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Some thoughts on morality and its origins

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I remember, quite a few Christmases ago now, a slightly acrimonious discussion breaking out about religion and morality. I simply observed – it wasn’t my family. It never is.

A born-again religious woman asked her sister – ‘where do you get your morality from if not from religion?’ She responded tartly, ‘From my mum’. This response pleased one of those present, at least! But as to the implicit claim that we get our morality from religion, my silent response was ‘how does that happen?’

Religion, at least in its monotheistic versions, implies a supernatural being, from whom all morality flows. But if you ask believers whether their cherished supernatural entity talks to them and advises them regularly about the moral decisions they face in their daily lives, you would get, well, a variety of responses, from ‘yes, he does actually’, to something like ‘you miss the point completely’. The second response might lead on to – well, theology. We were given free will, the deity’s ways are mysterious but Good, he communicates with us indirectly, you need to read the signs etc etc. But you’ll be relieved I hope to hear that this won’t be an essay on religion, which you should realise by now I find interminably boring when it tries to connect itself with morality – which is most of the time.

I’m more interested here in trying, inter alia, to define human morality, to determine whether it’s objective, or universal, and if those two terms are synonymous. And as I generally do, I’ll start with a rough and ready, semi-ignorant or uninformed definition, and then try to smarten it up – possibly overturning the original definition in the process.

So, roughly, I consider human morality to be an emergent property of our socially wired brains, something which is, therefore, evolving. I don’t consider it to be objective, because that suggests something outside ourselves, like objective reality. We can talk about it being ‘universal’, as in ‘universal human rights’, which may be agreed upon by consensus, but that’s a convenient fiction, as there’s no true consensus, as, for example, the Cairo Declaration (on human rights in Islam) reveals. Not that we shouldn’t strive for consensus, based on our current understanding of human interests and human thriving. I’m a strong believer in human rights. I suppose what I’m saying here is that my ‘universality’, far from being a metaphysical construction, is a pragmatic term about what we can generally agree on as being what we need in terms of basic liberties, and limitations to those liberties, in order to best thrive, as a thoroughly social species (deeply connected with other species).

So with this rough and ready definition, I want to look at some controversial contributions to the debate, and to add my reflections on them. I read The Moral Landscape, by Sam Harris, a while back, and found it generally agreeable, and was surprised at the apparent backlash against it, though I didn’t try to follow the controversy. However, when philosophers like Patricia Churchland and Simon Blackburn get up and respectfully disagree, finding Harris ‘naive’ and misguided and so forth, I feel it’s probably long overdue for me to get my own views clear.

The difficulty that many see with Harris’s view is encapsulated in the subtitle of his book, ‘How science can determine human values’. I recognised that this claim was asking for trouble, being ‘scientistic’ and all, but I felt sympathetic in that it seemed to me that our increasing knowledge of the world has deeply informed our values. We don’t call Australian Aboriginals or Tierra del Fuegans or Native Americans savages anymore, and we don’t describe women as infantile or prone to hysteria, or homosexuals as insane or unnatural, or children as spoilt by the sparing of the rod, because our knowledge of the human species has greatly advanced, to the point where we feel embarrassed by quite recent history in terms of its ethics. But there’s a big difference between science informing human values, and enriching them, and science being the determinant of human values. Or is there?

What Harris is saying is, forget consensus, forget agreements, morality is about facts, arrived at by reason. He brings this up early on in The Moral Landscape:

… truth has nothing, in principle, to do with consensus: one person can be right, and everyone else can be wrong. Consensus is a guide to discovering what is going on in the world, but that is all that it is. Its presence or absence in no way constrains what may or may not be true.

Clearly one of Harris’s targets, in taking such an uncompromising stance on morality being about truth or facts rather than values, is moral relativism, which he regularly attacks.  Yet the most cogent critics of his views aren’t moral relativists, they’re people, like Blackburn, who question whether the moral realm can ever be seen as a branch of science, however broadly defined (and Harris defines it very broadly for his purposes).  One of the points of dispute  – but there are many others – is the claim that you can’t derive values from facts. For example, no amount of information about genetic variation within human groups can actually determine what you ought to do in terms of discrimination based on perceived racial differences. Such information can and should inform decisions, but they can’t determine them, because they are facts, while values – what you should do with those facts – are categorically different.

It seems to me that Harris often chooses clear-cut issues to highlight morality-as-fact, such as that a secure, healthful, well-educated life is better than one in which you get beaten up on a daily basis. Presumably he imagines that all the gradations in between can be measured precisely as to their truth-value in contributing to well-being. But surely it’s in these difficult areas that questions of value seem to be most ‘subjective’. Can we make an objective moral claim, say, about vegetarianism, true for all people everywhere? What about veganism? I very much doubt it. Yet we also need to look skeptically at those values he sees as clear-cut. Take this example from The Moral Landscape:

In his wonderful book The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker includes  a quotation from the anthropologist Donald Symons that captures the problem of multiculturalism very well:

If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up, leaving only a tiny hole for urine and menstrual flow, the only question would be how severely that person should be punished, and whether the death penalty would be a sufficiently severe sanction. But when millions of people do this, instead of the enormity being magnified millions-fold, suddenly it becomes ”culture”, and thereby magically becomes less, rather than more, horrible, and is even defended by some Western “moral thinkers”, including feminists.

Now, as a card-carrying humanist, and someone generally quite comfortable with the values that, over time, have emerged in my part of the western world, namely Australia, I’m implacably opposed to the practice described here by Symons. But even so, I see a number of problems with this description. And ‘description’ is an important term to think about here, because the way we describe things is an essential indicator of our understanding of the world. The description here is of a ‘procedure’, and it is brief and clinical, leaving aside the depiction of the ‘terrified struggling screaming little girl’. It isn’t a description likely to have much resonance for those who subject their daughters and nieces to this practice. After all, this is a traditional cultural practice, however horrific. It is still practiced regularly in many African countries, and in proximate countries such as Yemen. Clearly the practice aligns with rigid attitudes about the role and place of women in those cultures, attitudes that go back a long way – the first reference to female circumcision, on an Egyptian sarcophagus, dates back almost 4000 years, but it’s likely that it goes back a lot further than that. As Wikipedia puts it, ‘Practitioners see the circumcision rituals as joyful occasions that reinforce community values and ethnic boundaries, and the procedure as an essential element in raising a girl.’

Now, Symons (and presumably Pinker, and Harris) take the view that this is clearly a criminal practice, and that culture should not be used as an excuse. It’s a view backed up by most of the nations in which it occurs, who have instituted laws against it, and in 2012 the UN General Assembly unanimously voted to take all necessary steps to end it, but these national and international good intentions face a long, uphill battle. However, if you look at some of the first descriptions of this practice, by outsiders such as Strabo or Philo of Alexandria, both writing in the time of Christ, you won’t find any censoriousness, nor would you expect to. It was well accepted in the Graeco-Roman world that customs varied widely, and that many foreign customs were weird, wild and wonderful. It’s likely that observers from the dominant culture felt morally superior, as is always the case, but there was no attempt to suppress other cultural practices – any more than there was only 200 hundred years ago, in Australia, with respect to the native inhabitants. The ‘mother country’ sent out clear and regular messages at the time about treating the natives with respect, and non-interference with their cultural practices (though it would no doubt have considered them barbaric and savage as a matter of course). It’s really only in recent times that, as a result of our growing confidence in a universal approach to morality or ‘well-being’, we (the dominant culture) have spoken out against what we now unabashedly call female genital mutilation, as well as other practices such as purdah and witch-hunting.

From all this, you might guess that I’m ambivalent about Harris’s confident approach to moral value. Well, yes and no, he said ambivalently. I can’t tell you how mightily glad I am that I live in a part of the world in which purdah and infibulation aren’t prevalent. However, I can’t step outside of my space and time, and I don’t know what it would be like to live in a world where these practices were standard. And living in such a world doesn’t mean being being transported to it ‘suddenly’, it means being steeped in its values. After all, my own Anglo-Australian culture was one that, less than 200 years ago, transported homeless boys, in danger of ‘going to the bad’, to Australia where they often ended up being worked to death on chain gangs, and this was considered perfectly normal. I would have considered it perfectly normal, for I’m not so arrogant as to imagine I could transcend the moral values of my culture as it was in the 1830s.

So, to return to the passage from The Moral Landscape quoted above. It isn’t a factual passage, it’s a description, with interpretive and speculative features. It describes, first the actions of ‘one person’, engaged in what seems to us an insane surgical procedure, then we’re asked to multiply this act by millions, and ‘suddenly’ consider it culture. But this strikes me as a deliberately manipulative putting of the cart before the horse. The real motive seems to be to ask us to dismiss culture altogether. After all, any human product that can be called into being ‘suddenly’, and which ‘magically’ blights our moral understanding of the world cannot surely be taken seriously.  Harris, as I recall, used similar arguments against religion, perhaps in The End of Faith (which I haven’t read), but certainly in some of his talks on the subject. A practice or belief which we might lock someone up for, ‘suddenly’ becomes acceptable when engaged in by millions and called ‘religion’.

This strikes me as a glib and naive argument, which could only appeal to historically uninformed (or indifferent) ‘rationalists’. Cultural and religious beliefs and practices, weird, wild, wonderful and occasionally horrifying though they might be, are far too widespread, and too deeply woven into the identity of individuals and social groups, to be set aside in this way.

This is a very very complex issue, one that, dare I say, middle-class intellectuals like Harris and Pinker tend to skate over, even with a degree of contempt.  For myself, I deal with these cultural issues with a mixture of fear –  ‘don’t provoke the culturally wounded, they’ll just get angry and dangerous’ – and concern  – ‘if you take away these people’s cultural/religious identity, how will they cope?’. Perhaps I’m being arrogant about the power of western secular values, but it seems to me that much of the world’s turmoil comes from resentment at old cultural and religious certainties being undermined.

So I believe in cultural sensitivity, for strategic purposes but also because we are all culturally embedded, no matter how scientifically enlightened we claim to be. However, I don’t think all cultures are, or all culture is, equally valuable or equally healthy. How I measure that, though, is a big question since I can’t step outside of my own culture. Perhaps therein lies the difficulty about getting all ‘scientific’ about morality. Science itself is hardly culture-free – a dangerous point to make in some circles.

So I don’t think I’ve gotten much further as to where morality comes from. To say that it comes from culture requires a thorough definition and understanding of that concept, otherwise we’re just deferring any real explanation, but clearly that is the way to go.  But I prefer to look at this connection with culture, and with other more fundamental aspects of our social nature, from a  humanist perspective. Western secular humanism tends to wear its culture lightly, and to value skepticism, reflection and analysis as – possibly cultural – tools for dismantling or at least loosening the overly heavy and oppressive armour that cultural beliefs and practices can become.

Written by stewart henderson

January 4, 2014 at 12:09 am

meanderings – weight loss, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a befuddled reverend gentleman, and a plethora of choices

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our reverend gentleman in a less befuddled moment

our reverend gentleman in a less befuddled moment

Listening to various podcasts and interviews and debates and documentaries, absorbing, absorbing, as well as reading texts about complex ideas which don’t easily mesh with each other, which spin me off in different directions and which of course I only discuss with my undemanding self, all this befuddles my brain a bit, making it hard to know what to start writing about, I’ve forced myself to sit down here, as I must do on a daily basis, and see if I can pin down an idea or two.

Montaigne-like I always feel its safest to start with myself and last night I caught the last few minutes of another Michael Mosley documentary on diet, lifestyle and health, in which he ended up being sceptical of the effort required to give yourself the best shot at living to 200, which I felt was fair enough, but I was alerted to my situation weight-wise by the observation that, as you lose weight, your metabolism slows down, which is one of the main reasons it’s so hard to keep the weight off, and a good example of that is that yesterday was my birthday so I indulged myself a little, culinarily speaking, but not really a lot, but I paid for it with my weight going up by one whole kilogram on the day before, and experience tells me that it’ll take about three days of food deprivation to get that kilo off again, so is there a way to get the metabolism to speed up, if in fact that’s the problem? We’re in the depths of winter here, though winters here are mild, but I still use it as an excuse not to go out in the cold for exercise, and poverty has prevented me from buying an exercise bike and getting my metabolism up through the HIT program, which would surely be my best option. Excuses excuses in short.

I’ve just started reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel, having read The Caged Virgin a few years back, and I’m still pissed off by the silly remark about her by Reza Aslan, a supposedly liberal Moslem. The use of a pared-down, low-key style when dealing with horrors is always effective. And even when not dealing with horrors. Also, the courage of this woman – even with the in-your-Moslem-face title of the book – is inspiring. She’s a proud catch-me-if-you-can infidel, whose affront to a particular religion is a challenge to our liberal secular values, a challenge we surely must meet. Also, she’s a human being who sees clearly the damage to human values, and particularly the value of the female species, wrought by many religious and cultural practices.

Interestingly I just happened to watch a debate video yesterday, filmed in 2007 between Christopher Hitchens and one Al Sharpton, a reverend gentleman of some note in the US, apparently. Hitchens was quite genial, for Hitchens, and Sharpton seemed far from sharp, so it was all a bit ho-hum. But I was delighted to find that Hirsi Ali was in the audience, and she asked the last question of the video, addressing it to Sharpton. It was a good question too, just what I would’ve asked him. Throughout the debate, Sharpton complained that Hitchens was avoiding the key point of the debate, whether ‘God is great’ or not, as per Hitchens’ book. But Sharpton was nowhere consistent, claiming in his first speaking opportunity (after Hitchens had kicked off the debate) to be annoyed that Hitchens was focusing on the putative criminal behaviour of the Christian god, and the questionable morality of the gospels, etc, but wasn’t focusing on the existence of this god, and then suddenly switching from the ontological issue to the ethical issue, by claiming that because people used the god in this or that way, or described or interpreted him thus and so, that made no difference to the god himself – as if the Bible wasn’t a written history of that god, and the proper way for that god to be known according to most theologians. In fact Sharpton’s various harpings on this issue amounted to a complete rejection of the Bible, it seemed to me, in favour of a personal relationship with this god in which believers can make of him (or her) what they will. An extraordinarily flexible theology which would seem to render a common morality, derived somehow from this being, completely impossible.

Of course Sharpton tried to make other points, including a variant of the watch/watchmaker shibboleth, all of them equally specious. The only thing going for him was that he seemed a genuinely likeable, kindly gentleman. And to be fair, Hitchens makes some specious arguments too, not about gods but about Iraq.

But to return to Hirsi Ali, her question was multi-faceted, concerning, inter alia, Sharpton’s god’s existence, and how she/he/it came into being, but the last facet was ‘Isn’t it odd that you carry a Christian title and that you refuse, even for once tonight, to defend the church, and the content of the Bible?’  My admiration for her and devotion to her shone in that moment, and of course Sharpton responded by presenting again this relativistic notion of an ahistorical, unparticularised god who is ‘the same’, but of course quite different, whether you’re a Christian, a Moslem or a follower of no organised religion. This conception, which conveniently leaves out the central figure of Jesus, seems a complete denial of the particularity of Christianity, and simply highlights the questioning of Sharpton’s Christian title. However, I really do believe that the poor befuddled gentleman just didn’t get it.

Speaking of befuddlement, while absorbing and forgetting all these ideas and positions and facts I’m reading or hearing about, I get torn about what I should focus and write on – for example if there’s anything to this system 1 and system 2 thinking and the idea that religious thinking is ‘more natural’ than scientific thinking (words must be chosen carefully here), or if it’s true that there’s an asymmetry between liberals and conservatives in their cognitive biases and motivated reasoning, or should I launch into a critique of the marketing scam that is ‘organic’ food, or should I try to elaborate in my own words the reason why the Copernican theory wasn’t considered heretical until Galileo came along quite a bit later? Or should I just give up and watch the Tour de France to its seemingly inevitable conclusion? Help me, oh goddess.

Written by stewart henderson

July 9, 2013 at 10:50 pm