This post constitutes my rebuttal portion of my blogalog with trunthepaige
about what our moral standard should be.
We converge on a few points, which is a good start. For instance, we agree that human beings have a natural aversion to particular behaviors. Paige used the examples of lying, murder, and theft, and then generalized them as "things that hurt others," which was the whole of my opening argument. I also agree that there are some people who lack this impulse. In fact, I agreed
in the most complete fashion:
"[Empathy] is so second-nature to us that anybody who appears devoid of it strikes us as dangerous or mentally ill."
We call people who are without a conscience sociopaths, and are rightly aversive of them. You can imagine my surprise when, in her sixth paragraph, she said
, "We are not driven to be moral, it's not a compulsion." So on one hand, we have people without a sense of empathy being rightly ostracized (by Paige's assertion), and on the other hand humans are not driven to be moral. Am I wrong to be a little confused? Any act we perform is an act we felt compelled to perform, otherwise we wouldn't do it. A sociopathic killer feels compelled to murder, just as Paige feels compelled to abide by the morality of the bible. So to say that we are not compelled to be moral is a notion we can easily discard.
Where Paige and I part ways is what inferences we make from the facts we agree on. See below.
Begging the question
Paige suggests that citing scientific consensus
is begging the question
, but then she makes a tremendous leap from noting that we have a moral impulse, to saying god must have done it. I would suggest that she go back and re-read the definition of ol' petitio principii ("begging the question" in schnazzy Latin, the way philosophers like to say things :P). What evidence did she present? How does she get to say she knows where this moral sense comes from rather than just admitting that she doesn't know? It's not enough to merely believe something (in fact, it's downright dangerous to do so without evidence, since inaccurate assessments of reality are the cause of immoral actions). We have an obligation to hold good reasons for why our beliefs are true.
Do animals have a moral impulse?
First, this is a moot point. Even if I conceded that animals had no moral impulse, it would not mean for a second that god exists or had anything to do with the human sense of compassion. However, the presence of empathy in creatures that share a tremendous amount of our DNA code
is an argument in favor of my position rather than against it, as Paige has suggested. For this reason I feel compelled (see what I mean about being compelled to do stuff? :P) to touch on it.
Here is a video of piranhas feeding. See if you notice anything revealing about it.
For all their bloodlust when feeding, did you notice that the piranhas do not attack each other? Do you notice how they work as a group to achieve safety and more food for everyone? Why? These animals don't believe in god, so what is telling them to behave this way? What tells a mother lion not to eat her cub? Even a passing glance at other species will make it difficult to contrive a more incorrect statement than, "Animal instincts have a mindless strength to them, that I have never seen any human come close to exhibiting, in anything other than hunger and lust."
But it's far more developed than that. In 1964 Jules Masserman and her team at Northwestern University published a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry
dealing with the behavior of rhesus monkeys. In the study, the monkeys could not get food unless they pulled a chain that would deliver them a meal, but would shock one of their companions. These anthropoid apes (our closest relatives), soon began starving themselves to avoid shocking another animal (one monkey went 12 days without food).
So where did this come from? Again, even if I had no idea, that does not make the hand of god even remotely more likely to be a correct explanation. As I said in my opening, there are several steps in the development of this sense in animals, and it predates human beings by quite a bit.
Empathy is born from our neurochemistry. How the chemicals in your body are arranged determines your disposition. It determines whether or not you are aggressive, passive, cooperative, etc. If you doubt this, try imbibing different substances that alter your chemical equilibrium (marijuana, alcohol, etc). One step in this line (out of who-knows how many, use google and read) occurred at the K/T boundary. When the great apes moved into the trees evolution selected for those with better depth perception. This trait is tied to a gene called (no shit) sonic hedgehog
). This comes paired to another gene that dictates a decrease in the field of vision. This made our simian ancestors easy prey for predatory birds - except for those with a disposition to cooperate and, therefore, survived to reproduce. I can go into incredibly intricate detail on this if you need me to.
There are gaggles of points like this in the development of compassion. No appeal to god is necessary. But this is what we are, and we need to account for it. I did so in my opening.
Odds and ends
Paige says that our morality cannot depend only on logic and reason, but how can she say this? Surely she has reasoned her way to god's existence, upon which her morality is built, yes? Otherwise, how can she assert that her beliefs about the nature of the universe are correct, while a Muslim's are false? If we cannot understand our moral impulse through logical and reasonable means, how else can we understand it (and why even have a conversation if good reasoning is to be irrelevant)? Moreover, is there no hypothesis so crazy that is cannot be defended by discarding logic and reason? Maybe the unicorns living in Saturn's rings give us our moral impulse...
Paige cites the variances in moral rules across cultures as evidence that morality is not based on logic and reasoning - but this supports my view, not hers. The fact that people often discard logic and reasoning in assessing what is true about the universe, and therefore what actions will create the most happiness while alleviating the most suffering, explains perfectly why our moral standards do not always congeal. Cultures that believe sacrificing somebody's son every Spring in order to secure a bountiful harvest and continued survival of their group are bound to have a different moral standard than people who accept that the Haber Process
works. This goes hand in hand with what I said in my opening about everybody having good intentions, but that it is our inability to fairly discuss what is true about the world corrupting those intentions.
She then said that if morality were an inborn trait, that we would be imbued with a sense of right and wrong. But all that is needed for my ideas to be internally consistent is that we are inborn with a sense of empathy, which I feel I have established beyond reasonable doubt, and an impulse to do whatever will get us what we want the most. These alone are enough to move us to work as a group and to invent a moral standard if life would suck without one. It is logic and reason which confirm for us the very elementary observation that allowing non-virgins to live is better for group happiness (stone serenadante
!), or that allowing people to work on the sabbath should maybe not be an offense punishable by death, or that apostasy is not a murder-worthy transgression. Unreasonable conclusions are the antithesis of finding what will realistically augment happiness for the group, and there is no greater engine for unreasonable conclusions via the insistence that we can throw logic and reason away - i.e. faith. Our history (and our present) are saturated with examples confirming this.
Oh, and I'd love to hear an instance where some of the greatest atrocities in human history were the product of sound reasoning. That should be a good one.
Paige concludes by admonishing us that we need old laws which have a history of success. I agree with her. Ideas are not judged by age, but by how applicable they are to reality. Old moral standards like don't kill people, don't steal, etc, are ideals we should follow, while the idea that we should kill people for worshipping a graven image, committing adultery, working on the sabbath, or apostasy (see the 10 commandments), y'know "things that hurt others" as Paige so eloquently put it earlier, are ideas that should be discarded. In fact, Mahavira, the Jain Partriarch, summed it all up very nicely in a single sentence well over 500 years before Jesus was supposed to have walked the Earth:
"Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture or kill any creature or living being."
We do not abide by good moral ideas because of where they arose, we abide by them because they make sense. As my brother once said:
"I hear there are some voodoo hoodoo tribes in Africa where it’s a passage to manhood to rip some poor sap’s still-beating heart out of his chest and eat it raw while prancing about on a bed of hot coals and whacking off with their free hand. I hope they get rid of that tradition – that one sucks.
Some traditions should be flushed down the proverbial toilet, or at least be given a few rigorous wipes to make them applicable to modern society."
Paige even seems to agree with this assessment in her last paragraph when she says, "And we need to use our minds most of all. Logic, reason, history, and science, all need to guild our effort to be a moral people."
Well...yes. We all want happiness for ourselves which, because of what we are, is tied to the happiness of others. And we clearly need to figure out what results in happiness in order to have a moral code. Will getting everybody into heaven cause the most happiness? Will providing abundant food and clean water cause the most happiness? Will killing my neighbor for worshipping a graven image create the most happiness and alleviate the most suffering? The answers, in accordance with the evidence, reveals what is moral. In fact, Paige's last sentence concisely describes what we risk by not binding our moral idea to what we have good reasons to believe about reality:
"If we exclude anything, we are that much more likely to delude ourselves into another historic act of evil."
Indeed, how else do we arrive at historic acts of evil if not by delusion? Not only should we strive to avoid it, we should be openly and rightly critical to people who endorse it as healthy and necessary.