Secular Morality: Is it wrong to indiscriminately chop off heads?

Written in 4 hours with a Venti Mocha consisting of 5 shots of espresso. Throughout the writing of this essay, I maintained a heart rate of 155. 

What is a secular response to why one should do good? It is common for many to assume that non-theists don’t have a leg to stand on when confronting morality. A Christian I know recently asked, “What’s wrong with indiscriminately chopping off heads?” While the answer appears obvious at the surface, it prompts deeper reflection concerning how one justifies one’s answer – especially if they come from a secular worldview.

What’s Wrong with Indiscriminately Chopping Off Heads?

untitledAllow me to address this question, by posing a better question. Would you rather live in an environment where people could indiscriminately chop off heads, or would you prefer an environment that promoted the survival and flourishing of all sentient beings? Most rational individuals would choose the latter simply because it’s a better environment. After all, must we really argue that the liberties and freedoms that promote flourishing in the context of a prosperous society are better than the horrors of people indiscriminately chopping off heads?

I believe that a society that promotes the survival and flourishing of all sentient beings is better than a society that promotes head chopping. But first, let me first clear up any confusions concerning what I mean by ‘flourishing’ and ‘sentient’. By flourishing I mean, the opportunity to create, explore, and experience life in order to actuate one’s potential as a human being. To do this within the confines of a society, there must be certain liberties, freedoms and laws that provide the protection and safety for its citizens to have the opportunity to flourish. Thus, I can rightly point out that citizens in, say, Canada are in a better environment than Somalia with its brutal, impoverished and lawless condition. Second, by sentient I mean, those who are emotive, perceptive, sensitive, responsive, conscious, and therefore able to feel and suffer. I am drawing a distinction between humans and particular animals than, say, crustaceans at the bottom of the sea. For this essay, however, I will focus on humans.

This question (which environment would you prefer?) is a good launching pad for a discussion concerning the title of this essay. By beginning with a comparison of polar opposite environments, it puts us in a position in which we can further elucidate and thereby attempt to justify the ‘why’ and the ‘what’: why one is better than the other, and what exactly makes one better or worse. The ‘why’ in my argument focuses on the fact that our survival and flourishing is universal for humans. The ‘what’ focuses on the virtues, liberties and freedoms that are necessary to promote cooperation and harness greed, violence, theft, etc.

meaningAny talk about flourishing automatically presumes living a particular way and comprising of a particular quality of life; one in which we honor the rights of others and seek a certain kind of character in order to become a particular kind of human group that has maximized its potential. I nevertheless smuggle in values and moral ‘ought’s’ into my argument because we know through our instinct and empirical analysis that a cooperative society banding together is better than a society of free loaders (and it doesn’t take long for any society to devise rules to punish free loaders!). As Darwin wrote:

“There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes.”

What makes a society better than one advocating head-chopping, is that the values of reciprocity, cooperation and altruism act as a kind of incubator for cultivating a flourishing environment. In other words, you don’t get flourishing human beings in environments that elevate selfishness, greed, and hate. Let’s look closer at what I mean by survival and flourishing.

First, a society that promotes the survival and flourishing of sentient beings is better because we universally prefer to stay alive over death. It usually takes a cataclysmic despairing event or an extremely painful disease in order for one to completely give up on life. The reason for this reality is that all living things are born with biological systems oriented toward self-preservation. Over billions of years, a vast array of complex life-forms has evolved, each distinctively adapted to survive long enough to reproduce and pass their genes on to future generations. Fish have gills; rose bushes have thorns; squirrels bury acorns and retrieve them much later; termites eat wood. There seems to be no limit to the variety of ways creatures of all species adhere to the fundamental biological imperative: staying alive.

Second, we universally (and instinctively) prefer to flourish and thrive rather than live with fear and trembling.* A cursory look at the research conducted by anthropologists through ethnographies demonstrate that there is a universal thirst for an enduring happiness, serenity and fulfillment. Furthermore, here is a desire for wholeness, for freedom, and an authentic and sustained love. This is evidenced by the fact that every society that we know of has created social mechanisms and institutions in order to thwart greed, laziness, deceit and cheating. Moreover, we have yet to find a remote tribe whereby greed is rewarded and honesty is punished. We create these social mechanisms, institutions and rules for behaving in order to cultivate a civil society. Even the remote tribe in Malaysia, the Chewongs, have rules and social mechanisms concerning dividing up and sharing food so that no one goes without. Whether it’s a remote tribe or a suburb of Chicago, we instinctively crave and pursue human flourishing.

[*Granted, some people do live with fear and trembling due to bad choices or psychological illness, but I’m comfortable with presuming if they had a ‘do-over’ or magic wand that could change their psych issues, they would gladly change it.]

life-2Natural Rights: What We Deserve

When you put together the universal need for survival and flourishing, we can conclude that the freedom to pursue both, is a natural right. By natural right, I mean it is universal and unalienable, and thus, not contingent only upon the laws and customs of a particular culture or government. As Michael Shermer notes in The Moral Arc, “Natural rights theory arose during the Enlightenment to counter the belief in the divine right of kings, and became the basis of the social contract that gave rise to democracy, a superior system for the protection of human rights. This is what the English philosopher John Locke had in mind in his 1690s Second Treatise of Government, (which was written to rebut the divine rights of kings) when he wrote: “The state of nature has a law to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.’”

As a natural right, the personal autonomy of the individual gives us a criteria by which we can judge actions as right or wrong: do they increase or decrease the survival and flourishing of individual sentient beings? Morality is not arbitrary, relative, or completely culture-bound. Morality is universal. We are all born with a moral sense, with moral emotions that guide us in our interactions with other people, and that are influenced by local culture, customs, and upbringing. Nature endowed us with the capacity to feel guilt for the violation or promises and social obligations, for example, but nurture can tweak the dial up or down. Thus, morality is real, discoverable, “out there” in nature, and “in here” as part of our human nature.

Due to my moral sense, I cannot morally justify indiscriminate head chopping. Furthermore, I do not need a god in the sky to make this a realization for me. My life, health, liberty and possessions are of value to me, and I want to expand these rights because it is good. A society that fosters these ideals will possess more opportunities for its citizens to flourish. There is a logical reason why every society seeks to harness violence, greed, etc. We can easily put ourselves in the shoes of those who suffer under terror and oppression, and we cringe. We cringe because we never want that for ourselves. And we want to avoid those environments of terror because we know we cannot flourish or thrive.

I have no good reason to genuflect to a god or higher power, rather, my reverence goes toward a humanity that keeps expanding the moral circle of compassion, empathy, and cooperation. The evidence of this expanding moral circle is shown; not from heaven, but in the objective evidence we see when we compare societies which promote liberties, cooperation, and freedoms with those that don’t.

rtThe Contrarian’s Response

Perhaps the contrarian might rebut my argument my asserting that flourishing is doing exactly what you want. As an example, the Cambodian political tyrant, Pol Pot, “flourished” by pursuing his passions, despite the thousands of deaths perpetrated by his regime. First off, I don’t believe any reasonable person- who is cognitively competent – actually believes that this is a sufficient example highlighting flourishing. If it was a sufficient example, I believe that more people would naturally be inclined to pursue the path of mass slaughter. Furthermore, to the person using Pol Pot as an example, I would ask, “Why don’t you pursue the same flourishing as Pol Pot, and start your reign of terror today?” There is a reason why the contrarian will shake his head “No”. Perhaps because the contrarian knows that that’s not flourishing.

The contrarian may retreat, and opt for a subtler example. Rather than flourishing being the pursuit of whatever passions (however brutal they may be), flourishing is more like egoism. By egoism, I mean the theory that one’s self is, or should be, the motivation and the goal of one’s own action. This is more palpable because we are all guilty of having deliberated moral dilemmas by concluding that our own self is, or should be, the driving force for our final decision. The problem with this, however, is that the vast amount of meaning and significance we experience in the world involves other people. Furthermore, we are naturally social creatures, thus, in order to commune within community, it involves a bit of selflessness. And, after all, the egoist will have a lonely life given we do not naturally gravitate to people who are all about themselves. Finally, egoism goes against the building blocks of how societies become societies:  kin altruism (‘blood is thicker than water’) and reciprocal altruism (‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’) form the building blocks to a cooperative society, because cooperating (selflessly!) reaps more benefits than simply striving for your own ends.

Consequences: The Price for Doing Whatever You Want

But why frame flourishing in terms of virtuous deeds? We naturally frame flourishing in terms of virtuous behavior because we are keenly aware that there are consequences for our actions. Let’s face it, there are consequences for doing whatever the heck we want. Most reasonable people do not frame flourishing in a subjective or relativistic way, as: flourishing is whatever you feel is right. Moreover, most people try and harness egoism because we instinctively know that the consequences may affect your reputation, your future and the relationships around you.

It’s hard for any cognitively competent human being to escape reflecting upon the potential consequences of one’s actions. We instinctively know that consequences matter because we live within cultures that punish ‘bad’ behavior. Whether through prison, getting fired, or being ostracized from your community, we know that our duplicitous actions have consequences. Sometimes though, we react instinctively without thinking, and we do bad. However, excluding crimes of passion or knee-jerk reactions that end with suffering, we naturally go through a cognitive deliberative process that includes a cost-benefit analysis in our thinking. Whether it’s ‘do we take grandma off the ventilator?’ or ‘should I lie to get out of this problem?’, we are inclined to consider the consequences.

knlknFinal Thoughts: Moral Foundation

The importance of the question, “What’s wrong with indiscriminately chopping off heads?”, is important because it forces us to consider a moral foundation. Now, you can build a moral foundation from very simple beginnings: life is generally preferable to death; pleasure is generally preferable to pain; health is generally preferable to sickness; and it doesn’t matter is these are arbitrary things that we plucked out of nowhere, or if they’re intuitions, or if they’re about our emotions, it doesn’t matter where they came from – we hang on to them, because they prove to be useful and true. We evaluate the consequences of our actions with respect to specific goals. That’s how we determine right and wrong.

The theist may argue that without God, it’s all relative; the secular person has no absolutes. But God is not the solution. The only place you can find a viable solution is in secular moral systems. Every religion disagrees with every other religion, within these religions you have denominations that disagree, and within denominations you have churches that disagree. The theist has to make some type of demonstration that that there is a good reason for me to listen to that authority; and how do you do that? You do that by evaluating the consequences of actions to goals, you consider the effects of things on living things, and you use reason and evidence. The beauty of a secular moral system is that it is data driven, it’s able to correct itself, we can begin with those foundational principles, and if we find out that any of them are wrong we can change them.

This idea that there are absolutes is also wrong. Because with any specific situation there is not one absolute answer that addresses every moral situation. But within a specific situation I think there are absolutes because in any given situation there’s a finite pool of possible actions that one can take. We can compare the results of those actions with each other. Some of them are gonna be better, and some are gonna be worse. Which means, by definition, there is some subset of actions that represent the moral pinnacle for that situation. We may not have the first clue of what it is.

If you pull up a mid-game chess position and you ask people, “what’s the best move?” you will get a variety of answers; and they could be right. Doesn’t necessarily have to be one right answer, we could get a couple of not so good answers, a couple of optimal answers, but by and large, we’re able to determine which options are better and right. And it’s the experts who have studied chess, who are able to see further. The fact that there are multiple right answers, doesn’t mean that we just throw up our hands and forfeit the game. The fact that there are multiple right answers means humans are winning.

The lie that religion gave me is that there is this one cut-and-dry path to knowing the truth. When we’re kids, we ask “why” and we would always get that answer: “because I said so.” That’s religion. Religion is offering, “because I said so.” And that answer might have been fine when Moses was leading multitudes of Hebrews thousands and thousands of years ago. But “because God said so” is not an explanation, because when I ask “why?”, what I’m looking for is something underneath, something with explanatory power that increases our understanding.

The reason why secular morality is superior is because we say so. And I don’t mean that in a relativistic way. But we’ve been able to build off of the foundation that other people have left us; and learn what works, and what doesn’t. One of the best features about a secular morality is that it’s about getting better. Not only that, it’s about getting better, at getting better. We can revise what we believe and make improvements, and it’s all based on evidence.

It’s for all of these reasons why I don’t indiscriminately chop off heads. Not because god said, “it’s bad.” Rather, because I want for society what I want for myself: a society that promotes the survival and flourishing of all sentient beings. If I compare the morality of the Medieval period with today, it’s obvious that human rights are progressing. Life is getting better. Thus, I can do my part in expanding the moral circle through promoting survival and flourishing of all sentient beings.

Except, I will continue to eat murdered cows. Uhg, moral dilemmas!

bb

 

 

Suffering: Where Humanism Fails

Written over two days and completed at Starbucks in Willow Glen, San Jose with The Killers on Pandora blasting in my ears.

Where Humanism Fails

Thesis: Humanism fails because it has no sufficient answer for suffering.

Problem: There’s no philosophy of suffering within humanism that provides a reasonable framework and perspective that speaks to the human heart.

imagesghghWhat does the humanist say with respect to suffering? Most humanists immediately become reactionary and defensive to the question. For the humanist, the topic of suffering is often understood only in the context of ‘How could a loving and all-powerful God allow suffering?’ It’s as if the humanist finds it impossible to speak about – and open up about – intersubjective issues of suffering within themselves. I’m not interested in any pivot towards the dilemmatic subject of suffering within Christianity. What captivates me is the intersubjectivity of the question. When the humanist’s life is falling apart, how can he or she put the suffering into perspective and persevere?

I am specifically talking about dealing with suffering in a very personal way. The perspective I am inquiring concerns the existential human condition. This is where the rubber meets the road in life, in which your spouse hands you the divorce papers out of the blue, or your child is suddenly killed in an accident and now your world feels like it’s falling apart. These are very dramatic examples, but even so-called ‘first-world problems’ involve suffering. For instance, a downward spiral into depression due to losing your job or feeling isolated in life due to possessing no close friendships.

downloadrtrtThe answer I am looking for is a pragmatic one. One in which is imbued with a reasonable framework that gives direction and guidance to those suffering. Even though it defies reason, a large part of the success of religion is that it provides answers to the dilemmas of suffering. People flock to churches, mosques, temples and synagogues to find order to the chaos of life. Religions provide its members with a framework and foundation to put suffering into perspective. But what does the humanist have? What framework does the humanist lean on to find perspective? This is precisely why humanism fails: The humanist has no reasonable pragmatic framework to address suffering in a personal way.

Sterile Answers Do Not Suffice

To the humanist, I want to say this: stop dolling out sterile answers to deep existential questions! When it comes to suffering, humanist’s address the question like a scientist looking through her microscope at bacteria. The humanist speaks about suffering from a distance, using demonstrable analysis. “Well,” says the atheist, “suffering is part of life, and we need to take responsibility for our actions and choices in the midst of suffering.” Even worse is the humanist who will inject Darwin and say, “It’s part of nature, it’s survival of the fittest, that’s life.” These answers are not necessarily untrue, however, they are not helpful when one is in deep crises. It’s like telling someone who has just been told they have stage 4 cancer, “hey, it’s part of life, everyone suffers.” Sterile answers do not suffice, and this is where humanism reveals its utter impotency.

imagesnmnmPerhaps the humanist will interject and appeal to some naturalistic coping method one has during crises. Humanists do indeed have non-supernatural ‘methods’ of coping through friends, family, worthwhile activities, love, a personal project, a legacy, etc. Granted, these are helpful ways of approaching suffering, however, these are nevertheless band-aid approaches. In other words, they bring only temporary relief. Your friends and family cannot always be there when it’s 3 a.m. and dark thoughts are permeating your mind. Worthwhile activities and projects can distract us for so long before we realize how unsettling the ground is beneath our feet.

In fact, I would say that reliance on friends, family, and worthwhile activities are equivalent to the theist’s dependency on a church family, prayer, and worship. True, one is rooted in the supernatural and the other in reality; however, both are strategies that afford a type of escapism. Just as God acts as an ultimate Xanax (an anti-depressant drug) for the theist, so do the friends, family, love, projects, worthwhile activities, concern for a legacy, etc. for the humanist. I’m not interested in surface level escapism, I’m targeting something much deeper. When your life feels like a dark abyss of meaningless triviality. When every day is a Sisyphean trek up the mountain pushing your heavy boulder, only to have it roll back down over you as you near the summit. It is at this juncture in which the humanist simply shrugs his shoulders and appeals to some empty platitude: “it is what it is.”

A Solution

imagesnnnnWhat would a reasonable secular perspective look like? Moreover, what kind of perspective can we adopt that cuts deep into our worldview, and provides the proper spectacles to understand suffering? For sake of brevity, I will bullet point key points that provide a reasonable (secular) framework to understand and view suffering. I’ll call it, “The 10 Commandments to Suffering”

First Commandment : Limit your attachments, and limit your suffering

All suffering comes from being attached to something or someone. We attach ourselves thinking that “it” will bring us lasting happiness. But nothing lasts forever.

Second Commandment : Everything is impermanent

At any given moment, no matter how pleasurable or unpleasurable your experience may be, it will not last. One must begin that process by appreciating the impermanent, transient nature of our existence. All things, events, phenomena are dynamic, changing every moment; nothing remains static.

Third Commandment : Don’t run away from suffering, rather, sit with it, understand it, and allow it to teach you something about yourself

When suffering arises, lean toward the discomfort of life and see it clearly rather than protecting yourself from it. Suffering is always an opportunity to learn about yourself.

Fourth Commandment : You cannot control suffering, but you can choose how you respond

Refrain from reacting in a negative way, let the slander pass by you as if it were a silent wind passing behind your ears, protect yourself from the feeling of hurt, that feeling of agony. So, although you may not be able to avoid difficult situations, you can modify the extent to which you suffer by how you choose to respond.

Fifth Commandment : Don’t personalize the suffering

Personalizing is the tendency to narrow our psychological field of vision by interpreting or misinterpreting everything that occurs in terms of its impact on us.

Sixth Commandment : Guilt is a self-created prison; you hold the key to your liberation

Guilt arises when we convince ourselves that we’ve made an irreparable mistake. The torture of guilt is in thinking that any problem is permanent. Since there is nothing that doesn’t change, however, so too pain subsides – a problem doesn’t persist. This is the positive side to change. The negative side is that we resist change in nearly every arena of life. The beginning of being released from suffering is to investigate one of the primary causes: resistance to change.

Seventh Commandment : Relinquish the past

The acceptance of change can be an important factor in reducing a large measure of our self-created suffering. So often we cause our own suffering by refusing to relinquish the past. If we define our self-image in terms of what we used to look like or in terms of what we used to be able to do and can’t do now, it is a pretty safe bet that we won’t grow happier as we grow older. Sometimes, the more we try to hold on, the more grotesque and distorted life becomes.

Eighth Commandment : Let your enemies be your Guru

The best teacher is always our enemies. They are your Guru because it is they who teach us patience and tolerance.

Ninth Commandment : When suffering arises within you, observe it without engrossing yourself in it.

It’s similar when my dad would comfort me while watching a scary movie by saying, “It’s just a movie.” My terrified reaction was because I was placing myself in the movie. Our suffering is created in our minds, it’s not a real object. Even though it feels real, the more we can view our suffering from a distance, the quicker we can gain perspective of how to view and understand the suffering.

Tenth Commandment : Cultivate a flexible mind

Without cultivating a pliant mind, our outlook becomes brittle and our relationship to the world becomes characterized by fear. By adopting a flexible, malleable approach to life, we can maintain our composure even in the most restless and turbulent conditions. It is through our efforts to achieve a flexible mind that we can nurture the resiliency of the human spirit.