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Guest post by Sophia[…]: on the reification of words

Full name Sophia, Michelin-starred General of the First Mediterranean Iron Chef Batallion. Originally a comment on If you believe that good is a real and necessary part of the universe.

I disagree with the idea that if you believe good exists and is a necessary part of the universe in a religious context, you will be compelled to do good. In fact, I see it as potentially inspiring exactly the opposite.

Religious beliefs* tend to take concepts and try to form them into “things”. Love becomes a thing – god is love. Evil becomes a thing, the devil. Faith becomes the thing you must do all the time, sin and martyrdom and all those words becomes much more than their original concepts, they become monolithic constructs that have both meaning and grand, mysterious purpose. The issue is that imbuing a word with such gravitas puts it above lay people, it’s more important and mysterious and holy (or unholy) – bigger –  than them. ”Good” is a word that’s taken on this grandeur, and it’s become a personification rather than a concept. There’s this “good” that exists and continues to work on its own and can’t be influenced by humans because it’s “bigger” than us. People don’t have to do good – good will simply manifest itself through people if necessary. It’s a passive attitude, not an active fostering of the urge to do good deeds.

Secondly, if you’re being threatened with a big stick – hell – for not doing good, there’s technically an incentive to do it, but catholic doctrine contradicts itself on this concept in so many ways it’s easy enough to justify pretty much any behaviour within a catholic framework as “good”. Killing someone could be justified very easily by any of the OT passages in leviticus that decree death as a punishment. Considering what atrocities the bible promotes as godly laws, the concept that god is good can mean… well, just about anything. considering that the research shows that direct correlation occurs between a person’s own beliefs and what they believe to be their deity’s beliefs, religion serves predominantly as a personal belief-justifying tool. It imbues a person’s own thoughts with an infinite importance, so that person may technically (within the varyingly nebulous boundaries of their particular flavour of religion) do pretty much anything and call it good.

Not exactly a recipe for success. For someone to do Good (the real-life concept, not religiously personified) from a religious prspective, they must already have a personal concept of good that meshes well with the general concept of good. In other words, they’ll do it independent of their religion, sometimes in stark contrast to it. Most religious people will say their religion inspires them to do good, whether that is true or not depends entirely on that person’s personal beliefs, often shaped by that very religion into something totally distinct from reality.

*Going for christian concepts here since the topic is catholic belief.

 

Comments

  1. left0ver1under says

    I’ve long agreed with the view that “good” and “evil” are adjectives of opinion, not nouns of objectivity.

    How else could people describe mother Theresa’s “hospitals” as “good” when they spread misery, disease and HIV through reused needles, while calling science “evil” for dealing solely in facts?

    “god is love”

    War Is Peace.
    Freedom Is Slavery.
    Ignorance Is Strength.

    See also:

    Dissent Is Treason.
    Questioning Is Disrespect.
    Apostasy Is Blasphemy.

  2. Sophia, Michelin-starred General of the First Mediterranean Iron Chef Batallion says

    Eep!

    Thanks :)
    My poor brain was a little caffeine-deprived this morning, so if anything doesn’t make sense in my stupidly long run-on sentences then… yes.

  3. Sophia, Michelin-starred General of the First Mediterranean Iron Chef Batallion says

    @3 left0ver1under

    I’m still erring on the side that there can technically be objective concepts of good and evil, though it’s all in the definition, and the definition is… complex. To a problematic degree. Richard Carrier write an interesting post on objective morality in this vein a few months back, I remember. I agree provisionally that objective morality can theoretically be said to exist, if based on minimising harm. It’d be so complex as to be almost impossible to figure out with our current levels of techniology and understanding, particularly in the areas of psychology and neurochemistry, but it’s theoretically possible. Anyway.

    For now, basically yes. Good and evil are concepts that can be agreed on some of the time by most, most of the time within certain groups and almost none of the time between groups with conflicting moralities. The boundaries are nebulous and the whole kit is extremely vulnerable to the false continuum fallacy.

    Reason-based good and evil are basically the very start of the “objective morality” concept, in that they define conceptual boundaries through reasoning and comparisons of harm reduction. It’s still very much personal preference, but basically all morality is based on preference anyway. We don’t not kill other people just because it’s “wrong” to, we don’t kill people because not killing them benefits us more than the alternative. We prefer not to be killed, so we don’t kill others in the hope they have similar feelings on the matter. It’s preference projection, really. There are lots of reasons, but they seem to boil down to simple survival and self-interest in the end. Making the transition to favouring the interest of all humanity will be a very, very difficult step for a lot of people, and we’re not even close to there yet. Give it a few millenia.

    … Sorry, getting on to weird tangential issues again. Yay rambling brain!

    … I did mean to say that the reification of words (is that what that word means… heh! Learn new stuff every day. Funny how you can puzzle out a concept and have no idea there’s a handy word for it already.) is something that defines all spirituality, from what I can see. Putting words on pedestals, making them more important than the concepts they describe, functionally stripping them of all tangible meaning and utility. It’s the same problem we secular types have with the concept of sacredness, which is the same but usually concerns physical objects, rituals or people.

  4. suttkus says

    Religion promotes extremism. Tell people that this list of things isn’t just wrong, or generally a bad idea, but EVIL, and they will be extreme in opposing it. That’s why people fly airplanes into buildings and call it good. Good extremism works the same way. It’s why my grandmother, a woman of failing health and many medical bills, nonetheless donated most of her money to charities (many of which were scams) instead of seeing to her own needs. Religion promotes extremism over rational consideration.

  5. John Morales says

    Sophia in OP:

    Religious beliefs* […] *Going for christian concepts here since the topic is catholic belief.

    Yes, and thank you!

    (I wish more people took note of (and clarified) the universe of discourse!)

    @5:

    […] Richard Carrier write an interesting post on objective morality in this vein a few months back, I remember. I agree provisionally that objective morality can theoretically be said to exist, if based on minimising harm.

    As with some theistic apologetic arguments, I agree that the logic is valid; but the truth of the argument rests on the soundness of the premises and not just on the inferential chain.

  6. Sophia, Michelin-starred General of the First Mediterranean Iron Chef Batallion says

    @7 John Morales – I’m not sure how the premise is not sound – considering the premise is that we might, in future, be able to define an objective moral code through the (vast and incredibly convoluted) process of finding out exactly what is the right thing to do in any given situation. It’s not an objective morality in the sense that one exists that we discover, that’s bollocks in any but the most abstract of senses of course. The term objective here isn’t being used in the creationist jargon sense, more the “not subjective” sense. Though it could be argued that even a complex objective moral system would in itself have subjective provisos – when dealing with nuanced questions, i.e. the question of the best course of action would be subject to certain conditions. Subjective within an objective framework. Or something. If that makes sense.

  7. John Morales says

    Sophia, this is well-and-truly veering from the topic at hand, but to respond extemporaneously (and therefore somewhat elliptically): I consider morality to be essentially applied ethics, and the only constraint in an ethical system is that it be internally consistent and universally applicable by any given adherent — and therefore (lacking other information) I cannot exclude the possibility that there is more than one ethical system that is internally consistent and universally applicable by virtue of the fact that it is known that there is more than one possible adherent.

    Apropos, in his most recent post adumbrating his thesis, he wrote:

    We must therefore ignore all objections that appeal to aliens or robots or other forms of intelligence. Perhaps there are different moralities for them. That would not change what the moral facts are for us (human beings).

    I note two things about this claim: (1) there may be different moralities for different entities, and (2) for the purposes of morality, all humans are the same entity.

    The first is a concession that there may be more than one “objective morality”, and the second is (I think) disputable, and I question why we should ignore such objections.

  8. Sophia, Michelin-starred General of the First Mediterranean Iron Chef Batallion says

    @9 John Morales

    Fair enough. I think I agree, actually. It’s an interesting thought exercise, if nothing else.

  9. says

    The first is a concession that there may be more than one “objective morality”, and the second is (I think) disputable, and I question why we should ignore such objections.

    Why do you dispute the second claim?

  10. sawells says

    @11: the proposition that all humans should be treated equally in moral reasoning _is itself a moral position_. If we’re going to stand by it we need to either derive it from something else, or at least justify it with arguments, or explicitly say that it’s a premise. I don’t think John Morales is questioning the claim; I think he and I both question _whether the claim is indisputable_.

    Personally I find Carrier’s efforts on moral reasoning to be a huge exercise in question-begging, and I’ve had some unproductive experiences trying to argue with him about it on comment threads and have disengaged.

  11. left0ver1under says

    Sophia (#5) and suttkus (#6)

    I have no arguments with either of you, and generally agree. I just find (personal perception only) a lot of labelling isn’t done to be descriptive, it’s done to sway opinion.

    Calling people or things “immoral” or “evil” isn’t done to qualify or quantify, it’s done to create animosity in those who hear it said. It’s far easier to ostracize, vandalize and criminalize (yes, I like big words too) a group that’s hated, and that’s only possible by creating an atmosphere of hate through words (see: rape culture, anti-feminism, anti-semitism, anti-atheism, racism, etc.).

  12. Sophia, Michelin-starred General of the First Mediterranean Iron Chef Batallion says

    @13 left0ver1under

    Oh, definitely! I think what we both said is true – that the words themselves have taken on meaning bigger that what they actually mean, and that those words are used to inspire hatred or blind adherence. In fact, the reification of those words causes the emotions inspired by those words to be even worse; if “evil” is a real, consciously malevolent force and someone is said to be evil, then they are associated with that vast, terrible, uncontrollable force rather than just chose to do a few bad things. It’s othering in the extreme and incredibly harmful, I agree.

  13. Dave Ricks says

    Rebecca Goldstein points out the Abrahamic religions have an “all-in-one” creator of matter and morality, so I think in that framing, it follows to think of good and evil as “things” as real as matter.

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