Saturday, February 28, 2009

God, Ethics, and Weariness in Well-Doing.

One might imagine getting tired of being moral, if you keep seeing immoral people getting advantages and honest people doing badly. (CEOs who crap out their companies get golden parachutes, honest workers get laid off). Does a theist have a better answer to the thought "why bother being moral, it clearly doesn't work."

22 comments:

John W. Loftus said...

Morality does indeed "work," although there is no "morality", per se. There are only shared moralities.

I just finished David Eller's excellent book, Atheism Advanced where he explains moralities as those cultural rules made up by people in order to define what it means to be part of any culture. They are based upon the myths we accept. He finds that there are moralities among animals like Chimps, so it shouldn't surprise us when language bearing humans came up with more sophisticated moral rules. And since we're all human beings it's no surprise that many moralities have some great similarities. Anyone who doesn't accept the moralities of a culture are not allowed in the group, or we banish them, ostracize them, imprison them, and kill them. But moralities work to define the group. You want in it? Then obey it, or at least don't get caught. Otherwise, its back to “the law of the jungle” for you where you’re on your own.

unkle e said...

But moralities work to define the group. You want in it? Then obey it, or at least don't get caught. Otherwise, its back to “the law of the jungle” for you where you’re on your own.

I don't think that's morality at all, although it's possibly all atheism can support - I think that's just self interest.

I think morality comes in when we decide we "ought" to do something that confers no advantage to us. And I think that requires something more than self benefit -a belief that some things are really right or wrong. And while that can theoretically come from a variety of sources, in practice it mostly comes from a belief in a moral God.

So Victor, I think a theist has a more lasting and worthwhile answer to why we should bother being moral - "because it's right".

Blip said...

Theism has a much better reason to be moral - if you don't then you'll get your just desserts in the afterlife, and if you do you get divine reward. Atheism has nothing like this.

Gordon Knight said...

Its hard to find anything admirable in being moral out of fear of hell or hope of heaven

Russ said...

Victor,
Usage note for your blog. I have a personal issue related to the use of your blog. My vision is not very good. To read on-screen material I need to jack up the font size to at least 36. On your blog's main page it's okay, but, as you can imagine, it is a big problem reading your comment threads since your blog configuration does not allow your posts to open individually with the comments below them in the same-width format.

I like your approach of making what are most often brief provocative posts then letting readers volley the ideas about in the comments, but I am, for the mostpart, excluded from the discussion. If I'm strongly interested in a topic I sometimes make the effort to copy the comments out to another application that will allow me to widen the layout and jack up the font size.

I mention it, Victor, since there might be others.

If you know of a way that I can get your comment threads to open in that wider format please let me know.

Russ said...

Victor,
Usage note for your blog. I have a personal issue related to the use of your blog. My vision is not very good. To read on-screen material I need to jack up the font size to at least 36. On your blog's main page it's okay, but, as you can imagine, it is a big problem reading your comment threads since your blog configuration does not allow your posts to open individually with the comments below them in the same-width format.

I like your approach of making what are most often brief provocative posts then letting readers volley the ideas about in the comments, but I am, for the mostpart, excluded from the discussion. If I'm strongly interested in a topic I sometimes make the effort to copy the comments out to another application that will allow me to widen the layout and jack up the font size.

I mention it, Victor, since there might be others.

If you know of a way that I can get your comment threads to open in that wider format please let me know.

Blip said...

GK,

But why else should you be moral? To say that you should be moral because it is the right thing to do only begs the question - we want a reason for adopting what Mackie (i think) calls the moral point of view in the first place. Since moral reasons are off the board the only thing that could do the job are prudential reasons. Theism has reasons of the necessary force and scope. Atheism doesn't.

Personally, if I was an atheist then I'd be moral for the most part except when doing bad would give me a big payoff at minimum risk of discovery.

Perezoso said...

Who said theists were moral? (and where's the data). The calvinist "dispensation" depends upon faith, belief, piety, and has little to do with morali-tay (works, so-called).

The Elect are by definition above the mere secular law (or, Osiris forbid, secular ethics or the Constitution). Accept Jeezuss as your Man, show up to church with wifey n kids, shake hands with Pastor, cough up some shekels on the tithing plate, etc., and be Hermann Goering during the week: piety.

Gordon Knight said...

blip,

well, that is Plato's big question, and I think, roughly, he has the answer.. moral properties are intrinsically motivating. Mackie has a way too impovershed view of the sorts of properties that exist.

I agree that theism provides an additional reason to be moral, but it is not the sole reason, on pain of destroying the very conception of morality. So too, most of the time, we have good self interested reasons to do the right thing unrelated to any afterlife or deity.



One can ask the same question about prudential reasons. What non-prudential reason is there for me to pay attention to my self interest?

Blip said...

Perezoso,

Why can't you talk properly?

GK,

"I agree that theism provides an additional reason to be moral, but it is not the sole reason, on pain of destroying the very conception of morality."

It seems to me like it is the sole reason for taking the "moral point of view" ie. for starting to care about what morality says and wanting to be a good person etc.

You also say: "One can ask the same question about prudential reasons. What non-prudential reason is there for me to pay attention to my self interest?"

That's very interesting! Is this a common response? One reason why I think we should start with prudential reasons is that we can't get away from them, while it is up to us whether or not we adopt the moral point of view.

Whaddya think?

Gordon Knight said...

blip,

Take a particular example: I see someone on the street in obvious pain. Well, why should I care for this person? one answer is: I should do it b/c God tells me to and its in my interest to do what God tells. But I think you would agree (would you?) that someone who spent their lives thinking this way is a little... odd.

Another answer is that the seeing of the suffering person causes a psyhological reaction in me, a feeling of pity, which moves me to act (Hume).

My answer, I do experience compassion but I experience the compassion because I recognize the moral situation, the badness of it, if you will. (contra Hume, I think you do see the viciousness of the murder, and its b/c you recognize the viciousness, that you feel "disaprobation"). There is an internal connection between cognition and feeling/motivation. (I don't think feeling is essential to moral motivation, sometimes one acts from simply the belief "this is the right thing to do"

I don't know whether anyone else raises that question abt. prudential reasons, I am sort of unread in moral philosphy though--just have a bunch of opinions

Perezoso said...

What part of "where's the data showing that theists are moral, and/or more moral than non-theists" do you not understand? This ain't the NY Times, and some of us read like Chas. Dickens back in the day (instead of say King Jimmy Lardass's bogus Bible).

For that matter, one could get technical and ask for proof that morality itself exists. Holy Fact-value distinction, batman! What specific object/event/situation does the term "morality" point to? Sort of non-referential.

Even without rehashing Hume, it's a rather difficult term to pinpoint, and usually theists use it imprecisely. The term begs the question of free will as well.

Anonymous said...

Why should the theist be moral? Because if they don't they'll be punished? But then why care if you're punished? Why care about your own welfare? Why should those sorts of considerations motivate you? If you appeal to brute factors of human constitution ("well, we're just constituted to be motivated by such factors, without appeal to anything deeper"), then the non-theist can do the same. But if it's not good enough for the non-theist, why think it's good enough for the theist?

Russ said...

Victor,

You said, "One might imagine getting tired of being moral, if you keep seeing immoral people getting advantages and honest people doing badly. (CEOs who crap out their companies get golden parachutes, honest workers get laid off)."

I don't think people ever get tired of being moral. Almost all the time, In almost all circumstances, people behave consistent with the morals of their group. Observably, the behavior of confessed criminals, even violent ones, is almost always aligned with the moral norm.

Are those CEO's actually immoral? I think not. Since we have always allowed and accepted their behaviors and compensation packages as part of the norm. In our capitalistic economy, financial inequality is an accepted norm, even when some receive in one year what to others would be one hundred, five hundred, or a thousand lifetimes of income. According to the Wall Street Journal, most of the people on Wall Street are Christians.

More than that, we do in fact consider it a moral good for the very wealthy to be "getting advantages and honest people doing badly." Our elected representatives, an ostensibly Christian bunch, have determined that those with the highest incomes should have large portions of their incomes exempt from taxation.

You also posed,

Does a theist have a better answer to the thought "why bother being moral, it clearly doesn't work."


The theist answer is better only to the extent that for embracing that answer the theist behaves more morally. If the theist is not observably more moral for his answer being an improvement over that of the non-theist, then all we have is an intellectual exercise. What is observed, however, is that, regardless of what the theist's answer is, they are not more moral, unless, of course, as is so often the case, they are permitted to define "moral."

US legislators -- all but one, I think profess theism of some stripe -- by defining crime, also define some behaviors which comprise morality. Should we think that their answer to "why bother being moral, it clearly doesn't work," leads them to act morally? Most of legislation is never read by legislators. That is true at all levels of government, and for all bills, with no regard for alterations earmarks, or amendments. Is it moral to cast a vote without knowing what the legislation implies? No doubt, for our highly theistic Congress, the answer is, Yes. They do not consider it their responsibility to understand what they're voting on. And, of course, they are in no way directly accountable to anyone for any of it.

I'm certain that Roman Catholic clergy will consider superior their answer to "why bother being moral, it clearly doesn't work." From their standpoint, and by their own definition, they are inherently moral, yet a thorough study of their history shows the institution has always been overflowing with morally corrupt people, rapists, molesters, murderers, mass-murderers, racketeers, extortionists, blackmailers.

Today, from the pope down through cardinals, bishops, monsignors, vicars and priests, the organization as a whole is morally reprehensible, institutionally inhuman. Raping, molesting, pedophilic priests in the US and other western countries are but a beginning analysis, albeit a good one. While almost every atheist alive would be utterly repulsed by such behavior, as would most non-clergy Roman Catholics, among the group of clergy indulging sexual perversity appears to be one of their perks. The current Pope, and former Grand Inquisitor, had a direct hand in making and keeping victims available to known sex offenders. In the past sixty years in the US alone, there have been more than a million acts of sexual abuse against children committed by Roman Catholic clergy. It's an inherent part of what they are. I've read many of the Grand Jury reports. From one diocese north of Philadelphia, a Grand Jury accounted for over 1500 acts of sexual abuse against children in the 1990's alone.

If I kept to Christian theists alone, I could spend the remainder of my life adding to the list of how the theists answer to "why bother being moral, it clearly doesn't work," is better only as their own self-perception. From the outrageous violent crime rate, including child and spouse abuse, among Christian fundamentalists to Christian Scientists letting loved ones die from easily-cured afflictions, we see that however one might judge their answer, the answer itself does not suggest that better behavior, or better morality will be a result.

So, I have no doubts whatsoever that by their own lights, theists, notably Christian theists, do have a better answer to "why bother being moral, it clearly doesn't work." In many cases, the theist defines morality, behaves according to that definition, and, as a consequence diminishes people's lives, indeed, the world, while debasing the very notion of morality.

I think a better thought to address might be this. In the US, Christian theists pour a few hundred billion dollars into their moral enterprise they call religion every year, only a small fraction of which(less than 15%) goes to humanitarian causes. Additionally, they make lifestyle changes to accommodate group expectations. Yet, at best their moral outcomes are no better than those of atheists, again, except by their own reckoning, and in many measures of morality they are much worse.

One question I have is: if US Christian theists stopped pouring their money into churches and spending time in ways that define group membership, would they become morally worse-off than they are? Or another way, if those same theists made different use of their time and put the 85% of their donated money that goes to pay overhead and other costs, to different uses like education, health and fitness for their families, would they exhibit more exemplary moral outcomes?

Blip said...

GK,

I don't quite share your intuitions about the person in pain. If someone was motivated to help them because God told them to I don't think that's a deficiency. For instance, if they held there was an a posterori identity between divine commands and moral obligations, then their actions would seem appropriate. Even if they merely thought God was a moral expert I still think they'd be acting fine.

What I find weird is someone who rejects as IRRELEVANT the dictates of his moral intuitions, and restricts himself solely to divine commands. But no theist needs to say this.

Anonymous,

The point is really about sensible knaves. If I can get away with stealing a billion dollars from the bank with a 99.999% chance of non-discovery then, if I were an atheist, I guess I'd do it. Since I'm a theist, I don't - theism provides everyone, everywhere, anytime with a PRUDENTIAL reason to do the right thing. This strikes me as a clear advantage of theism when it comes to moral theory.

Anonymous said...

Blip,

Perhaps I didn't make my fundamental point as clearly as I should have. No matter what view one holds, there's going to be an explanatory stopping-point in terms of desires and interests that humans are constituted to take as a fundamental basis and motivation for action. Now you're certainly right that the desire to avoid suffering and to pursue enjoyment are, plausibly, part of that constituting base. But there are more in the base than that. For example, we come pre-packaged with the moral emotions of empathy, shame, and guilt. And these serve as parts of the fundamental basis for action in normal human beings as well. But both the theist and the non-theist can account for these: the theist appeals to God, and the non-theist appeals to the selective pressures of evolution. So I guess I still don't see what advantage the theist has over the non-theist. In fact, I think the non-theist's explanation is more parsimonious, as he can get all the explanatory work done here without appeal to God.

Blip said...

Anon,

Ok, but feelings like shame, guilt etc. are much weaker than the feelings which are part of our desire for pleasure and the minimization of pain etc. It seems much much easier to overturn them and downplay them. Consequently, they don't at all guarantee that you will have a prudential reason OF SUFFICIENT FORCE to guarantee that doing the right thing is always prudentially your best option. Theism gets you this. That's what I think its advantage consists in here.

Matthew said...

Its hard to find anything admirable in being moral out of fear of hell or hope of heaven

There is also no point in being moral because society wants it or because one feels a need to do it, unless one believes good and evil exist.

Anonymous said...

Blip,

Hmm. I'm not sure I see why this is so. I haven't done an extensive investigation, but I have seen reports on violence and crime rates in other countries, and if I recall correctly, predominantly secular countries (e.g., Canada and Western Europe) are actually much lower than they are than in predominantly theistic-believing countries like the Unites States (Here's are some comparative statistics on murder rates, for example). So, at least tentatively, it seems that the constitutional factors I mentioned are sufficient motivators for ethical behavior.

normajean said...

Interesting thoughts, Gordon. Thanks

IlĂ­on said...

Why bother drawing another breath? It clearly doesn't work in the long run.

Perezoso said...

doing the right thing is always prudentially your best option

That is, if the Believer knows what "doing the right thing is." In terms of mundane, good samaritan like acts, he might know what the "moral thing" to do is: yet, given his sense of Duty and Morality, he might assist an stranded outlaw who goes on to continue to murder, rape, and create mayhem (Actually happens: and occasionally the perp robs or even kills the Good Samaritan).

In terms of political or economic decisions, religious morality might not be of any help: many conservatives (is Bushco, Schwarzenegger) are at least nominal xtians, and they have helped usher in the lending crisis and economic disaster in general. For that matter, many 20th century villains were christians and catholics (including Hitler, really, tho' Der Fuhrer waffled a bit)


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