On The Futile Search For Universal Morality

The study of morality would vastly be improved
If god could be removed

Without the false assumption that a culture’s moral laws
Had supernatural cause

There’s no Platonic heaven where morality is found
But rather, look around!

Morality will not be seen expressed as an ideal
Morality… is real

So, yeah… I guess this one is based on a report of a debate or disagreement or something, between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig, on the topic of morality—or rather, on “objective moral values”. Interesting, or tedious, or whatever. Craig wants morality to be based on God’s revelation, Harris will find it in our brains, our DNA, or some such.

Of course, they are both wrong.

Both want universals, though of a different sort. It’s as if “universal morality” is the all-or-nothing position—and it is certainly the case that (some, at least) theists will pounce on any sort of non-universality as taking the “anything goes” position. But the fact that these theists frame the question that way is no excuse for looking for an atheist equivalent, when none is required. And indeed, the site reporting the argument appears also to be looking for a universal morality:

Gravity is not dependent upon our worldview. And if objective moral values exist, neither should they.

At any rate, Harris argues that something is morally good if it promotes the flourishing of conscious creatures. Craig counters by saying something is morally good if God says it is. With Craig, we are back to the question of which god. As for Harris, I tend to agree with him, but even he has to admit his starting point is wholly arbitrary self-interested.

But why should objective moral values be universal? Let us suppose our needs are universal (even “promotion of the flourishing of conscious creatures”, though I don’t honestly think that’s it)—our environments are much varied, and the ways our needs may be filled are necessarily dependent on our varied environments. And morality is (when you look at what it is and does, rather than what is claimed) a means of controlling behavior, promoting some things and prohibiting others, independently of any sort of governmental law. From here (Hocutt, 2010, an excellent analysis of morality):

What, then, is morality? Protagoras, the greatest of the Greek sophists, got the answer right when he argued that morality is social practices. Morality in the real world consists not of a priori principles but of customs and conventions, tacit understandings about what conduct will be accepted and what will not. Members of diverse groups, we human beings are each of us subject to rules made by our group for our group, so applicable to our group and no other. These rules, some more important than others, are not written down anywhere and, being ad hoc adjustments to contingent circumstances, are always unsystematic and ill defined; furthermore, they are subject to change. They exist, however, in the form of more or less regular practices reinforced by more or less effective sanctions.

Looking for universals in a varied environment is a fool’s errand (which is every bit a strike against those who claim a genetic morality as against those who claim to speak for a god—in both cases, the incontrovertible fact of differing moral standards across cultures speaks against any sort of universal morality).

Because of the contingency and fallibility of these rules, we cannot discover them by thought alone or by using the test of utility. Instead, we learn our moralities by being rewarded for complying with them and punished for contravening them—methods that teach us to feel good when we ―do the right thing, guilty when we do not. Furthermore, our duty to obey these rules has nothing to do with culturally transcendent standards. Duty consists entirely in the fact that obedience to the rules is a condition of good standing in the group. We human beings are certainly rational animals, but we are even more fundamentally tribal animals; and while prudence is a dictate of reason, morality is largely tribal instinct and group custom. We are bound to it in the first analysis by a genetically based need for the approval of our fellows and in the final analysis by their coercion to behave as they desire—not, as Kant erroneously claimed, by choice of an undetermined will. In fact, as even the intellectually honest Kant admitted in the end, the idea of such a will is unintelligible.

Morality is, fundamentally, about human behavior. And the thing is, we have sciences dedicated to looking at that.

The obvious conclusion is that moral philosophy ought to begin with empirical psychology, sociology, and anthropology. Of course, these behavioral sciences won’t tell us what moralities we ought to have, but unlike gaseous talk of archetypal Justice and theological talk of moral law, they will tell us something about the moralities that we do have and perhaps enable us to understand why we have them, which might enable us to figure out how to improve them. Once we understand the uses and deficiencies of these moralities, we might be able to see how their purposes could be served more effectively.

So, is there an objective basis to morality, or is it all just made up? There is no moral god, there is no moral gene—there is, however, the real world, which varies across time and space. The good news… once we recognize and admit the reality of morality, it becomes something we can improve. The bad news… the (for now) majority currently views morality as handed down by a god some thousands of years ago, and that any change is, by definition, detrimental to morality.

Templeton Funded Research Finds Science & Religion Compatible (or, that evangelicals have their own definition of “science”)

Evangelicals will tell us, they are unafraid of science;
They assume it proves the bible to be true.
There’s a scientific method into which they put reliance
But it looks a little strange, to me and you.

They’ll evaluate hypotheses experimentally
Then, conclusions will be carefully inspected:
Do results remain consistent with the bible? And we see,
If they’re not, then the conclusions are rejected.

Perfect science, thus, can never be at odds with Christian thought,
Clearly, science and religion coexist!
Any finding not agreeing with the bible, as it ought,
Is a finding simply stricken from the list!

When you’re truly doing science, then you do the work of God
He’s the author of the evidence you read
It’s a different sort of science, so at first it might seem odd,
But a Bible/Science mix is what you need!

The latest headline out of this year’s American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in Chicago is that there isn’t really a any contradiction between Science and Religion… at least, when you (as the Elaine Howard Eklund did, supported by a Templeton grant) poll people to see what they think is the case.

It sounds all friendly and promising… until you look a bit deeper into the results, and realize that a good many people are using a very loose definition of “science”. For instance (as reported by phys.org),

* Nearly 60 percent of evangelical Protestants and 38 percent of all surveyed believe “scientists should be open to considering miracles in their theories or explanations.”
* 27 percent of Americans feel that science and religion are in conflict.
* Of those who feel science and religion are in conflict, 52 percent sided with religion.
* 48 percent of evangelicals believe that science and religion can work in collaboration.
* 22 percent of scientists think most religious people are hostile to science.
* Nearly 20 percent of the general population think religious people are hostile to science.
* Nearly 22 percent of the general population think scientists are hostile to religion.
* Nearly 36 percent of scientists have no doubt about God’s existence.

I regularly read, in comment threads, claims that “actual science disproves evolution”, that there is a conspiracy by atheist scientists, who simply ignore the copious evidence of God’s existence. Science, I am told, has proven an afterlife, and ghosts, and dowsing, and ESP, and free energy, and more. So I am not in the least surprised that a poll of evangelicals shows that most of them have no problem with science as they understand it.

I also once read, in an actual print journal, an explanation of the scientific method that was remarkably like what you might find in science textbooks… but with one further step. After you crunch your numbers and draw conclusions, you “compare your answers to biblical truth.” I shit you not. So, yeah, when you do science this way (the right way!), it is impossible to find disagreement with biblical principles.

I have seen it argued that, were it not for God keeping everything following His laws, we would see pure chaos, so the fact that we can do science proves that God is there, doing His thing. But since God is always there, the laws are constant–that is, since God is constantly and consistently intervening, it looks like He is not intervening at all. And since you can trust God to keep the clockwork going, it is perfectly fine to do science without explicitly invoking (nor denying) His influence.

But that view, in which everything is a miracle, has no place for miracles as explanations for specific phenomena. That first bullet point quoted above would include the possibility that God could intervene at any point. “Then a miracle occurs!” would be a standard model, not the (arguably) most famous science cartoon ever. How exactly would that work? How would incorporating miracles into scientific explanation work? It can’t, that’s how. Can people believe that it does? Certainly, so long as they redefine either god, or science, or both.

Eklund has not found that science and religion are compatible. Rather, she has found that people’s definitions of “science” can be modified as needed to fit.

The Democrats Are Coming (And They Want To Take Your Guns)!

The Democrats are coming! And they want to take your guns!
Cos the lefties don’t believe in self-defense!
They’ll be shutting down the gun shows any moment now, you know,
And the impact on our profits is immense!
They’ll want handgun registration; they’ll want licensing and locks!
It’s the functional equivalent of war!
They’ll want magazine restrictions; universal background checks—
If you only own a dozen, buy some more!
Yes it’s time to buy more ammo—by the truckload; by the tons—
Cos the Democrats are coming! And they want to take your guns!

The Democrats are coming! And they want to take your guns!
It’s a symptom of a world gone wholly mad!
You’ll never get another chance to exercise your rights—
Or, at least, that’s what we’ll tell you in the ad!
There are shortages of weapons—though the makers do their best,
Our demand is far exceeding their supply!
The “Obama surge” is waning, after record sales this year
And we need to stir up panic so you’ll buy!
So… you know you’ll be in trouble if it’s Hillary that runs
Cos the Democrats are coming! And they want to take your guns!
Yes, our bottom line will double if it’s Hillary that runs
Cos the Democrats are coming! And they want to take your guns!

Obama’s presidency has been very profitable for gun manufacturers. His 2008 election saw a spike in gun sales, as did his re-election in 2012 (eclipsed again, though, in 2013). Stories of jackbooted government thugs confiscating your weapons, which we were promised would come to pass if Obama was elected, turn out to be the best advertising campaign in the history of firearms. That these stories are utter fiction is of little matter; we all know the burger in real life looks quite different from the burger in the ad. I do wonder, though, how long the message can be milked before it dawns that the barbarians are not coming, today or any day.

Ah. Ed has it–it’s time to paint Hillary as the gun-stealing monster that Obama turned out not to be… yet.

“Hostility Toward Religion”, or “Religious Hostilities”?

Let us celebrate the power
Of the simple preposition
Making bullies into martyrs with a word
When the truth is somewhat sour
Simply make a small edition
Though the putative conclusion is absurd

When “religion” and “hostility”
The Pew researchers mixed,
It’s religion on religion causing harm
To the best of their ability
The Post has got it fixed
Groups are hostile toward religion (sound alarm)!

When religions start attacking
The religious are the victims
Though that leads to a conclusion, rather odd:
Though the evidence is lacking,
There among the Christian dictums
Is that all religions worship the same God

It’s an internecine battle
True believers on both sides
And religious groups have earned their share of guilt
Yet the Christian Post will prattle
While the honest truth still hides
In the house of cards the Christian post has built.

The Christian Post headline (High Social Hostility Toward Religion Reported In A Third Of Countries Worldwide) tells you all you need to know about how they are going to spin the story:

A high or very high social hostility toward religion was reported in a third of the 198 countries and territories analyzed by the Pew Research Center in a report released on Tuesday, marking an increase in almost every major region around the world.


Christians and Muslims were the two religious groups harassed in the most countries between June 2006 and December 2012. Christians faced harassment in 151 countries, Muslims in 135, and Jews in 95.

Also true. But if you remember last year’s BBC report on martyrs (in which we find that by far the greatest number of Christians killed in religious hostilities were killed… by other Christians, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and earlier in Rwanda–in both cases, with Christians on both sides of the hostilities), you might be curious about the reporting this time, too.

The Pew report on their study has a different headline (Religious Hostilities Reach Six-Year High) that makes it clear that the report is looking at more than just hostilities toward religion.

For instance, there has been an increase in

abuse of religious minorities by private individuals or groups in society for acts perceived as offensive or threatening to the majority faith of the country. Incidents of abuse targeting religious minorities were reported in 47% of countries in 2012, up from 38% in 2011 and 24% in [2007].

(bolding in original) The report gives examples–it is well worth reading.

The study finds that the share of countries where violence, or the threat of violence, was used to compel people to adhere to religious norms also increased in 2012. Such actions occurred in 39% of countries, up from 33% in 2011 and 18% as of mid-2007.

Again, many examples are given–most are new to me, but involve “efforts to enforce religious norms” not held by all citizens.

There is much, much more at the study. With so many (and increasing) incidents of religious hostility, it is small wonder there might be government restrictions on religious expression–hell, I would want the government to restrict, say, a church from dictating what my medical care includes! Ah, but even here, the report includes government restrictions where the government is itself taking the side of one religion:

Governments used force against religious groups or individuals in nearly half (48%) of the world’s countries in 2012, up from 41% in 2011 and 31% as of mid-2007. In April 2012 in Mauritania, for instance, “the government arrested 12 anti-slavery activists and charged them with sacrilege and blasphemy, along with other civil charges, for publicly burning religious texts to denounce what the activists viewed as support for slavery in Islamic commentary and jurisprudence,” according to the U.S. Department of State.

Oh, and it is worth noting that the Americas have far, far less religious hostility, either social or governmental, than other areas of the world. This despite determined bleating about a “war on religion” (a subsidiary of the “war on Christmas”, itself a subsidiary of “Fox News”).

Almost Heaven?

My goodness, what they put in the water in West Virginia! But that’s the price of Freedom. Freedom Industries, that is.
From the first link:

The Freedom Industries president downplayed the chemical’s health effects, saying it has “very, very low toxicity” and poses no danger to the public.

Strange… I originally posted the following as a metaphor. Never really thought I’d repost it so literally.

There was poison in the water
And it wasn’t fit to drink;
So we got ourselves together
And we had a little think… [Read more…]

Get Over It!

There are people doing something, which they seemingly enjoy,
But a different thing than I would like to do
I could celebrate our differences… or note how they annoy,
Demonstrating I’m superior to you

You’re a runner, with a logo on your car or on your shirt?
What a narcissistic way of showing off!
You’re a writer, with a column where you’re always slinging dirt?
Must be cushy, when you’re getting paid to scoff!

You’re a Catholic with a crucifix, a Baptist with a fish,
A new-ager proudly wearing “co-exist”
Superciliously asking for the local, vegan dish
Yes, I know the types—I’ve made a little list.

You’re a pompous ass “new atheist”, of which you’re very proud,
And you never waste a chance to bring it up
You proclaim it with your coffee (doesn’t have to be out loud)
With that scarlet “A” emblazoned on your cup

You support your local college, or your city, or your state,
You have t-shirts from the places you have been
It’s displaying your enjoyment that’s precisely what I hate
Cos I know you only do it to be seen

You’re just flogging your accomplishments—“ooh, look at what I’ve done!”
In a blatant move to make us all feel worse!
Yes, it’s simply inconceivable you do it just for fun…
It’s just showing off! (… he finished up… in verse.)

Ok, here’s the thing. I know that what I do is pretentious. But I either really enjoy doing it, or I am obsessively stuck unable to do otherwise (it varies by day). Fortunately, very few people (it has happened) tell me “yeah, ok, we get it, you can rhyme things, get over it.”

But Chad Stafko, in the Wall Street Journal, apparently just wrote a piece telling runners to just get over it.

There is one kind of bumper sticker I see almost daily here in my small Midwestern town: a small oval printed with “26.2” or “13.1.” In case you’re lucky enough not to know what these numbers represent, let me explain: They indicate that the driver or someone in the car has run a marathon (26.2 miles) or a half-marathon (13.1 miles).

There is only one reason running aficionados display the stickers. They want the rest of us to know about their long-distance feats. So let me be the first to offer my hearty congratulations. I’d even offer to give them a pat on the back—once they’re done doing it themselves.

What’s with this infatuation with running and the near-mandatory ritual of preening about it?

Honestly? I was thinking, at about that point, that the column was going to be a brilliant metaphor–how the completely innocuous act of running, and our wearing of running-specific gear, was how we *should* be treating the display of, say, religious or political affiliations. Nobody gets bent out of shape because someone else is wearing a shirt from a local 5K race, after all. Except, Stafko does get bent out of shape over such shirts, opining that they are only worn to make the wearer feel superior to all the non-runners (and, importantly, to make the non-runners feel inferior). Apparently (and I would love to be wrong), the Stafko piece is literally about running, runners’ apparel, and showing off. Pretty much all of the commenters take it that way–including one commenter with a pitch-perfect reply:

There is one kind display I see almost daily on the internet: a small white, rectangle printed with up to 500 words. In case you’re lucky enough not to know what these words represent, let me explain: They indicate that the poster or who posted it can write.

There is only one reason writers become published with a byline. They want the rest of us to know about their publications. So let me be the first to offer my hearty congratulations. I’d even offer to give them a pat on the back—once they’re done doing it themselves.

What’s with this infatuation with writing an opinion article and the near-mandatory ritual of preening about it?

(it continues, translating the entire piece perfectly.)

Runner’s World offers their own translation of Stafko’s piece, from Bizarre Angry Rant into English, which is fun. Predictably, the commenters there are once again too literal, and see the snarky translation as every bit as small-minded as the original piece. Oh, well.

I wish it had been a story on how we should treat the various divisions in our societies as trivially as we treat the t-shirts we wear… but then I remember the t-shirt ads I used to get during the political season, and I shudder for humanity’s future.

But if you want a T-shirt that really and truly allows you to feel superior to everybody who is not wearing one, I do have some suggestions.