on the matter. I won’t post his whole email, but I will put up the main point, what he plainly says is the main point and a restatement of the thesis of his original editorial, and address that here.

If Rabbi Avi Shafran wants to continue the discussion, he should do it publicly. I’m not going to convert him, and he’s not going to convert me, so a private conversation would be futile—let’s let the readers see our arguments and make up their own minds.

Here’s the nub of his assertion:

My point was simply that if one takes the approach that we humans, and all living things, are mere accidents of random evolution, then our convictions about “good” and “bad,” strong as they may be, cannot be more meaningful or compelling than feelings engendered by any other evolutionary development. Thus, there can be no substantive argument or judgment (in anything other than a “societal compact” sense) of a person who acts in an immoral or unethical way. He has every right to claim that his urges and desires should be as respected — or more respected — than yours or mine. His actions are as “good” as any.

This is simply a logical fallacy; he’s making an appeal to adverse consequences, suggesting that if X is true, then bad things will happen. This kind of statement is not an argument for the truth or falsehood of X, and he really should know better.

I would have to suggest to the rabbi that if his moral code is so weak that it collapses if certain truths are confirmed, then the problem here is with his morality…that, at least, is more easily adjusted than is reality. Perhaps he should throw away his religious texts, which are in a state of failure, and consult more robust secular sources for guidance.

His implication of adverse consequences is also simply false. Atheists aren’t plagued with problems of their fellows turning around and knifing them and cannibalizing their corpses; somehow, they manage to do as well and possibly even better than theists in behaving in civil, ethical ways. We also don’t sit around thinking that these hypothetical knife-wielding cannibal atheists would be just as “good” as the usual non-homicidal tea-and-cookie-serving atheists. Shouldn’t the fact that the conclusions drawn from a premise are 180° reversed from reality alert you that something is wrong with your thinking? (Perhaps not. This is what religion does to your brain: it tells you that reality doesn’t matter.)

The rabbi is rather dismissive of a “societal compact” sense of morality, and I don’t understand why. I think it’s a far better justification for moral behavior than a myth about divine laws, or mere obeisance to religious figures waving about eternal extortion threats. I follow reasonable ethical standards because that’s part of a society I like living in—I can do so for entirely selfish reasons. In my original criticisms, I also mentioned empathy and that good old simple, primitive golden rule: I do not kill and eat my neighbors because I would not like to be killed and eaten, and as a psychologically healthy individual I can understand the pain I would inflict on others, and am repelled by even the idea of it.

In the conclusion to his letter he assures me that he did not intend to characterize atheists negatively. I’m not convinced of the sincerity of that statement: recall that his editorial opened with what he represented as an example of the consequences of atheist thought: a thoroughly contemptible serial killer (one who also, it seems, may not have been an atheist at all.) Without the orders of a god, with no worry about passing the entrance exams for an afterlife, confident in the evidence for evolution, my personal moral beliefs tell me that the urges and desires of serial killers should not be respected, nor are they good.

Comments

  1. #1 NelC
    May 30, 2006

    The good rabbi should read a bit more SF. One can imagine working ethical systems for aliens and even humans that include cannibalism, for example. Ethical systems are contingent on circumstances, including biology and society. You can invent any kind of morality, but if it doesn’t help you to survive, then it dies out, along with yourself if you’re not smart enough to tell it’s not working.

    God may have made us moral animals, but after that, we’re on our own.

  2. #2 cution
    May 30, 2006

    Amen to that ;).

  3. #3 Ginger Yellow
    May 30, 2006

    “Thus, there can be no substantive argument or judgment (in anything other than a “societal compact” sense) of a person who acts in an immoral or unethical way.”

    It’s a good thing there’s a societal compact sense, then, isn’t it? He clearly knows about this sense, so why doesn’t he address its merits, rather than pretending it doesn’t count?

  4. #4 PZ Myers
    May 30, 2006

    Because acknowledging the existence of the social compact and empathy would completely disembowel his argument.

  5. #5 Mike Fox
    May 30, 2006

    I don’t think of good and bad in terms of a social contract, but in terms of reproduction. That which passes on the most of my genes, in the long term of course, is good; that which passes on the fewest of my genes is bad. Both social contracts and religions are attempts at simplifications of this for the masses.

    –Mike Fox

  6. #6 sockatume
    May 30, 2006

    I find that atheism leads to a sort of moral pragmatism. The morality of an action has to be considered in terms of its consequences, rather than by trying to interpret the action itself in a framework of religious rules.

  7. #7 DOF
    May 30, 2006

    I think in terms of ‘preservation of sentient autonomy’, plus that social-contract thingie. See, Rabbi, there are many approaches to secular morality.

  8. #8 BigHeathenMike
    May 30, 2006

    If the rabbi said that he, “did not intend to characterize atheists negatively”, I do not believe him in any capacity. I wrote about his letter at my site as well and it seems like after he published his little piece, a lot of us slammed it and wrote letters to the editor at the Florida Jewish News. He is in damage control mode and wants to “discuss” the issue with you likely because you have the widest audience (although I don’t think he knows what he’s up against). Nicely done.

  9. #9 wafer
    May 30, 2006

    So if I understand the rabbi’s argument, the only reason we understand “good” and “bad” is because god provides that framework. If true, then I can knife someone and cannabilize the corpse, because the god I believe in says that’s ok. Based on the rabbi’s logic, I am not accountable, in America at least, because of the whole freedom of religion. Of course on a tangent, if the right-wing republicans keep it up, the only freedom of religion in this country will be the freedom to decide which fundamentalist christian denomination you wish to belong.

  10. #10 sdanielmorgan
    May 30, 2006

    A lot of this seems to revolve around a point the Rabbi made in his critique:

    What it is to say, though, is that atheism qua atheism presents no compelling objection to such behavior — nor, for that matter, any convincing defense of the very concepts of ethics and morality themselves.

    Atheism is not a religion, and unlike religions, in that it does not entail any logically necessary moral framework. Unlike Christianity, Judaism, etc., atheism does not convey a system of ethics and morals. It seems so silly that people argue against atheism on the basis of morality. It’s like arguing against Christianity on the basis of its silence regarding computer programming: it’s irrelevant to the truth value of the positions.

    They can argue against utilitarianism, or Richard Carrier’s particular ethical values, but arguing against “atheist morality” is absurd. Atheists comprise all points of the ethical and political spectrum, from nihilists to socialists to Unitarian Universalists to Huamnists…etc.

    Perhaps the Rabbi ought to tackle empathy as the basis for morality, and/or the natural basis for empathy, rather than the farcical refutation he has thus far proffered. The Rabbi ought to address the natural basis for ethics itself, [ie empathy/altruism] which is perhaps the only universal position atheists may share on ethics, and not the scarecrow attack on one ethics-neutral aspect of our many different worldviews.

  11. #11 Steve LaBonne
    May 30, 2006

    It’s just the same old same old, sdanielmorgan- it’s a standard move for believers to reify atheism- the purely negative denial of the “supernatural”- into a belief system competing with their own. It’s how their minds work- they just can’t concieve of a mind operating in the absence of some prefab framework of unjustified beliefs homologous to theirs. Very difficult to communicate meaningfully with them because of that fundamental mental block.

  12. #12 Arun Gupta
    May 30, 2006

    I think what the Rabbi is saying is that God is what makes the universe objective. We accidents of evolution cannot be objective.

    He is also saying that human knowledge, experience, reason is insufficient to come up with morality or a reason to be moral.

    I’d answer that our knowledge of morality is at least as strong and objective as our knowledge of evolution. More so, in fact, because the accumulation of human knowledge necessary to come up with the theory of evolution could not have taken place in an amoral world.

  13. #13 Dave
    May 30, 2006

    The flip side of sdanielmorgan’s perspective also deserves some mention. Just as there are many types of atheists, there are many types of theists. And in some cases their religiously-derived moral codes allow them to justify stoning or killing rape victims, etc… Can the rabbi take on that particular problem, which is real, rather than inventing one?

  14. #14 Russell
    May 30, 2006

    As I’ve noted in another thread, positing a God who hands down moral rules does not resolve the Rabbi’s desire to find morality outside of the human mind. Does the Rabbi obey his god to better his position in the afterlife? Then the Rabbi’s ultimate moral rule is merely one of self-preservation. Does the Rabbi obey because his god is mighty? Then the Rabbi’s ultimate morality is worship of power. Does the Rabbi follow a god’s moral rules for reasons the Rabbi doesn’t well understand? Then the Rabbi merely seeks authority. And an imagined authority will do.

  15. #15 Ian H Spedding
    May 30, 2006

    I am curious about the Rabbi’s view on whether something is good only if God says it is, bearing in mind that the Old Testament contains ample evidence of God endorsing and encouraging acts that most people today, regardless of faith or the lack of it, would judge to be crimes or atrocities.

  16. #16 Alex Galaitsis
    May 30, 2006

    There’s a big problem I’ve always had with the kind of argument Rabbi Shafran makes. Essentially, I think religion gives rise to the morally vacuous environment he is so afraid of. When imperative statements are not backed up by reasoning grounded in reality…well, you can “command” anything you want. Especially when the divine rewards and punishments for behavior are completely intangible, too.
    Example:
    Person A: My god X exists. He commands that we cannot eat bologna on Wednesdays but we must wear yellow hats in public. On some occasions, he commanded that unbelievers must be slain. Or sometimes be shown mercy.
    Person B. My god Y exists. He commands we must wear green hats at all times. All other people are corrupted by invisible turkey demons and must be slain.
    Person A. DIE!!
    Person B. DIE!!

    Morality becomes completely bankrupt when you can appeal to supernatural, unverifiable authority to justify anything. At that point, it becomes random chance as to which religious group survives. Often, it is the group that makes a practice of murdering everyone else. For that reason, I think even religious people today mostly operate through an underlying, secular social compact.
    A phrase I’ve always liked is the following: “A good person doesn’t need religion to do good. But it takes religion to make a good person do bad things.”

  17. #17 Keith Douglas
    May 30, 2006

    sockatume: I’ve hypothesized for a long time that humans are consequentialists psychologically and sometimes put on or add a deontological bit on top. I’d like to do the research to test this, but haven’t had the time or resources. I do have the tantalizing tidbits that a dear friend found the same hypothesis independently, and that even such a strong deontologist as John Rawls has admitted his agreement with this.

    The good rabbi should also read Smullyan’s Is God a Taoist if only because it would be amusing to see the smoke come out of his ears. 🙂

  18. #18 Charlie Wagner
    May 30, 2006

    Paul wrote:

    “I follow reasonable ethical standards because that’s part of a society I like living in–I can do so for entirely selfish reasons.”

    Morality doesn’t flow from religion, nor does it flow from a “societal compact” or a selfish motive.

    It’s hard wired into the brain from birth, and we all have it to different degrees. Some are amoral, and go on to become criminals, some are highly moral and go on to become saints. The rest of us have just enough to keep us from being barbarians. And it doesn’t matter much if we’re raised as atheists, theists or whatever. We all have an inherent sense of right and wrong (to varying degrees) that’s genetically based and largely intractable.
    That’s why societies have laws, so that those who cannot be relied upon to be inherently moral have some kind of motivation to be civil. But despite laws against murder, assault, robbery and other cimes, the prisons are still full of people who violate them. And very few of them feel that they are guilty of anything.

  19. #19 James R
    May 30, 2006

    Weren’t the original religious writings in fact the first “societal compacts”? Sure the earliest writers attributed those writings to a godly inspiration. But that was before they/we knew that hearing voices was a sign of mental defect. What I do not understand is why it is so hard for these people to accept this simple fact.

    Strip the religious mandate of its supernatural influence and your left with a system of moral values based on what the writer makes up. Any way you cut it we as self-aware human beings can and must have a moral compass that guides our living with each other. It is unfortunate that so much has been made about the religious morals being perfect when they allow for so much contradiction and manipulation.

  20. #20 Christopher
    May 30, 2006

    This is another in the list of “Real problems that religion doesn’t solve”.

    I completely agree with the Rabbi that atheism can’t actually provide an objective, irrefutable framework for morality. Unfortunately, neither can religion.

    Here’s a thought experiment: Suppose that god decided that hurting people was morally good. Not hurting them to make them better in some way later down the line; Just pain for its own sake.

    If this were true, would you become a serial killer?

    If you answer, “No”, then clearly morality is not dictated by god, but by your own internalised moral sense. In other words, the question you ask of morality is not “does god say it is right?”, but, “do I say it is right?”. Because if god says it’s right and you say it’s wrong, then you think of it as wrong.

    If you answer, “Yes” then you’ve shown that anybody of sufficient authority can convince you to commit even the worst atrocitites. Now you either have to argue that nobody will ever have sufficient authority to tell you to become a serial killer, which is really just a variation on the “no” response, or you have to admit that if the Pope asked you to you’d kill me right now, in which case I want you to stay far away from me.

    Not to mention all the other problems that the commenters here have come up with.

    I’ll admit that I’m not comfortable with moral reletavism; I’d love to be able to demonstrate that murder is wrong with the same certainty I can demonstrate the law of gravity.

    But I can’t, and religion doesn’t help.

  21. #21 quork
    May 30, 2006

    The rabbi is asking you to remedy his lack of education in ethics.

    Which brings me to ask, how does one become a rabbi? Does one simply send off to Patriot University for a Certificate of Rabbi-ness, or is there some sort of seminary where one ought to be taught about ethics and other important and relevant subjects? Shouldn’t someone in his position have heard of Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue and ethical systems which are not based on theism, such as virtue-based ethics, Kant’s categorical imperative, Utilitarianism, and even the Golden Rule?

    … a lot of us slammed it and wrote letters to the editor at the Florida Jewish News …

    If any of those got published, give us a link.

  22. #22 SteveG
    May 30, 2006

    The Rabbi’s argument is based on the presupposition that moral truths are structured like physical theories with individual moral judgments of individual actions being derived from the highest level general propositions that function like laws of nature from which we can derive observable results about, say, mechanics, from Newton’s laws of motion and initial conditions. These principles need justification by something outside of the system to avoid circularity and since atheists deny the existence of a noramtive force outside the system, he argues, the rules must be groundless and ethics is impossible.

    Te flaw is in the initial picture of what ethics is. Ethics is not structured that way with aboslute rules at the top, rather it is a complex interplay of several factors — virtue, utility, rights, care, as well as the intrinsic moral desirability of actions which give us moral rules. The Divine command picture that the Rabbi espouses rules out the other factors and gives a naively strong picture of moral rules. Anyone who thinks for just a second will realize that they are not absolute, but what W. D. Ross called prima facie duties. If all other things are equal, one should not lie. But, of course, in reality, all other things are never equal. We do think about things in terms of general moral principles, but these do not function as the foundation for all moral decisions and do not need justification in the way the Rabbi thinks. Ethics is more complicated than that and that complexity obviates the need for a simple-minded “because I’m the Heavenly Father and I said so” at the root of it all.

  23. #23 outeast
    May 30, 2006

    Hmm. I actually think the good Rabbi does have a point – though he does not have an argument. A philosophical starting-point* which, like atheism, does not include a universal morality among its premises does make moral responsibility difficult – especially when it comes to judging others. As an atheist I have little trouble living ‘morally’, but I do have difficulties in deciding how to react to and judge others (especially those from cultures which condone things I find morally challenging). Cultural relativism is one of the big philosophical quagmires for the atheist.

    That said, the Rabbi’s point is not germane to his case: abdicating responsibility for moral judgements by ceding one’s own morality to the dictates of a religion may make life more certain, but it doesn’t make one’s convictions any more right. For the moral absolutes of a faith to be right the premises of the faith itself must be true – without that, all you’re left with is a Machiavellian case that people are better kept in line with the imposition of a delusion.

    *I call it a philosophical starting point because one’s faith or lack thereof is by definition a premiss to one’s entire philosophy; there are kinds of thought that many believers simply cannot countenance because they are precluded by their faith – and cultural relativism is one of these.

  24. #24 thoughttheater
    May 30, 2006

    In simple terms, the argument that the Rabbi and many believers make…which asserts that absent a belief in a higher being, the world would slip into immoral chaos is simply absurd. On the contrary, all too often religion has been the vehicle with which some humans have justified destroying other humans…couching their actions in some chosen religious doctrines that they assert come from a higher being. On the other hand, the aetheist, in believing that this human existence is of the highest order, gives value to humanity that is not diminished or measured by some chosen set of religious values. When the aetheist, by this belief, sanctifies humanity, I believe he or she is more apt to preserve humanity because he or she gives it more value, not less.

    What we know for sure is that here on earth humans have always come in many varieties and have always possessed many favorable traits as well as numerous unfortunate flaws. We also know that throughout recorded history humankind has sought to define our existence and our purpose with little regard for our exhibited nature. Indeed we have been conditioned to believe in a higher purpose, a higher being, and an afterlife that is dependent upon our exhibiting “appropriate” behavior during our tenure in this life. This hypothesis forms the fundamental notions of religion, faith, and God.

    Here’s the questions…Is humanity’s truth predicated upon a bargain we make in order to secure a better afterlife because we cannot or will not act appropriately without incentive…or could humanity’s truth be predicated upon a belief that if we choose to honor the validity of our nature, we will in effect be sanctifying and elevating all of humanity? Couldn’t honoring our humanity be both the basis and the source of our reward? Only when we seek and accept the answers to such questions will we finally know truth. In other words, in this life on earth…don’t the choices we make and the reasons we make them actually determine our proximity to truth?

    more observations here:

    http://www.thoughttheater.com

  25. #25 Charlie Wagner
    May 30, 2006

    Bertrand Russell dealt with this question in 1927:

    The Moral Arguments For Deity

    Now we reach one stage further in what I shall call the intellectual descent that the Theists have made in their argumentations, and we come to what are called the moral arguments for the existence of God. You all know, of course, that there used to be in the old days three intellectual arguments for the existence of God, all of which were disposed of by Immanuel Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason; but no sooner had he disposed of those arguments than he invented a new one, a moral argument, and that quite convinced him. He was like many people: in intellectual matters he was skeptical, but in moral matters he believed implicitly in the maxims that he had imbibed at his mother’s knee. That illustrates what the psycho-analysts so much emphasize — the immensely stronger hold upon us that our very early associations have than those of later times.

    Kant, as I say, invented a new moral argument for the existence of God, and that in varying forms was extremely popular during the nineteenth century. It has all sorts of forms. One form is to say that there would be no right and wrong unless God existed. I am not for the moment concerned with whether there is a difference between right and wrong, or whether there is not: that is another question. The point I am concerned with is that, if you are quite sure there is a difference between right and wrong, then you are then in this situation: is that difference due to God’s fiat or is it not? If it is due to God’s fiat, then for God himself there is no difference between right and wrong, and it is no longer a significant statement to say that God is good. If you are going to say, as theologians do, that God is good, you must then say that right and wrong have some meaning which is independent of God’s fiat, because God’s fiats are good and not bad independently of the mere fact that he made them. If you are going to say that, you will then have to say that it is not only through God that right and wrong came into being, but that they are in their essence logically anterior to God. You could, of course, if you liked, say that there was a superior deity who gave orders to the God who made this world, or could take up the line that some of the agnostics took up — a line which I often thought was a very plausible one — that as a matter of fact this world that we know was made by the Devil at a moment when God was not looking. There is a good deal to be said for that, and I am not concerned to refute it.”

    More Russell HERE:
    http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/russell0.htm

  26. #26 poke
    May 30, 2006

    What I find odd is the Judeo-Christian idea that there’s something appealing about being amoral. By way of analogy, compare being moral with being sighted: There’s nothing in the world that makes the gross reflectance properties of a surface more fundamental than the moral conduct of a large conglomerate of biomolecules. Both require functioning brains in order to be perceived. But nobody finds being blind appealing because they can escape being bound to this rather arbitrary property of the world. I think that’s telling: The perverse appeal of being amoral itself comes from this Judeo-Christian notion that we’re fundamentally savage but bound to morality because of the watchful eye of a father figure in the sky. What is so difficult for theists to understand is that without the father figure amorality starts to lose that appeal.

  27. #27 quork
    May 30, 2006

    Bertrand Russell dealt with this question in 1927:

    That is essentially a rehash of Plato’s argument ca. 400 BCE.

  28. #28 lt.kizhe
    May 30, 2006

    The good rabbi should read a bit more SF. One can imagine working ethical systems for aliens and even humans that include cannibalism, for example.

    Eg: Courtship Rite (author forgotten), a novel about the society on a colony world, centuries after the first humans have arrived. At first, the reader is appalled: customary cannibalism of all deceased; cannibalism of babies deemed “below par”; genetic manipulation of humans to produce biologically-enforced castes for different roles (leaders, technicians, workers, beasts of burden and transport, etc). However, as the book continues we come to understand the exigencies (many due to the fact that most of the indigenous life is non-nutritious or even poisonous) that drove the colonists to such measures. At a certain point, they come across old records from Earth (which they had largely forgotten), and are horrified to learn of their ancestors’ penchant for things like nuclear weapons and wholesale slaughter of enemy populations. It’s a shock to be forced to turn and judge our society through their eyes.

  29. #29 speedwell
    May 30, 2006

    What I find odd is the Judeo-Christian idea that there’s something appealing about being amoral.

    Beautiful. Been looking for a good concise way to say that.

    If God is inherently perfectly good, and God made the world, then it should be impossible for people to be immoral (i.e. bad), because a God who is perfectly good could not make something bad. And before anyone steps in with the Devil… our good God couldn’t have made him, either, right?

    A thought: If something bad is appealing to people, it must be because something about that thing is good (ultimately desirable for some good end such as pleasure, survival, etc.). The yearning for the good is a moral yearning. I know this isn’t a new idea, but it bore mentioning, I think.

  30. #30 PLP
    May 30, 2006

    Rabbi Shafran is making the characteristic philosophical blunder of almost all ethical philosophers, religious and secular alike: an action is “moral” only to the extent the choice to perform (or refrain from) that action is an outcome of a rational deliberation from the “right” moral code. It’s not enough to not steal; you have to refrain from stealing because you have rationally concluded that stealing is in fact “wrong”. This is an extraordinarily powerful human intuition about ethics, as powerful–and as misleading–as the intuition that the Earth stays still and everything rotates around it.

    We see this intuition in our grudging respect for someone who follows his “principles”; even if we disagree with those principles, we seem to respect someone who follows some principles rather than acting arbitrarily or out of pure self interest.

    The problem with this intuition is that it forces one into axiomatic foundationalism and deductivism. We cannot, of course, apply scientific, evidential reasoning to moral beliefs because science can tell us only why certain states of affairs cannot occur (i.e. those that would contradict the laws of physics). We talk about moral beliefs precisely to discuss those states which can occur: People can lie, cheat, steal, murder, and commit mopery on the high seas.

    But axiomatic foundationalism can rely only on its premises being “self-evident”, or somehow known to be true absent both deductive argument (since they’re premises) and absent empirical evidence (there is no way to directly perceive any universal regularity, even a physical one; all we can perceive are individual cases).

    The upshot is that if you accept a foundationalist, deductivist moral system, then the outcome will be dependent only upon your arbitrarily chosen premises, which are logically incapable of any substantiation whatsoever.

    The “social compact” theory of morality doesn’t get the secular moral philsopher nearly far enough. If the social compact is the only justification of moral behavior, then how are we to compare the differing social compacts of different societies and cultures? On what basis are we to condemn the social compact of, for instance, the Arab Muslim societies, with (along with many other problems) their pervasive and thorough oppression of women?

    The best answer that secularists can come up with is Humanism: The idea that the subjective well-being of human beings is the foundation of our ethics, with the understanding that the well-being of humans is as much or more a product of the accidents of our particular evolution as it is the product of universal objective ethical truths.

    We humans consider the well-being of others an important component of our own well-being–we have subjective feelings of empathy–only because that’s how we humans happened to evolve. But had we evolved from a non-social species (perhaps a solitary predator), it seems likely that empathy would not be such an important component of our moral beliefs.

    Many, if not most, of the components of our beliefs about morality are simply the product of accidents, both the accidents of how human beings happened to evolve, and the accidents of the moral beliefs of individuals. But so what? It’s a fact that some particular accidents did happen (and others did not), and it’s a fact that we are as we are, and not somehow different.

    All religious is fundamentally morally authoritarian in nature. Religion is not the only authoritarian moral system, and seems obvious that simply abandoning theistic religion does not by itslef entail any sort of moral freedom or humanism (*cough* Stalin *cough*).

    I suspect that Rabbi Shafran simply cannot conceive of the idea of having moral beliefs without those beliefs resting on some authority. (Of course the authority of a society or secular government is by itself insufficient, otherwise we’d have no basis to criticize Nazism or Stalinism.) He simply cannot conceive that we behave in certain ways simply because it is our nature to do so.

    There is no objectively right or wrong way to live. Shafran commits a nonsequitur fallacy when he says that

    Thus, there can be no substantive argument or judgment… of a person who acts in an immoral or unethical way. He has every right to claim that his urges and desires should be as respected — or more respected — than yours or mine.

    The conclusion does not follow from the premises. If there can be no substantive argument, then a person has no right to claim his desires should be respected. To claim that respect entails that there is a substantive argument.

    What is required is to hoist the fundamental view of morals and ethics entirely outside the realm of deductive argument. It is irrelevant whether someone’s actions are based on some principles, because those principles are founded in arbitrary premises. Fundamentally, an “immoral” act is simply an act that someone or some group of people disapproves of. Our social compact, rather than being a justification in and of itself, is rather the outcome of a group of people negotiating the fulfillment of their desires, and is justifiable (or unjustifiable) on that basis.

    We can criticize other cultures and other societies on this same basis. A society or culture is an abstract entity anyway. There’s no such thing as a society by itself; a society is just an abstract statistical view of the individuals composing that society. Any time people communicate with each other, we are justified in looking at all of those people as a single “society”, and any moral disagreement can be viewed as the individuals negotiating to fulfill their individual well-being.

    Rabbi Shafran is correct: Without a God, there is simply no way to privilege the one and only right way to live. However, this does not mean that all ways for human beings to live are equal: We are in fact the product of particular accidents of evolution and individual development, and any set of moral beliefs must take those accidents into account.

    Furthermore (even handwaving around Euthyphro) a God can privilege a particular “right way to live” if and only if it is factually, objectively provable that the God exists, and if and only if it is factually, objectively provable that some particular way to live has actually been promulgated by that God. Given that no religion has ever fulfilled either of these requirements, rendering any theistic morality incapable of objective substantiation.

  31. #31 Charlie Wagner
    May 30, 2006

    quork wrote:

    “That is essentially a rehash of Plato’s argument ca. 400 BCE.”

    Well, I guess there is something worthwhile in the Bible:

    “All things are wearisome, more than one can say.
    The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.
    What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.
    Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”?
    It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.” Ecclesiastes 1:8-10

    But that’s not why I’m here today.

    I was reading the news story about Kimberly Dozier and I could not help thinking about one of my personal heroes, Dickey Chapelle.
    If you’ve never heard of her, first listen to the song:
    http://www.charliewagner.net/dickey.mp3
    and then read about her HERE:
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dickey_Chapelle
    They were going to make a movie about her life before Brad and Jennifer broke up, and Jennifer Aniston was going to play the part…Yuck!

  32. #32 HP
    May 30, 2006

    What is so difficult for theists to understand is that without the father figure amorality starts to lose that appeal.

    This is a bit orthogonal, but Poke’s comment reminds me that atheism has its own “stick” to complement the carrot of empathy: Just as virtue is its own reward, vice is its own punishment.

    Absent the appeal of transgression, immoral behavior becomes simply a huge pain in the ass. Even if you assume no expressly moral constraint against, say, rape and murder, what rational person would subject himself to the aftermath of a rape-and-murder spree? Living in fear, endlessly on the run from civil authorities or revenge-minded kinsmen? How would you ever get anything productive done?

    Sure, we’ve all felt the desire rend the living flesh of our enemies and wallow in gore up to the elbows, but I’m sure that if I actually did that, I’d never have time for the things in life I really enjoy.

    (On the other hand, if I were convinced that I was going spend eternity roasting in hellfire for the sin of masturbating, then I’d figure I might as well be damned for doing something really juicy.)

  33. #33 Dark Matter
    May 30, 2006

    More talk from the followers of the god of Abraham about how
    nonbelievers must prove their case-while the “faithful” retain for themselves
    the privilege of simply ignoring the countless religions
    (and their creation stories) that have risen and fallen across the centuries.

    I’m sure their faith was just as deeply held as the rabbi’s, but
    a bunch of assertions embroidered around *intensity of feeling* is
    unacceptable evidence of the existance of the supernatural.

    Let them prove that their nameless god was the prime
    mover and no other, and *then* get back to the unbelievers…..

  34. #34 Paul W.
    May 30, 2006

    In practice, all moral theories tend to be pragmatic, and justified pragmatically, using certain pretty-much universal moral intuitions. Push almost any religious person in any culture to justify their moral code, and they’ll start talking about the horrible chaos that would ensue if it was abandoned.

    Every moral system is frequently justified, if necessary, by appeals to the idea that it promotes cooperation and happiness, and reduces vicious competition and suffering. Morality is Good because it’s good for people (except certain people who don’t count) and immorality is bad because it’s bad for people (except certain people who don’t count), in a way that transcends any particular religion.

    And people are evolved to care about such things. A major part of the essence of morality is the evolved-in ability to care about the consequences of our actions for others. (Maybe not as much as we care about the consequences for ourselves, but to some extent.)

    And part of the natural moral capacity is the ability to classify others, in a culture-dependent way, as Us and Them—the beings who count in our moral considerations, vs. the ones that don’t—or count differently, and in practice, less.

    Particular cultures evolve to exclude exploitable others from fully “counting,” the way that “we” in the culture do. It’s okay to enslave or murder or economically exploit certain people, because they’re subhuman, or evil, or just so wrongheaded that in effect they’re hopelessly inferior and the best thing you can do is use them for your culture’s ends.

    The gymnastics people go through to justify those things are illuminating; they show just how ubiquitous and persistent certain basic moral intuitions are, and how much work must be done to selectively turn them off. The Other folks must be stupider, unable to suffer as deeply, or so hopelessly ignorant and amoral that we should take charge and take advantage, because the ends justify the means—in the long run, everybody will be better off if we win.

    That’s the truth of religious “morality.” It’s largely about channelling and disabling cross-culturally universal moral intuitions in a culture-dependent way, which tends to give that culture an economic or political advantage. Sometimes this is implicit, and simply selected for in cultural evolution. Often it’s pretty explicit, and consciously rationalized. Scratch a supposedly “absolute” non-consequentialist morality and you find relativism, situational ethics, and all kinds of consequentialist motivations and justifications.

    The basic universal moral intuitions—about altruism and fairness and their important consequences—are neither true nor false. They’re the evolved-in essence of morality.

    The cultural specifics, on the other hand, are mostly false; specific and typically false ideas are used to defuse and limit basic moral intuitions in ways that tend to be useful to the culture in question.

    There’s an important sense in which this makes secular morality more objective than religious morality. You may not be able to justify the basic moral intuitions, but then you don’t generally need to—they’re just the essence of what morality is about, and we’re programmed to be able to care at least a little about that.

    Religious moral schemes, on the other hand, are terribly dependent on a bunch of claims—e.g., that there is a particular God, and he doesn’t like foreskins or does like people who believe in Him.

    Secular morality may not be exactly objectively “true,” but religious morality can be—and generally is—objectively false. It is not a valid working out of the basic moral principles we do generally share.

    Atheists, like other people, generally would care about the horrible consequences of atheism—the social chaos, rampant rape-murders, cannibalism and whatnot—if they thought the connection was real.

    (No, that wouldn’t make it a valid argument that any religion is true, but it sure would be interesting.)

    The appeal to the obvious undesirability of such outcomes undermines the thesis that you need religion to be moral—to even recognize that such outcomes are undesirable. If morality came from religion, such an argument would be utterly futile. Either you’d have religion and morality, or you wouldn’t have religion or morality, and you couldn’t give a moral shit if you tried.

    But that’s clearly not how things work.

    Theists constantly appeal to our better natures while claiming we can’t have any such thing. How tiresome.

  35. #35 Pierce R. Butler
    May 30, 2006

    1: lt.kizhe: Courtship Rite was written by Donald Kingsbury, who also has interesting things to say about religion in The Moon Goddess and the Son and about social dynamics in Psychohistorical Crisis.

    2: Isn’t it odd that almost everybody here tends to objectify Shafran by calling him “the Rabbi”?

    3: Finally, back to PZ’s point about the argument from adverse consequences: Shafran’s point reminds me of the famous story of the Victorian lady who, upon hearing of Darwin’s new theory, said something to the effect of, “Well, let us hope it is not true; but if it is true, let us hope that the lower classes never hear of it.”

  36. #36 Lya Kahlo
    May 30, 2006

    ” Isn’t it odd that almost everybody here tends to objectify Shafran by calling him “the Rabbi”?”

    Rabbi is easier to spell and remember than Shafran. 😉

  37. #37 flounder
    May 30, 2006

    Perhaps Shafran would care to comment on how effectively a morality built on the tenents of divine faith managed to thwart the Spanish Inquisition.

  38. #38 Ginger Yellow
    May 30, 2006

    A philosophical starting-point* which, like atheism, does not include a universal morality among its premises does make moral responsibility difficult – especially when it comes to judging others. As an atheist I have little trouble living ‘morally’, but I do have difficulties in deciding how to react to and judge others (especially those from cultures which condone things I find morally challenging). Cultural relativism is one of the big philosophical quagmires for the atheist.
    The great irony of all this is that no moral system is more relativistic than a religious one, because nothing is more subjective than an individual’s understanding of God. If judging other cultures is difficult for a social compact moralist because they are living under a different social compact, how much more difficult should it be for a God-moralist to judge others when every single person in the world has a different conception of God.

  39. #39 Ginger Yellow
    May 30, 2006

    Oops, the quote thing didn’t quite work there. My post starts at “The great irony”

    As an addition to the above, this just proves my point.

    Thus, there can be no substantive argument or judgment… of a person who acts in an immoral or unethical way. He has every right to claim that his urges and desires should be as respected — or more respected — than yours or mine.

    What substantive argument or judgement can a religionist make against another religionist who is acting immorally according to the judger but morally according to the judgee? He has every right to claim that his urges and desires should be as respected, or more respected than the judger. It just boils down to “My invisible sky fairy is truer than your invisible sky fairy”. Hence religious morality is inherently hegemonic, because there can only be mutual acceptance of morality when everyone has broadly the same religious premises.

  40. #40 Halfjack
    May 30, 2006

    I am delighted that religions exist to provide accessible moral and ethical frameworks in plain language for those intelligent sociopaths who lack sufficient empathy to derive a viable moral framework for themselves and yet at the same time are aware of their disability.

  41. #41 speedwell
    May 30, 2006

    I am delighted that religions exist to provide accessible moral and ethical frameworks in plain language for those intelligent sociopaths who lack sufficient empathy to derive a viable moral framework for themselves and yet at the same time are aware of their disability.

    All two of them.

  42. #42 Judy L., Toronto
    May 30, 2006

    Even if the bully god of Abraham existed and was my creator, I would still be morally required to defy the capricious bastard (the way Abraham did NOT). Fuck that teleological-suspension-of-the-ethical-fear-and-trembling crap — as far as I’m concerned my PARENTS are the closest thing to my “creators”, and if they ordered me to murder my child (or anyone else’s for that matter), my moral obligation would be to protect my child (or anyone else’s) from that very specific harm. My intuition, which must be derived from my biology and social development, tells me that my first impulse, and the ultimately correct impulse, is to ensure the safety of my child, and that of the children of my species. The only morality that can be derived from belief in the god of Abraham is one that says that you have to do what bigger and more powerful beings tell you to do, no questions asked, including killing children.

    Why can’t people live by a slightly different golden rule: do unto others as THEY would have you do unto them, and don’t bully, dominate or exploit other people. What is so freakin’ hard about that?

  43. #43 Halfjack
    May 30, 2006

    All two of them.

    Judging by the frequency with which this argument comes up from theists, I am prepared to believe that some huge body of religious persons fall into the intelligent sociopath category. How else can we explain that this makes sense to them except that it might be true for them?

  44. #44 Andrew Wade
    May 30, 2006

    PLP wrote:

    There is no objectively right or wrong way to live.

    Oh? I would have to disagree, I happen to be a believer that there is a metaphysical property to correspond to the “… is moral” predicate, just as there is one to correspond to the “… is true” predicate. One can consistently claim that (1) one’s moral beliefs are the product of accident, and (2)one’s moral beliefs are right. To be sure that’s a rather dubious claim, but it’s not impossible. I would point out that the same is true of the “… is true” predicate. I believe in the nonexistance of God by historical accidence: my parents are non-religious and not inclined to believe in the supernatural, and I live in a time and place that religious belief is perhaps waning somewhat. If I were raised in a different environment I might very well believe in the existance of God, or of Gods. And I would assert that “God exists” has meaning. One could argue that the evidence points to the nonexistance of God, but such an argument would rely on non-universally held axioms as surely as any moral argument. (If nothing else, that one should look at the evidence to determine what is true is an axiom).

  45. #45 quork
    May 30, 2006

    Perhaps Shafran would care to comment on how effectively a morality built on the tenents of divine faith managed to thwart the Spanish Inquisition.

    Or, since he is probably Jewish, he could use the genocide of the Midianites as an example.

  46. #46 ChetBob
    May 30, 2006

    Pierce R. Butler wrote: ” Isn’t it odd that almost everybody here tends to objectify Shafran by calling him “the Rabbi”?”

    previously stated: Rabbi is easier to spell and remember than Shafran. 😉

    Furthermore: Nothing odd at all.

    By using the Rabbi title in his article THE RABBI clearly intends to assert knowledge and moral authority beyond that of an ordinary lay person. I’m not sure whether Pierce R. Butler is suggesting that by calling him “the Rabbi” commentors here are denigrating Shafran in some way by objectifying him or whether he is intrigued by the cultural drive toward politeness in using the title even when they may not respect Shafran’s position or arguments. Also, for me I would be concerned, in person, that by NOT using the title/honorific I would be appearing to show a level of disrespect I did not intend.

  47. #47 Joker Cross
    May 30, 2006

    Pierce R. Butler wrote: ” Isn’t it odd that almost everybody here tends to objectify Shafran by calling him “the Rabbi”?”

    As opposed to calling him “The Goatherd” or “The Volunteer Fireman” or “The Cashier”?

    It’s more respectful to refer to him as “the Rabbi” than just “Shafran” in all truth.

  48. #48 Caledonian
    May 30, 2006

    Isn’t it odd that almost everybody here tends to objectify Shafran by calling him “the Rabbi”?”

    A ‘Rabbi’ is not an object in the standard sense of the word, and in fact cannot be an object.

    Addressing him by his title is also more polite than using a descriptive designation, like “the Moron”.

  49. #49 Sastra
    May 30, 2006

    I’ve really enjoyed a lot of the thoughtful comments on this thread, and will add the following:

    Like many other theists, Rabbi Shafran simply uses religion as a narrative which has already inserted meaning (God is a good, loving parent) into a factual claim (God exists). Belief in the factual claim automatically entails the meaning part – just as it does in a story. Since a naturalistic view of the facts of the world doesn’t come as a nicely packaged story, he assumes that people without religion have no justification for claiming any top-down story elements like right and wrong, good and evil, better and worse, etc. Like only comes from like. We get life from a life source, mind from a mind source, meaning from a meaning source, morals from a moral source, etc. So tell a story where you start out with the morals and meaning and you have the “right” to use them.

    If there is no God, he thinks we have to justify Good. But as others have pointed out, that’s the wrong way around. If there IS a God, justify why it is good. Justify how we can know it is good. Justify how we can check it is good in all cases, and not just some. And all the motions they have to go through to justify a common understanding of Good are the same under theism as atheism – with the additional problem that matters of faith are far more subjective and relative than those things we can objectively point to in the world.

    But of course, in a story, you don’t need to “justify” the background facts the narrator gives you. “Once upon a time there was a good God.” The work is done.

  50. #50 cf_elias
    May 30, 2006

    Most of the comments have helped expand PZ’s argument, but I wanted to add a few words of caution.

    If you are going to say that Rabbi Shafran “characterize[d] atheists negatively” and faulted him for that, you probably shouldn’t write a sentence like the following: “Perhaps he should throw away his religious texts, which are in a state of failure”.

    Defend secularism all you want – I would – but keep the bashing down please.

  51. #51 David Harmon
    May 30, 2006

    A hodgepodge of comments here:

    1) A rabbi is trained and accredited by a yeshiva, which is a Jewish seminary. It generally takes a few years. It’s important to remember that while some modern rabbis have been trained in counseling and other “priestly” functions, a rabbi is not a priest. Basically, they are trained as an expert in Jewish law and tradition — anything else they might pick up (like comparative theology) is “by the by”. Also, any given yeshiva will represent, a particular “brand” of Judaism — anything from the ultra-orthodox Chasidim to the loosest of the Reform splinters, plus a couple of side branches such as the messianics.

    2) It is perfectly understandable for a rabbi to be skeptical of the strength of the social compact. There have been many times in Jewish history when the neighbors have decided that their social compact didn’t actually include the Jews….

    3) That of course highlights the real “function” of religion, which is to provide or reinforce the tribal boundaries, by providing “recognition signals”, disciplinary channels, and “magical” backing for the leaders’ authority.

    4) Moral “instinct” represents the evolutionary imprint of our history as social animals — not just the million-or-so years of humanity proper, but all the predecessors who weren’t as “brainy” as us, but still had to get along and cooperate in small groups. As we develop from infancy, we also pick up various “imprints” representing the “local rules” for our tribe. As we continue to grow, we learn for ourselves what gets us praise versus condemnation, and finally we may get some more explicit instructions from elders and peers. It is the stack of all these layers that combines into “moral intuition”.

  52. #52 Christopher
    May 30, 2006

    Paul W. said, “The basic universal moral intuitions—about altruism and fairness and their important consequences—are neither true nor false. They’re the evolved-in essence of morality.

    There’s an important sense in which this makes secular morality more objective than religious morality. You may not be able to justify the basic moral intuitions, but then you don’t generally need to—they’re just the essence of what morality is about, and we’re programmed to be able to care at least a little about that.”

    I would also add that a central problem with Judaism and Christianity (And I suspect other religions) is that it doesn’t really have an axiomatic structure.

    A philosophical morality generally proceeds from a small number of axioms; Fairness, altruism, etc. The idea of what you should do in a given situation is extrapolated from this small number of basic axioms, in a process similar to mathematics.

    Christianity, on the other hand, doesn’t really derive from a small number of axioms. Or perhaps I should say that it derives morality from a single axiom:

    What god says is right, is right.

    The religion then attempts to provide a saying from god to cover every possible eventuality. This is pretty much what Leviticus is about; Since the axiom “What god says is right, is right” provides no predictive power, you have to write a big book that provides a saying for every concievable moral quandry.

    The problem is that none of these statements can ever be re-evaluated; Homosexuality is wrong because god says so. You can’t argue against homosexual bigotry because there’s no basis for it other then “God said so”. You can’t attack it on a deeper moral basis, like by saying that homosexuality doesn’t hurt people, because whether something hurts people is irrelevant to Christian morality. The only relevence is what god says.

    And that’s the problem; Christian morality doesn’t really provide you with a way to re-evaluate your positions or to come to a moral position when a new situation presents itself; it’s just a series of authoritarian remarks (You could argue that when Christ talked about the greatest commandments in Mark 12:29 he was trying to fix this problem, but his efforts have only been marginally successful, at best).

  53. #53 Paul W.
    May 30, 2006

    Christopher,

    Did you mean to say Mark 12:29, or the whole passage up to 12:31?

    29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

    Seems to me that with just 29, all bets are off. It’s at least consistent with Divine Command Theory, at one extreme, or something reasonable on the other.

    With 31 we’re in better shape, but there’s tremendous and fatal ambiguity.

    If we take 31 to be equal and/or non-conflicting with 29, you get something almost reasonable—God’s Divine Commands don’t supersede actual (altruism/fairness) morality.

    If, on the other hand, you take it to be a strict prioritization, which is a reasonable interpretation of 29 and 30, all bets are off again—you should be (truly) moral unless (the Hebrew) God tells you not to, because Divine Command is the “most important” thing and little things like altruism and fairness are only second-best.

    (It’s important to love your neighbor, all things being equal, but if God Hates Fags, you should, too, becuase loving God is more important than loving your neighbor.)

    Which is a long-winded example of what you were saying. Just a bunch of informal remarks with no clear distinction between axioms and situation-dependent lemmas. (Or maybe between strict prioritization in a default logic and various possible weightings in some other kind of non-monotonic logic… bleah! Not the best logician, that Jesus guy. Maybe a little better than his dad, though.)

  54. #54 PLP
    May 30, 2006

    Andrew Wade

    I happen to be a believer that there is a metaphysical property to correspond to the “… is moral” predicate, just as there is one to correspond to the “… is true” predicate.

    Both positions are problematic, especially with regard to epistemology. “… is true” seems, at best, to be a property about the relationship of a sentence to a subject. And it’s hard to understand what you mean by a metaphysical property; I have difficulty extending the analogy of real things having real properties (e.g. electrons having the properties of charge, spin and mass) to metaphysics. Indeed, I have much difficulty even extending the object/property model itself to metaphysics. Even if you’re using “metaphysical” in the sense of “ontological”, it’s very difficult to see how truth can be a property, much less “good”.

    One can consistently claim …

    Consistency is overrated. Consistency does not, by itself, entail truth. Anything, even Christian theology, can be made merely consistent.

    And I would assert that “God exists” has meaning.

    “Go Niners!” has “meaning” in some sense. Claiming that some sentence has some sort of meaning is not really that interesting.

    One could argue that the evidence points to the nonexistance of God, but such an argument would rely on non-universally held axioms as surely as any moral argument.

    That’s an interesting position. I’d be interested in seeing the argument for it.

    (If nothing else, that one should look at the evidence to determine what is true is an axiom).

    But of course.

  55. #55 Todd
    May 30, 2006

    I always keep a good amount of distance between myself and a theist like Rabbi Avi Shafran. He’s only one doubt away from raping, killing, and eating me.

  56. #56 Millimeter Wave
    May 30, 2006

    Shorter Rabbi Shafran:

    In a universe in which there is no god, the concepts of objectively good and bad are meaningless, and that would be objectively bad.

  57. #57 Dan
    May 31, 2006

    wafer:

    So if I understand the rabbi’s argument, the only reason we understand “good” and “bad” is because god provides that framework. If true, then I can knife someone and cannabilize the corpse, because the god I believe in says that’s ok. Based on the rabbi’s logic, I am not accountable, in America at least, because of the whole freedom of religion.

    And even then, the argument still doesn’t work. “God told me to do it” isn’t an acceptable legal defense for murder in any non-theocratic country, except as circumstantial evidence for an insanity plea.

  58. #58 Anton Mates
    May 31, 2006

    2) It is perfectly understandable for a rabbi to be skeptical of the strength of the social compact. There have been many times in Jewish history when the neighbors have decided that their social compact didn’t actually include the Jews….

    Of course, at those times their neighbors’ religion didn’t help the Jews much either–quite the contrary–so I’d expect the rabbi to be even more skeptical of the moral virtues of theism. Actually, I wouldn’t expect that, but that’s just because my expectations are low.

  59. #59 G. Tingey
    May 31, 2006

    It is obviously time for one of the usual questions (as opposed to suspects) that the Rabbi has, by implication, already answered, and therefore put himself in a dilemma, which he is trying to wriggle out of.

    TRhe question is, of course:
    Is something good because “god” says so, or is it good of itself?

    He has chosen the “God sayas so” answer, which then prompts …
    “And what happens when god changes his/her/its/their mind?” as a reponse….
    Like killing the Hittites / witches / etc …
    And treating women like dirt …..

    Lets’ see his reply.

    Will someone ( PZ – please? ) do this as publicly as possible, so we can all sneer at this fuckwit.

  60. How to stump a theist:
    1. Ask them for a definition of morality.
    2. If they say “what God wants us to do,” ask the theist if Catholics have the same exact moral standards as Baptists…bring up contraception and abortion as examples.

    That being said, morality is innate. That is why we are still around as a species today. Not very many species act “immoral” to each other, and I doubt if ants believe in God for example. Ants may act immoral to other animals and even other types of ants, but so does man.

    The 10 commandments are laws of the obvious written by man for man. It is just one way to try to prevent anarchy. Innately we know, thou shalt not commit murder, that sense evolved in us…it is really bad for survival purposes and procreation purposes (I know some animals like lions fudge this rule sometimes, but that is offset by the fact they have more than one in their litters).

    One more thing, I strongly believe that a need for God has also evolved in us, I think our brains are very susceptible to this, as a way of making us feel their is a large purpose that in reality doesn’t exist.

  61. #61 Lya Kahlo
    May 31, 2006

    “Defend secularism all you want – I would – but keep the bashing down please.”

    “Perhaps he should throw away his religious texts, which are in a state of failure”. How is this bashing? The man wrote an ignorant slander piece, and is now trying to backpeddal. He has not been bashed when clearly his behavior invites it.

  62. #62 Ian H Spedding
    May 31, 2006

    Proponents of atheism bristle when confronted by the implications of their belief, that morality and ethics are mere figments of our evolutionary imagination. But, for all their umbrage, they cannot articulate any way there can really ever be, as one writer has put it, “good without G-d.”

    Atheists have no need to articulate how there can be “good without G-d.” They can demonstrate it. They can cite all the good that has been done – and is being done – by those who do not believe in the Christian G-d or believe in no g-d at all.

    The bristlers are not liars, only inconsistent; some well-hidden part of their minds well recognizes that humans have a higher calling than hyenas. But while the cognitive dissonance shifts to overdrive, the stubborn logic remains: The game is zero-sum. Either there is no meaningful mandate for human beings; or there is. And if there is, there must be a Mandator.

    On the other hand, providing a mandate for a human sense of having a “higher calling” might also be pandering to human arrogance. It has certainly provided a mandate for human racial, cultural and religious arrogance in the past and is still trying to do so in some areas.

  63. #63 Walt
    May 31, 2006

    In my original criticisms, I also mentioned empathy and that good old simple, primitive golden rule: I do not kill and eat my neighbors because I would not like to be killed and eaten…

    Does it strike anyone else as odd that PZ Myers is quoting the Bible as part of the moral guideline for his life…?

  64. #64 wintermute23
    May 31, 2006
    2) It is perfectly understandable for a rabbi to be skeptical of the strength of the social compact. There have been many times in Jewish history when the neighbors have decided that their social compact didn’t actually include the Jews….

    Of course, at those times their neighbors’ religion didn’t help the Jews much either–quite the contrary–so I’d expect the rabbi to be even more skeptical of the moral virtues of theism. Actually, I wouldn’t expect that, but that’s just because my expectations are low.

    Nonsense. This is simply proof that these other religions use the wrong theistically-inspired moral code. Clearly, if everyone was as enlightened as the good Rabbi, and had chosen the correct Invisble Sky Pixie as final arbiter of right and wrong, then all would be right with the world.

    We know this is true, as his Invisible Sky Pixie has never slaughtered the Jews.

    And it’s not like the Caananites, Midanites or Philistines are complaining, is it?

  65. #65 Pierce R. Butler
    May 31, 2006

    Wintermute23: And it’s not like the Caananites, Midanites or Philistines are complaining, is it?

    Ahem. That last-named group is now known as the Palestinians: they are complaining, and with good reasons (though often poor reasoning).

  66. #66 quork
    May 31, 2006

    Does it strike anyone else as odd that PZ Myers is quoting the Bible as part of the moral guideline for his life…?

    No, since the Golden Rule is not original to the Bible. In fact it appears in nearly all human cultures.

  67. #67 quork
    May 31, 2006

    And even then, the argument still doesn’t work. “God told me to do it” isn’t an acceptable legal defense for murder in any non-theocratic country, except as circumstantial evidence for an insanity plea.

    And even the insanity plea is losing traction.

    The convergence of religion, the law and insanity makes for the most difficult cases. Even so, just as religion teaches that we must obey the command of the Almighty even in killing a child, the law must recognize that troubled persons may be acting under the delusion of such orders.

    When states fail to recognize the difference between a premeditated and delusional act, they commit an act every bit as immoral as disobeying the command of God.

    Somehow the author (Jonathan Turley) never proceeds to the next question: if all these people who claim that God told them to kill were delusional, why believe anyone who says God has spoken to them?

  68. #68 Paul W.
    May 31, 2006

    Walt writes:

    Does it strike anyone else as odd that PZ Myers is quoting the Bible as part of the moral guideline for his life…?

    The Golden Rule isn’t originally from the Bible. You find various expressions of it in Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.

    http://www.jcu.edu/philosophy/gensler/poster.gif

    It’s been around a long time.

    I’m sure cavemoms and cavedads were imparting it to their cavekids for tens of thousands of years before the Bible or anything else was written.

    (“Og, don’t do that to your brother! How would you like it if somebody did that to you??!!”)

    Even chimps seem to have some basic ideas of fairness and justice. I’d guess that hominids have likely had the general idea behind the Golden Rule for millions of years.

    The Bible has nothing to do with it, except that many people think that the 10 Commandments or the Golden Rule were big moral innovations. They weren’t.

    Jews and Christians didn’t invent civilization. To a large extent, they stole it, or had it forced on them in one sense or another. (Just like everybody else.) Culture gets around, and people tend to resist progress—and once they give in, to turn around and claim that it was their idea all along.

    A lot of what Jesus had to say was civilizing in certain respects, relative to ancient Hebrew scriptures, but the ideas were already in the regional zeitgeist, and had been for quite some time. (The region had been invaded and ruled by the Greeks and then the Romans for hundreds of years. And before that were conquerors like the Babylonians, and various trading partners.)

    It’s probably no accident that a lot of Jesus sounds like warmed-over Greek Cynicism, only less clever.

    And it’s kinda sad that the Athenians had had democracy for hundreds of years, hundreds of years before Jesus, but he still didn’t seem to get that part. Christians enshrined the ideas of kingship and slavery instead.

  69. #69 Andrew Wade
    May 31, 2006

    PLP,

    I happen to be a believer that there is a metaphysical property to correspond to the “… is moral” predicate, just as there is one to correspond to the “… is true” predicate.

    Both positions are problematic, especially with regard to epistemology.

    Indeed.

    “… is true” seems, at best, to be a property about the relationship of a sentence to a subject. And it’s hard to understand what you mean by a metaphysical property; I have difficulty extending the analogy of real things having real properties (e.g. electrons having the properties of charge, spin and mass) to metaphysics.

    Unfortunately, as a philosophy dilettante I am not very familiar with the vocabulary. Perhaps “ontological” would be a better word, I don’t know. What I mean by metaphysical property seems to correspond to what Hofstadter means by “capitalized essence”.

    Perhaps I can clarify with a few examples. I am poor at learning languages, but I was required to take French classes in school for many years. I am however very skilled at symbol manipulation. As a result I learned the structure of French tenses without learning their meaning. I was able to construct a “past perfect” sentence without difficulty, but I would be completely unable to translate it into an equivalent English sentence. (My instruction in English grammar at that time was pretty poor. I could use the past perfect tense correctly in English, but I had no idea what it was called). I “knew” the meaning of French words in that I had a fairly good idea of how they related to each other, but because almost all the bindings of words to meanings were only inside the system of the language I could not actually use French to communicate effectively.

    Or another example. Due to my ongoing curiosity regarding the Abrahamic religions I have read quite a number of apologetics and cachetisms. And I have an ongoing problem with vocabulary. Part of it is that I don’t know the definitions. But part of it is that I have no corresponding concepts to the concepts the words stand for; I can’t “translate” the concepts into concepts real to me. I can do that somewhat, I can go “I see, so ‘sin’ corresponds to what I mean by ‘moral wrong'”. But the translation is very far from perfect, and it’s not just a matter of disagreement on what is sinful. I hold the “taint” of moral wrong is indelible and non-transferable. whereas the “taint” of sin can be removed (justified) in the Catholic tradition, and it can be transferred to scapegoats in the ancient Mosaic tradition. It’s impossible to tell, but I think part of the difference is that I’m binding the word “sin” to a somewhat different metaphysical concept, as I am lacking the right one.

    Indeed, I have much difficulty even extending the object/property model itself to metaphysics. Even if you’re using “metaphysical” in the sense of “ontological”, it’s very difficult to see how truth can be a property, much less “good”.

    More examples: “I am sitting in my basement” has the property of being true at the moment. “I am on the subway” has the property of not being true at the moment. “I think guacamole is disgusting” has the property of being true. “Guacamole is disgusting” has neither property. Unfortunately, defining such ineffable quantities as “truth” is problematic, as the definitions by necessity must bind the terms within a language, and the denotations are outside the language.

    One can consistently claim …

    Consistency is overrated. Consistency does not, by itself, entail truth. Anything, even Christian theology, can be made merely consistent.

    For sure. I’m not claiming that the case for an objective morality is particularly good, merely that the case for an objective reality is about as bad.

    And I would assert that “God exists” has meaning.

    “Go Niners!” has “meaning” in some sense. Claiming that some sentence has some sort of meaning is not really that interesting.

    Sure, it communicates that the whooper wishes the Niners to win, which one could take as it’s “meaning”. If true that’s a perfectly mundane fact. But the usual interpretation of such an exclamation is that the Niners should win. Is that (or it’s negation) a fact (true)? Similarly “I am unclean” may well indicate a fact that involves the Mosaic “cleanliness” statutes. But is it itself a fact (true)?

    One could argue that the evidence points to the nonexistance of God, but such an argument would rely on non-universally held axioms as surely as any moral argument.

    That’s an interesting position. I’d be interested in seeing the argument for it.

    It’s basically based on a loose definition of “axiom”. For example, rules on what should be considered as evidence are axioms, as are the rules of inference. There are still a few flat-earthers in the United States, and they maintain that belief in the face of so much evidence because there is very little they accept as evidence outside the bibles and their own direct observations, and their inference rules are somewhat odd. In a way I’m cheating by using the word “universal”; there are “people” who are not in a position to hold any axioms at all, what with them missing most of their brains, making my statement both trivially true and pretty pointless. But I am trying to make a far stronger point. And that is that the shared assumptions, understandings, beliefs, protocols that allow us to communicate and argue with each other so effectively are strongly shaped by our cultural history. I must admit that that is a somewhat curious position for someone who believes in absolutes to hold, but it is very important to take such differences into account when judging people coming to seemingly perverse conclusions.

  70. #70 Keith Douglas
    May 31, 2006

    The problem with the “Hear, O Israel …” line is that it is not an ethical statement at all. It is an ontological claim, I guess. Similarly the so-called “ten commandments” (in the Hebrew, anyway) as ordinarily cited are vague, tautonomous (true by the meanings of the component words) or not commandments. In English, some of them are impossible (do not kill, for instance.)

    PLP: Truth is a relational property – it holds amongst propositions and facts. (Facts, not fact statements.) I have noticed a lot of philosophers are suspicious of relational properties, but they shouldn’t be, since they are eminently successful in physics and other sciences.

    As for metaphysical properties, how about properties that are sufficiently general as to apply to everything in a given class? (E.g. energy as the property common to all real things.) Or properties of properties themselves? (e.g. being relational or not, extensive, etc.)

    Paul W: (re: Cynicism) Actually, what became Christianity seems to be Platonism + Stoicism + Judaism.

  71. #71 Steve LaBonne
    May 31, 2006

    And in turn, post-Babylonian Captivity Judaism contains a large dollop of Zoroastrianism. I also would be tempted to include Mithraism among the ingredients of Christianity (I believe that’s pretty controversial among historians though). Truly, there is nothing new under the sun…

  72. #72 Paul W.
    May 31, 2006

    Keith writes:

    PLP: Truth is a relational property – it holds amongst propositions and facts. (Facts, not fact statements.) I have noticed a lot of philosophers are suspicious of relational properties, but they shouldn’t be, since they are eminently successful in physics and other sciences.

    Yeah. Isn’t it the case that we don’t know if any of the “things” we know of are non-relational—i.e. not relationships between more basic things?

    My impression is that recent physics is more and more fundamentally relational, with the identities of “objects” consisting only in their relationships to other things—e.g., you can swap two particles of the same type and it literally makes no difference at all, because they have no actual identity of their own except by virtue of being in certain relationships to other things. (And maybe no substance or type of their own except the ability to be in certain relationships with other things… I want to toss around phrases like “identity of indiscernibles” and “gauge theory” but I’m not actually competent to do so.)

    More importantly, everything interesting at higher levels seems to be relational—the “things” perceive are generally configurations of other things.

    (So, for example, if you replaced each of the subatomic particles in my body with the same kind of particle, it would make no difference to me. But if you moved them all three feet to the left when you replaced them, it’d be very interesing for both resulting “me”s… especially since there doesn’t seem to be any coherent meaning to the question “which one is the real me?”)

  73. #73 speedwell
    May 31, 2006

    Judging by the frequency with which this argument comes up from theists, I am prepared to believe that some huge body of religious persons fall into the intelligent sociopath category. How else can we explain that this makes sense to them except that it might be true for them?

    Since I’m an ex-believer, I’ll explain how. They become convinced first that it’s true of everyone ELSE. Then they begin to believe that, because they can’t be the only one out, it must be true of them too. Peculiar but true… simple cognitive pitfall.

  74. #74 speedwell
    May 31, 2006

    I should have added that part of the definition of a sociopath is that they are never wrong. So intelligent sociopaths would be that much better at contriving excuses for themselves. (Trust me, I once married one.)

    What’s more reasonable to believe is that the whole idea was started by sociopaths in the first place, because they discovered it worked well on their “marks.”

  75. #75 ekzept
    May 31, 2006

    The Rabbi’s argument is based on the presupposition that moral truths are structured like physical theories with individual moral judgments of individual actions being derived from the highest level general propositions that function like laws of nature from which we can derive observable results about, say, mechanics, from Newton’s laws of motion and initial conditions.

    indeed, the Torah, like it or not, is not an objective treatise of any kind. it has a point of view and is arguing a position. part of that point of view, or world view, is that ethics are as much a part of the fabric of the real physical world as as neutrons or electrons.

    that may sound silly to us as cultural relativists and modern sophisticates, but that’s what the Torah tradition insists and it is not surprising at all to find Shafran steeped in it.

  76. #76 Dr. Pretorius
    June 4, 2006

    “PLP: Truth is a relational property – it holds amongst propositions and facts. (Facts, not fact statements.) I have noticed a lot of philosophers are suspicious of relational properties, but they shouldn’t be, since they are eminently successful in physics and other sciences.”

    Philosophers are generally suspicious of lots of vague notions, but here there’s particularly good reason to be wary. For example, Frege’s Slingshot argument is a good reason to suspect that the relation between propositions and facts out in the world is a dangerous one. And that’s without even getting into how one might go about saying what a fact is without saying something like “It’s what makes a sentence true” (which would amount to begging the question on most construals – the trick would be to say it without doing that, as that’s really the only useful option).

  77. #77 arensb
    June 5, 2006

    I don’t have a substantive comment. I just wanted to share something James Randi said on a radio show a while back:

    I get people asking me all the time, “but if you don’t believe in heaven and hell, why would you live a moral life?” What they are really saying in that statement is, “If I didn’t have to fear hell, I would steal, I would rape, I would assault, I would kill, I would do all of those things that I’d just love to do to some people, and under some situations I’d get away with anything that I could. But no, I fear going to hell, and I want to go to heaven. Therefore I go by the rules.”

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