The Need For Ancient Stories, Even When They Are Barbaric

Written over two days and finished up while vacationing in Palm Desert. This essay was inspired after meeting with my monthly philosophy group which broached this topic. I finished this essay with a Venti blonde roast coffee at my side, and Antonio Vivaldi playing on Pandora.

ki

Let’s begin with some rhetorical questions. Is democracy bad because we can isolate some really bad historical offenses? Is science evil because it produced the hydrogen bomb and eugenics? I can say that I have pursued nobility and virtue in my life, but should I be deemed a vile human because I went through two years of narcissistic rebellion from 16-17 years of age? There is a tendency in our culture to isolate grievances within history, and then focus solely on the injustices born from those evils to the exclusion of anything good or lessons learned. This is the current tenor, especially when it comes tearing down statues of southern Civil War generals, demonizing Western Civilization, or dismissing and lambasting religion due to its abhorrent bronze-aged ethics. My point is that just because transgressions occur in history, even horrendous evils, doesn’t mean we should broad-brush with equal opprobrium.

Along these lines, it’s common for secularists to criticize and reject religion because it leans heavily on stories with histories in which “barbaric ethics” were accepted, as opposed to our more enlightened value system of today. I readily admit that I would much rather live in our current era, as opposed to ancient or even medieval times. Our current morality has progressed in such a way that societies have more freedoms, liberties, and rights – all of which contribute to a flourishing society. The mistake, however, is the wholesale repudiation of religious stories due to the ignoble period from which the stories are derived. Secularists are mistaken because these ancient stories address timeless existential concerns that speak to the human condition. Moreover, we interpret them in light of our current ethical framework in such a way that the useful and meaningful elements are distilled and put to virtuous action.

In this essay, I will focus on the secularist’s error in broad-brushing religion as insubstantial due to the savagery “endorsed” in holy writ. For the sake of brevity, I will highlight one of the most widely used stories secularist use to expose the ignobility of the Old Testament God: Abraham’s call to sacrifice his son. How can an ancient story that seemingly endorses human sacrifice be beneficial in our current era?

Here is short synopsis of the story. When Isaac grew to be a young boy, God tested Abraham by telling him to take his son (Isaac) and offer him as a burnt sacrifice. Though filled with sadness and grief, Abraham obeyed God’s words without hesitation and took Isaac to the mountain. Abraham had complete faith that God would provide a way out and that he would not lose his son. At the moment that Abraham tied up Isaac, the angel of the Lord stopped him and said, “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”[1]

This is a wonderful story that has been interpreted a thousand different ways to personify such virtues as faith, love, sacrifice and loyalty. One can see Abraham’s radical faith in his “ultimate” love (i.e. God). One can distill from this notion the idea that we all have an Ultimate in life that reflects a deep foundational purpose for each of us – and making sacrifices to fulfill that purpose is what brings out the richness of life. The story can also reflect the relationship of love God has for Abraham in that God doesn’t want Abraham’s blood, God wants his heart. Moreover, the sacrifice aspect of the story is a motif that the church has adopted through lent, in an effort to deepen one’s dedication to God through sacrificing something meaningful to the believer. We can think of the story as taking us away from our narcissistic self so that we can re-focus on connecting with ideals and worthwhile pursuits that are truly more meaningful.

Unfortunately, secularists have sought to use pseudo-rationalism to dilute any valuable meaning from the story. The secular person will often note the savage ethics “endorsed” in the story which include, a call for child-sacrifice, a supposed loving God ordering Abraham to commit homicide, and the irrational blind faith of Abraham. But is this a fair assessment? I mean, this is a story preached every Sunday in some church or synagogue in America each week, and the rate of child-sacrifices due to divine command is, nevertheless, a non-issue.

The secularist’s curtailment of the virtues within the story is nothing more than the classic fallacy of reductio ad absurdum. In other words, the secularist presumes absurd and ridiculous conclusions. I can think of no church in history that regularly killed babies due to this divine fiat in the Old Testament. The reason for this is because ancient stories like this have been recognized for their deeper meaning and virtues. This story has not been used to justify any horrendous evils because humanity has been smart and practical enough to realize that more significant lessons for life may be gleaned.

It’s important to acknowledge that there have been one-off examples of child homicide due to divine commands, but those are cases in which psychological disorders were diagnosed and swift punishment was carried out. In 2004, Deanna Laney killed her two young sons because God told her to do it. She stated in an interview, “I felt like I obeyed God and I believe there will be good out of this.”[2] This is similar to Andrea Yates of Texas who, in 2001, drowned her 5 children in the bathtub because the voice of God in her head ordered it. These cases are ones in which both Christians and Jews alike firmly believe are egregious and amoral. Moreover, psychological illness is the culprit, not a well thought out interpretation of the text. Never do we see faithful adherents of the Old Testament defending the actions of these one-off cases.

Another retort from secularists is to suggest that we set aside stories like this and conjure up a different story or select a real-life story that conveys Enlightenment virtues? This is a much more charitable rebuttal to the Abrahamic story. However, I would still argue that this suggestion fails to take into consideration the pragmatic elements of these ancient stories which speak directly to our human condition. Ancient stories abound and resonate througout milennia because they address fundamental existential concerns. Ancient narratives such as the Gilgamesh Epic (Sumeria), the Enuma Elish (Babylonia) and Egyptian Book of the Dead all provide motifs that include a fall into chaos, a struggle with evil or suffering, and then redemption – which is the relevant reality that impacts the 21-century person. Thus, whether you are in 3000 BCE Sumeria or 2019 Idaho, the quest to make meaning from suffering still permeates the soul.

Ancient stories are timeless treasures that expose the vulnerability and inclinations of the human mind. Stories from the past, even tall tales, fables or legends, unveil the psychological architecture which propel man to navigate the world – and from which we can look back and learn. Shall we set aside Plato because of the orgies and sexism found within his text? Shall we do away with the lessons and ideals of the Reformation because Martin Luther was anti-Semitic? It is simply intellectual pride to apply the pseudo-rational strategy of the secularist whereby modern moral superiority is exalted at all cost.

My argument holds true for other so-called abhorrent ethics of ancient writ. We interpret them in light of our current ethical framework in such a way that the useful and meaningful elements are distilled and put to virtuous action. Progressive Muslims are currently doing this with the difficult texts in the Quran. While a very small interpret the ancient commands as literal – which I admit is scary – a vast majority are able to employ Enlightenment values onto the Quran and glean life lessons that embolden virtue for today. And this is how culture works. Truth is found in what is useful, practical, and works within a given community. The reason why societies have progressed throughout the centuries is that we are able to view moral conundrums through the question: what does better look like? Thus, the complexion of freedom, liberty, and justice evolve throughout past centuries to reflect to norms and values as we pursue what ‘better’ looks like. Communities have proven that we are pretty good at improving on our mistakes, especially when you compare, for example, the Medieval period with today, or even 1900 ACE with 2000 ACE.

For these reasons, we ought to give these ancient stories their due. We glean what is useful and beneficial. We use them as road maps to live with more vitality and meaning. We recognize that even though they were written within a different context along with different values than we may have today, they nevertheless address the fundamental elements of the angst of being a human being in a world filled with chaos.

[1] Genesis 22:12 (NIV)

[2] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/god-told-me-to-kill-boys-says-mother-54427.html

How Are Values Formed?

Written over the course of two days, and finished in Starbucks in San Jose, CA with electronic dance music pounding in my head, and a grande blonde roast that tastes horrible because I’ve given up sugar. Enjoy the essay!

values

Values

When I look back at my belief system while growing up in Dallas, Texas (1976-2001), they are much different than my current belief system that’s been enculturated in liberal Silicon Valley (2013-2019). I remember being taught and believing that inter-racial marriage was wrong, that being gay was immoral, and that any type of governmental distribution of wealth was wrong because hand-outs to those in need simply incentivized laziness. I distinctly remember as a junior in college, cutting and gluing a picture of a grotesque dead fetus to a sign that would later be used at a nearby pro-life rally. When I look back, I can’t believe the contrast in values from then to now. Currently, my more liberal values are a vast contrast to the prior ‘me’.

How did the ‘me’ of 2001 have such contrasting values than the ‘me’ of 2019? Was ‘southern me’ just a red-neck with antiquated values; while the ‘Silicon Valley me’ is enlightened?

When I contemplate my contrasting selves, I can’t help but want to explore the question: how do we form our values? Are values given from the heavens (i.e. God), are the genetic, or are the dynamic and happen as we simply experience life. This begs a follow-up question: are values absolute or cultural?

I truly believe that values are formed based on our life experiences. With that, I do believe they are also bound by culture. I don’t, however, believe that values come from the heavens, rather, I believe that values are imposed on us as children from early on while forming the basis and justification of our morality and ethics. Values such as care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, sanctity/degradation, authority/subversion, and liberty/oppression are ingrained in us from early on, and while they are malleable, they inform our ethics and politics. Moreover, I believe that all values are ingrained with intentions to promote ‘the good’, however, because values are culture bound, what’s good for one culture may be (and often is) deemed an abomination by another. Herein lies the ultimate irresolvable dilemma.

cooperation

How are Values Formed?

Value formation is the confluence of our personal experiences and particular culture we are entwined in. Values are imposed from our family in childhood and reinforced through culture and life experiences. The value of, for example, kindness was imposed on me from my parents, and reinforced throughout early childhood. Then I applied that value on the school playground and experienced how it helped me create greater social bonds with my school mates. My personal experiences growing up reinforced the value of kindness as I experienced the adaptive effects of showing kindness and the maladaptive effects when choosing malice over kindness. All through my upbringing, both my personal experiences and cultural surroundings both reinforced the value of kindness.

Having been born and raised in Dallas, Texas, the values of rugged individualism, church, and God was ingrained in my psyche from birth. Each of those three values, as I grew older, eventually formed the foundation of my worldview and politics. In a sense, our values, imposed upon us early in childhood, become the spectacles in which we view and judge the world.

Our culture plays a huge role in our value formation. Culture gives us a community and shared reality so that we can cooperate in activities and customs that give meaning, purpose, and significance to our existence. Culture gives us prescriptions for appropriate conduct so that we can learn best how to get along with others. All you have to do is travel to another country to see how values ebb and flow with culture. You can travel to China and see how they elevate the group and family over the individual in contrast to most Americans; you can see how South Americans elevate hospitality and care for their elderly unlike most Americans; and how Hawaiians elevate relaxation and balance unlike most urban metropolitan cities in the U.S. (I am obviously speaking in general terms rather than absolutely)

redneck

If you live in the hills of West Virginia and coal mining is your life, and it’s what feeds your family, then you are less likely to support environmental policy that does away with coal mining. If, like I was, you are brought up with the value that every life is sacred, then pro-life values become your spectacles in which you view the the sanctity of a fetus. Likewise, if you lived in Ohio through the 1990’s and you witnessed jobs supplanted overseas, then the Republican platform doesn’t look so bad. But if your personal experiences were lived in, say, San Francisco, California, then it will contrast greatly with West Virginians as liberal values of tolerance, preserving the earth, and multi-culturalism is elevated to supreme importance.

It’s not that West Virginian’s, pro-lifers, and Ohioan’s are dumb or ‘deplorable’, they simply elevate certain values over others. Keep in mind, with the examples I provided, each value is seen as a noble virtue. Sanctity of life, even for an unborn fetus, is based on the pursuit of establishing what is noble and virtuous.  Coal miners and Ohioans value loyalty to one’s country, which involve the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. Let’s be honest, I think most of us want our government to be loyal to hard working Americans, rather than betray us in order to profit from setting up jobs abroad.

My greater point is this: whether it’s West Virginia or San Francisco, these are virtuous goals that have their aim at virtuous ends. By and large, children in Red States are raised by parents who impose on them values that seek the good. I should know, I am a product of Texas and a stereotypical Texan ideology. Where things get muddy is when you have competing values that compete for supremacy. I mean, if all values seek the good, can we say that some are wrong?

tree

Right/Wrong or Better/Worse

When judging values, we should not speak in terms of right or wrong, rather we should look at competing values in terms of better and worse. When talking about values, thinking in terms of right and wrong will result in completely invalidating the other side of the discussion.

Your values are your baby, so to speak. You hold them dear, because they speak to your life experiences and cultural upbringing. When someone says that your values are wrong, the conversation is off to a bad start from the beginning. Invalidating someone’s values shifts the conversation to a defensive mode. Instead, you can validate someone’s values, and then become ‘Socratic’ by asking questions back-and-forth as you hash out which values actually advance progress, human rights, justice, etc. Common ground is good foundation to have, and this begins by understanding that the other side is truly trying to come from a place of virtue.

When talking about values, thinking in terms of better and worse will recognize the virtuous aims of both sides, while also recognizing that some values ought to be elevated over others. Moreover, better or worse dialogue frames the dialogue in a way that doesn’t get personal, rather, you can simply discuss the effects of values in the public sphere.  Given that values are noble and based on virtue, it’s their externalities that need to be discussed. By externalities, I mean the side effects, blow-back, and consequences of the value when it is fully cashed out in everyday life. For example, early missionaries would visit foreign tribes and not only try and convert them, but also provide food and supplies to help them flourish. From this standpoint, the missionaries can be seen as virtuous. But some missionaries also brought over (unintentionally) diseases that devastated the villages. Thus, we can assess the externalities or consequences and conclude that this was probably not the best idea given the negative side effects it brought upon innocent villagers. It’s not that the missionaries immoral, per se, it’s just that there are better ways to advance the value of generosity and compassion.

In addition to a better or worse thinking rather a right or wrong way, there is another clarifying point I’d like to make. There is a common tendency to confuse value judgements with moralistic judgements. Value judgements reflect our beliefs of how best life can be served. We make moralistic judgements of people and behaviors that fail to support our values judgments; for example, “Anyone who votes for Trump is off their rocker.” In this example, the claim is trying to classify and judge a huge swath of people on moralistic grounds, with a tacit jab that labels Trumpians crazy. This tactic is similar to the one used by Ronald Reagan when calling the U.S.S.R.  an “evil empire.” The Germans also resorted to this by classifying the Jews with negative connotations like “cockroaches.”. Going back to the Trump claim, a more compassionate and enlightened way to articulate this sentiment would be, “I am worried about many of Trump’s policies; I value policies that unite the country and help the poor economically.” Now, this is a value judgment that doesn’t classify or analyze on moral grounds every single Trump voter, rather, it gives voice to your values and needs.

Final Words

Values reflect what we find important to make life better. The formation of our values is cultivated and refined based on our life experiences and influenced by our cultural surroundings. When I was in Texas preparing myself for a pro-life rally in 2001, my actions were guided by values rooted in virtue. Granted, my values were much different than most people in blue states. However, my values later changed due to personal experiences with liberal thinkers who lived out a value system that spoke to my heart. Moreover, I was able to live in the U.K. where I was exposed to different values and thinking that called into question my worldview. What didn’t change me was an intellectual argument or some liberal calling me a ‘southern redneck’. What didn’t change me was someone telling me I’m wrong, or that I needed to be more educated. Rather, it was through compassionate discussions where we worked through, not right and wrong, but the question: what makes life better?

Who’s to say what my values will be in 2030? Or what they will be if I move to Mississippi? All I know now is that I am guided by a value system that is surrounded by a plethora of other value systems. My value system is not the “right one,” rather, it simply speaks life into how I live and make my decisions. And when I hear competing values shouted by a person from a different culture than mine, I hope to take a deep breath, realize that he/she is simply expressing a deep need they have, and then perhaps I can share my values and needs without fostering judgement, evaluations of their character, or moralistic analysis. In the end, compassionate dialogue changes lives, not right/wrong judgement.

 

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

 

 

Legislating Morality

 

Legislating Morality

The topic of legislating morality is an issue that impinges on the ramifications of individual liberty, freedom, and values. Of course, arguably any law passed is a legislation of morality, from seat belt laws to public smoking. But whose morality are speaking about? And on what justificatory basis does one have –  or group have – to impose morality on others? Recent hot button issues have created a cultural divide with regards to rights of LGBT members, specifically people who identify as a different gender. The liberties of same-sex marriage is a continued bone of contention for many in the U.S. who feel that the liberalizing of America [e.g. abortion] is a spreading contagion that is infecting our young generation with unholy values. Undoubtedly, the current topic of legislating morality is between two camps: secular and religious people. I easily grant that there are secular groups, divided by secular reasons, who promote their secular values with regards to, for example, redistribution of capital, privacy laws, and U.S. interference in Middle Eastern affairs. However, in our colloquial way of understanding the meaning of “legislating morality,” it connotes a divide by secular and religious values.

There are four foundational questions that have arisen – within me – regarding the topic of legislating morality. First, what is the role of the citizen and the role of the elected official when discussing legislation? Second, is there a difference between public morality and private morality? How can you begin to even consider legislating a particular morality if you do not have access to that morality? Finally, is there a way to use objective methods to deliberate between morality, rather than relying on subjective religion?

The Roles of the Citizen and the Elected Official

Without getting too deep into political science, I think we can agree that we live in a representative democracy, based on the Constitution of 1787. Through the electoral process, citizens vote for candidates to represent their values on how to organize society as a whole. This is the simplest way I can put it, without parsing or debating every political term I just used. Given this process of representative democracy, the domains of the ordinary citizen and elected official are in completely different hemispheres.

When the ordinary citizen enters the voting booth, he/she is free to vote for whoever and for whatever reasons. In other words, they can draw from their own personal moral [and religious] convictions on “what society should look like” [to them] and select the candidate that best matches those convictions. The elected official, in contrast, is in a domain that is both pluralistic and non-private. Therefore, while the ordinary citizen can vote in either a sensitive pluralistic fashion or with a narrow dogmatism that benefits a certain sect, the elected official ought to view legislation from a vantage point of religious neutrality that takes into consideration the 320 million people living in their heterogeneous and pluralistic society.

On what justification, however, can I say the “elected official ought to view legislation from a vantage point of neutrality?” Well, we have a Constitution with amendments that fosters a Jeffersonian ‘wall of separation’ between the secular and religious state. The First Amendments states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. (1791)

In addition, there is an Establishment of Religion Clause written into the First Amendment to prevent the federal or state governments from endorsing or supporting any specific religion in any manner. This includes endorsing any religion over a non-religion, and vice versa. This is why I say that elected officials and judges ought to act from a position of neutrality with regards to religion, by uplifting the betterment of human values over and above their personal conviction based on a particular religion. This First Amendment right is by no means clear to understand, and as you can see, it’s fairly abstract. Despite its somewhat ambiguous language, the essence of the First Amendment has provided a strong basis from which we can begin to have substantive debates on the parameters of freedom.

There is one particular court case that later provided a litmus test for religious neutrality. In the 1971 case of Lemon v. Kurtzman, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments as to whether the state should support a program that would provide aide to religious schools. In determining whether the government could give aid to an educational institution operated by a religious entity, the court applied a three-part test, now known as the Lemon Test. The three questions that must be answered in the Lemon Test include:

  • Does the action taken by the government, or the law established, have a legitimate secular purpose? If the answer is no, the violates the Establishment of Religion clause.
  • Is the primary goal of the government’s action, or law established, have the effect of advancing or inhibiting any religion? If the answer is yes, it violates the clause.
  • Does the action taken, or law established, allow for an intertwining of government with religion? If so, it violates the clause.

My intention is not to say that any law passed must contain absolutely no religious affiliation. The morality of love, respect, and altruism can be found in both Judeo-Christian and secular humanism ideals. The separation, however, occurs in the process regarding the justificatory reasons that takes into consideration a pluralistic United States. Written with the oppressive history of the Church of England in the back of the minds of the Framers, the First Amendment exonerates America from living under a religious or theocratic state morality, so that individual liberty can flourish.

It does not matter to me what religion you are, just know that your religion is a belief system and does not cue off of objective truths, otherwise we would call it science. And if you have a belief system, that belief system is constitutionally protected and I don’t have any problems with you holding that belief system or voting for issues that coincide with your religious values. But the moment you hold office where now you are making decisions that affect a pluralistic electorate, any laws you pass need to be based in objective reality. Otherwise you are bringing a personal truth to bare on other people who do not have a privileged access to your truth. And that is a recipe for disaster; a recipe for revolution.

Public Morality and Private Morality

When discussing the legislation of morality, I think we need to draw a distinction between public morality and private morality. And then, as a follow up, ask if any morality is actually really private? Growing up, I was indoctrinated with a morality, courtesy of my parents, that emphasized no cussing (moral speech), doing daily chores (work as morally good), and respecting those around me. Now this was a private morality under the roof of my parent’s house. My parents had no vested interest in making their morality public by, say, advocating that every child in the U.S. should do daily chores.

Public morality, in contrast, is concerned about the moral impact upon an entire society. For example, the Republican congress policy of cutting $210 million dollars for low-income women that grant mothers and their children access to healthcare highlights a morality that is public. This is based on the innate human ethic of care for those who need their basic needs met. Concern for public morality says it’s wrong for the Republican congress to reduce Medicare and give massive tax breaks to corporations. This too is based on the principle that exploiting the poor to increase the wealth of the elite is wrong. As you can see, public morality is concerned about the vast population’s ability to flourish and thrive in a heterogeneous America. Since Roe V. Wade, America can and will continue to move towards moral progress as women possess more rights to make decisions about their own body. Furthermore, fighting to take rights and/or minimize rights of the LGBT is a prime example of taking a private morality – based on values of a religious sect – and limit the flourishing of individuals who are simply trying to pursue love and a create their own loving families. Public morality is based on Enlightenment values that seek to minimize pain and increase freedom. These are values that elevate the ethics freedom, liberty, and justice so that people can, as the Declaration of Independence states, “pursue happiness.”

Insidiously lying dormant within this point is a distinction that I cannot leave unattended: the difference between social conventions and moral rules. Social conventions (e.g. daily chores) are contingent, local, and facilitate social coordination through shared understandings of etiquette and legal codes. Psychologist Elliot Turiel proposed a set of features that sharply distinguished moral from conventional transgressions. Moral transgressions are (1) more wrong, (2) more punishable, (3) independent of structures of authority and (4) universally applicable. For instance, rape, genocide, and pedophilia carry an almost universal moral repugnancy that transcends cultural norms. History as shown us that in order to normalize these types of moral transgressions [within groups], it takes religion or a macabre ideology in the remotest and uncivilized parts of the world. Thus, we can claim – objectively – that the holocaust, female genital mutilation and southern segregation in the 50s has crossed the threshold into moral rules that are wrong whether you are in Mississippi or Uganda.

Social conventions however, are likely to lie along a continuum, stretching from transgressions of norms that are little more than matters of personal preference (e.g. getting tattoos or wearing black shoes with a brown belt) to normative transgressions that are more likely to be matters for legitimate social sanction (e.g., violating traffic laws or not paying your taxes). A vast majority of psychologists and anthropologists would also add discrimination of homosexuals and abortion to the category of a social convention. This claim is supported by the fact that these are “moral mores” that are customs within a particular group. The same in-group morality is found in (most) Jehovah Witnesses refusal of blood transfusions, (most) Buddhist’s refusal to eat meat, and (most) Jewish people eating kosher foods. For these groups to take their private in-group morality into the public sphere – which they have not – would be insulting and egregious to a pluralistic society. My point is this, we as citizens in a pluralistic society, need to proceed with a calibrated caution when thinking about legislation because what is private morality to you may be an act of oppression to another.

A common rebuttal is to claim that not all private morality is private. In a recent group discussion with people from different backgrounds, several Christians pointed out to me that what two men do in the privacy of their own home, does in fact spread to laws that impact the whole community concerning “family values.” I can understand their point. I can also add that, likewise, the private acts of a dad beating his son or a majority of southern states endorsing this form of punishment, ought to be a public concern. Here is the problem with these contrasting points. Spanking or beating a child is a violent form of punishment that has empirical evidence to back the negative and harmful effects. Such that, the American Academy of Pediatrics is against this form of punishment. This stance against corporeal punishment is not based on ideology, religion, or a sect of doctors wanting a utopian society. Rather, it’s based on the empirical facts of the potential grave consequences [based on morals of care and harm] that spanking has on young minds.

The religious argument, that homosexuality involves public morality, is based solely on fear and doctrine-driven-ideology.  Anyone can comb through the database of their arguments and paltry justifications and you will find that a reasonable justification based on objectivity is completely missing.  Reasons such as the “Bible says it’s wrong,” or “it’s not natural,” or that “it’s a slippery slope and soon women will be marrying their dogs” has absolutely no substantive value. Whether it’s homosexuality, abortion, or racism, we can look at history and the consequences and benefits of accepting a progressive outlook and conclude that granting rights rather than oppressing civil liberties has moved America into a more compassionate and understanding domain. Even though we still have a long way to go.

Imposing Morality: Double-Talk

Before I move on to my next point, I would be remised not to address a common phrase that is shouted across the moral lines from both religious and secular people which is: “It’s not right to impose your morality on me.” I’ll take this one step further and see if you can notice the double-talk:

 “It’s not right to impose your morality on me, but let me tell you how society ought to be like.”

Imposing morality, or saying aloud “this is how society ought to be” is unavoidable and should be expressed in a country of free speech. However, when the religious express their moral ‘thou shalt’ and ‘shalt nots’, they are speaking from the side of a subjective sectarian ideology. While it is protected and a Constitutional right, this type of talk is not helpful in the public domain. On the other hand, the secular perspective can engage in a substantive debate based on tangible notions of moral foundations as was done by John Stuart Mill, John Locke, James Madison and Thomas Paine, to name just a few. When deliberating how society ought to flourish and thrive in a pluralistic fashion, there is absolutely no need for the injection of theologies of Christians, Mormons, Catholics, or Islam.

So in order to avoid double-talk, we should ask: is there a type of morality that should be imposed? I say yes. It is a type of morality that the Constitution speaks of when stating our individual right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It’s a morality that, as I said earlier, seeks the flourishing of all people, where individuals can have ample opportunities to thrive. This, I believe, is not necessarily a salient answer, rather, it’s a good foundation to start with as laws and legislation come into the scope of public policy. It’s an answer the elevates human well-being over what a particular religious sect thinks. I do, in fact, want to impose a morality that seeks the flourishing of human beings. And I am more than happy to speak from a sensitive and pluralistic viewpoint that draws from verifiable empirical evidence rather than revelation from a deity in the sky or that lives in my heart. So when it comes to imposing a morality that has its basis and justificatory foundation in religion, that is when you have a recipe for tyranny and revolution. No theocratic or religious state in the history of civilization has thrived or has provided the blueprint for human flourishing. So in order to avoid double-talk, the type of morality that shouldn’t be imposed is one from a subjective, unverifiable, Utopian ideal.

 Making Morality That is Accessible to All

When we are discussing the justificatory reasons for such-in-such law, the moral fibers of that policy need to be accessible. Religious sects have claims that are not accessible to everyone because millions of people in America don’t have a Holy Spirit inside of them, they cannot comprehend the Bible, and they use reason to reject access to a salvation based on a gruesome human sacrifice. In contrast, the justification for the moral wrongness of 1st degree murder, Ponzi schemes, and drunk driving are rooted in a shared logic and agreement that those actions cause a tremendous amount of harm and should be stopped. After all, we don’t see any protests on the steps of the Capital from people advocating the right to drive drunk behind the wheel. Furthermore, we have data and evidence that show the harm caused by these actions. I don’t need a deity to speak to my heart, in order to realize that I should not plan the murder of the next guy that cuts me off on the highway. Since the Enlightenment, we have done quite well with moral progress by using empirical reason rather than the Word of God, revelation, or conviction.

Can you imagine what it would be like if America became a theocratic Mormon state? Both the Judeo-Christian and the Atheist would be in complete agreement as to their shared confusion and incomprehension. Why? This is because laws would be legislated based on the Mormon scriptures which are God-breathed. Revelation would come from God or the current Mormon prophet who is in charge. Modifications to law would be made based on a felt conviction. The reason this would be so incomprehensible for the both the Judeo-Christian and the Atheist is because they have no access to these Mormon world-views. They simply don’t share in the Mormon belief. The Christian cannot relate to the Mormon scriptures and a living Prophet that speaks for God. The twist, however, is that the Christian is no different than the Mormon. Both world-views take their cues from subjective beliefs that have no basis in objective reality. If It’s not accessible, then it shouldn’t be imposed upon a pluralistic society.

Lastly, I want to anticipate a rebuttal and state that while the secular person does not have access to the privileged Enlightenment of the religious person, the religious person does in fact have accessibility to secular notions. Ethics is built on universal tangible foundations with regards to (1) care/harm, (2) liberty/oppression, (3) sanctity/degradation, (4) authority/subversion, (5) fairness/cheating and (6) loyalty/betrayal. All six of the moral foundations show up in every society around the globe. They form the scaffolding and provide the moral architecture of legislation, property rights, contracts, economic policy, and social relations. Allow me to reiterate that these six foundations are accessible to all people. The religious person or group has a lot to contribute to any moral discussion or act of legislation because of the universality of these six foundations of morality.

Using Objective Data to Inform the Legislation of Morality

It is often said that science, unlike religion, has nothing to say about meaning and values. Another way to put it is that science may discuss the “how” (i.e. causes) but it doesn’t have anything to contribute to the “why” (i.e. meaning). If this were true, then it would render this essay completely useless since I have devoted much time minimizing religion’s impact in legislating morals and elevating the need to use objectivity. Fortunately, we have sufficient evidence to support the claim that science can help lead us towards moral progress with regards to legislating morality. Allow me to quickly weave through several quick points to buttress my claim within this tapestry of thought.

We can begin with the individual organism as the primary unit of biology and society because the organism is the principal target of natural selection and social evolution. Thus, the survival and flourishing of the individual organism—people in this context—is the basis of establishing values and morals, and so determining the conditions by which humans best flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality. The constitutions of human societies ought to be built on the constitution of human nature, and science is the best tool we have for understanding our nature. For example:

  • We know from behavior genetics that 40 to 50 percent of the variance among people in temperament, personality, and many political, economic, and social preferences are inherited.
  • We know from evolutionary theory that the principle of reciprocal altruism—I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine—is universal; people do not by nature give generously unless they receive something in return.
  • We know from evolutionary psychology that the principle of moralistic punishment—I’ll punish you if you do not scratch my back after I have scratched yours—is universal; people do not long tolerate free riders who continually take but never give.
  • We know from behavioral game theory about within-group amity and between-group enmity, wherein the rule-of-thumb heuristic is to trust in-group members until they prove otherwise to be distrustful, and to distrust out-group members until they prove otherwise to be trustful.
  • We know from behavioral economics about the almost universal desire of people to trade with one another, and that trade establishes trust between strangers and lowers between-group enmity, as well as produces greater prosperity for both trading partners.

These are just a few lines of evidence from many different fields of science that help us establish the best way for humans to flourish. We can ground human values and morals not just in philosophical principles such as Aristotle’s virtue ethics, Kant’s categorical imperative, Mill’s utilitarianism, or Rawls’ fairness ethics, but in science as well. But let’s move to a specific example that helps us move from what science says is descriptively so, to what is prescriptively right.

Take homosexuality and same-sex marriage, the latest of the Rights Revolutions that are unfolding in our time. Descriptively, science tells us that human beings have an evolved, innate drive to survive and to flourish, and that one of the most necessary and primal requirements among the many preconditions for life, health, and happiness for most people is a loving bond with another human being. Prescriptively, we can say that granting only a select group of privileged people the right to fulfill this evolved need – while simultaneously depriving others of the same basic right – is immoral because it robs them of the opportunity to fulfill their essence as evolved sentient beings. This is true even if the case could be made (as it has been by those who oppose same-sex marriage) that such discriminatory practices are better for the group (in a type of utilitarian calculus where the sacrifice of the few is justified if it leads to the greater happiness for the greater number). It is still wrong because the individual is the moral agent, not the group. It is the individual who feels the sharp pain of discrimination the sting of being excluded, and the insult of being treated differently under the law. Science tells us why they feel this way and reason instructs us what to do about it if we want to continue the moral progress of the Rights Revolution.

Conclusion

The divide that engulfs the subject of ‘legislating morality’ does in fact involve secular vs religious camps. On the surface it looks like an impasse: no matter what camp is talking, the other is going to not be able to relate. But this ignores the universality of morality. As a natural right, the personal autonomy of the individual gives us criteria by which 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 of promises and social obligations, for example, but nurture can tweak the guilt dial up or down. Thus morality is real, discoverable, “out there” in nature, and “in here” as part of our human nature. From these facts we can build a science of morality – a means of determining the best conditions to expand the moral sphere and increase moral progress through the tools of reason and science. This is what we have been doing since the Enlightenment, after the idea of Divine Right of Kings fell on its head. My hope is that when it comes to legislating morality, we can keep expanding our moral sphere.

-Wes Fornes

 

 

 

Moral Rules vs. Social Conventions

Written over two days, finished at Starbucks now (2/25/16) before work, with a blonde roast and no music because I forgot my dang ear buds at home. This essay was inspired by the studies published by Elliot Turiel, Richard Shweder, Daniel Kelly, Steven Stich, Jonathan Haidt, and Joshua Greene.

Introduction

untitledrferf32Most people are likely to agree that it is okay to wear your pajamas to the symphony if everyone else does. While this kind of behavior may seem odd, wearing pajamas at the symphony is not beyond the realm of plausibility. Most people are also likely to agree that after you have entered the symphony hall, it is never okay to throw a rock at the bassoonist just because his pacing sounded forced, even if everyone else is doing this. These cases appear to lie along a spectrum (which may include more ambiguous cases such as eating the neighbor’s dead dog with their permission or using someone else’s toothbrush). Oscar Wilde said that morality is like art, you have to draw the line somewhere. So where do we draw the line between moral issues and social convention?

Commonsense intuition seems to recognize a distinction between two quite different sorts of rules governing behavior, namely moral rules and conventional rules. Prototypical examples of moral rules include those prohibiting killing or injuring other people, stealing their property, or breaking promises.  Prototypical examples of conventional rules include those prohibiting wearing gender-inappropriate clothing (e.g. men wearing dresses), licking one’s plate at the dinner table, and talking in a classroom when one has not been called on by the teacher. While this field of moral psychology is nuanced and complex, when we reflect upon the differences of morality and social conventions, we gain a better understanding of other cultures.

The importance of this topic is justified by the fact that every culture is unique in its values and virtues. Unfortunately, this “uniqueness” makes it difficult to understand how some cultures can promulgate certain moral rules – which may seem like simply social conventions to Western eyes. The benefit of reflection of moral rules and social conventions affords one the opportunity to expand our moral domain so that we can see morality less parochially (narrow) and more compassionately.

Moral Rules

ljkhb;kMoral rules can be understood as applying universally and to derive a normative force from principles that hold independently of the dictates of political or social authorities. Going back to the symphony case above, the act of throwing a rock at the bassoonist carries an element of harm that is different than wearing your pajamas in a formal environment. Moral rules have more of an objective and prescriptive force and are not dependent on the authority of any individual or institution. Therefore, torturing babies or killing all blonds is wrong no matter what institution or even geographic domain condones the actions. Typically, violations of moral rules will involve a victim who has been harmed, or whose rights have been violated, or who has been subject to an injustice.

Social Conventions

By contrast, social conventions are contingent, local, and facilitate social coordination through shared understandings of etiquette and legal codes. Elliot Turiel proposed a set of features that sharply distinguished moral from conventional transgressions. Moral transgressions are (1) more wrong, (2) more punishable, (3) independent of structures of authority and (4) universally applicable. Social conventions however, are likely to lie along a continuum, stretching from transgressions of norms that are little more than matters of personal preference (e.g., getting tattoos or wearing black shoes with a brown belt) to normative transgressions that are more likely to be matters for legitimate social sanction (e.g., violating traffic laws or not paying your taxes).

Moral Foundation Theory

Moral Foundation Theory, derived from Jonathan Haidt, is the best model to capture the universal cognitive modules upon which cultures construct moral matrices. Haidt identified five adaptive challenges that stood out most clearly: caring for vulnerable children, forming partnerships with non-kin to reap the benefits of reciprocity, forming coalitions to compete with other coalitions, negotiating status hierarchies, and keeping oneself and one’s kin from parasites and pathogens, which spread quickly when people live in close proximity. Thus, the five foundations include: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation – and a sixth one that Haidt later identified as liberty/oppression.

Each of these foundations elicit emotions in individuals ranging from compassion, anger, group pride, respect and disgust. Once again going back to the symphony illustration, throwing a rock at the bassoonist will violate the care/harm foundation. Likewise, re-distribution of wealth taps into the fairness/cheating sentiment, while promiscuous sex evokes the foundation of sanctity/degradation.

Morality is like taste receptors

What moral foundation theory helps us understand is that morality is similar to our taste receptors. All humans have five taste receptors, but we don’t all like the same food. Morality really is like a cuisine: it’s a cultural construction, influenced by accidents of environment and history, but it’s not so flexible that anything goes. You can’t have a cuisine based on tree bark, nor can you have one based on primarily bitter tastes. Cuisines, vary, but they all must please tongues equipped with the same five taste receptors. I can’t explain why one person prefers Mexican food to Italian, or how someone can drink tea without lots of sugar in it. As Haidt explains, moral matrices vary, but they all must please the righteous minds equipped with the same six social receptors. Recently I had a friend who sat down with a Muslim family in their living room. As my American friend sat, he crossed his leg such that the bottom of his left shoe was exposed to the family. The father mentioned that in his culture, this is offensive because the bottom of the show represents filthiness. This cultural and localized social convention was part of the family’s moral taste receptors.

Morality and Culture

kdfnvVirtues are social constructions. The aversion I have to Indian curry is analogous to the repulsion I have for people not being on-time. I have a past experience with curry that left me sick so my immediate evaluative force is colored by that negative experience. Same with tardiness, growing up with my dad always late for any event has structured my personal matrix, such that I judge tardiness with disgust. This also carries forth to the difference of children growing up in warrior cultures compared with children taught in a modern industrialized culture.

While virtues are indeed constructions, moral rules and social conventions vary from culture to culture. Richard Shweder, a psychological anthropologist, did one of the first studies that compared morality between cultures. Shweder lived in worked in Orissa, a state on the east coast of India, and found large differences in how Americans and Oriyans (residents of Orissa) thought about personality and individuality. Shweder offered a simple idea to explain why the self differs so much across cultures: all societies must resolve a small set of questions about how to order society, the most important being how to balance the needs of individuals and groups. These two primary functions have manifested in history as either sociocentric or individualistic. The sociocentric model dominated most of the ancient world, but the individualistic answer became a powerful rival during the Enlightenment. To see the contrasting moral complexion between Americans and Orissa, Shweder gathered up a team, came up with 39 short stories that touched upon moral rules that were presented to 180 children and 60 adults in Orissa, and then a matched sample in a park near Chicago.

Shweder’s results found that in Orissa the social order was the moral order. Indian practices related to sex, food, clothing, and gender relations were almost always judged to be moral issues, not social conventions. Morality was much broader and thicker in Orissa – compared to Chicago – and almost any practice could be loaded up with moral force. For instance, actions that Americans said were wrong but Indians said were acceptable was: “a man had a married son and a married daughter. After his death his son claimed most of the property. His daughter got little.” And actions that Indians said were wrong but Americans said were acceptable was: “in a family, a 25-year-old son addresses his father by his first name.”

There is a deeper difference with Shweder’s findings. The American (or Western) individualistic foundations of harm and liberty are the strongest indicators in judging morality, whereas in Orissa it was sociocentric model revolving around the foundations of sanctity and authority. Even in the United States, the social order is the moral order, but it’s an individualistic order built up around the protection of individuals and freedom. As Jonathan Haidt explains, the difference between morals and mere conventions is not a tool that children everywhere use to self-construct their moral knowledge. Rather, the distinction turns out to be a cultural artifact, a necessary by-product of the individualistic answer to the question of how individuals and groups relate. When you put individuals first, before society, then any rule or social practice that limits personal freedom can be questioned. If it doesn’t protect somebody from harm, then it can’t be morally justified. It’s just a social convention.

A Newer More In-depth Study on Morality and Culture

lkjnbThe major weakness of Shweder’s study is that he did not ask his subjects about harm. Rather, he focused more on rules of clothing, food, etc. Jonathan Haidt recognized this deficiency and created a new study that would give adults and children stories that pitted gut feelings about important cultural norms against reasoning about harmlessness, and see which force was stronger. Haidt’s quest was also to test Elliot Turiel’s findings that rationalism predicted that reasoning about harm is the basis for moral judgment. Contra Turiel, there was growing hypothesis as cognitive-developmental work progressed, to look at moral emotions in subjects.

Jonathan Haidt began his study by developing a series of short stories of “harmless taboo violations” that tested contrasted subjects in Philadelphia with subjects in Brazil. The subjects in Brazil consisted up people in northeastern Brazil, in Recife, where the population is much more socioeconomically poor compared with subjects in Porto Alegre, which is more European section in southern Brazil.

Haidt’s results were clear as could in support of Shweder. First, the result was confirmed that Americans mage a big distinction between moral and conventional violations. The upper class Brazilians looked just like the Americans in the stories. For instance, two stories used included a girl who pushes a boy off of the swing (a clear moral violation) and a boy who refuses to wear a school uniform (a conventional violation). In the working-class Recife, the subjects judged BOTH stories to be moral violations; contrasted with the Americans and upper-class Brazilians who judged only the swing-pusher to be in violation.

Second, Haidt’s findings found that Recife subjects said that the harmless-taboo violations were universally wrong even though they harmed nobody. The conclusion is that the moral domain varied across nations and social classes. For most of the people in the study, the moral domain extended well beyond issues of harm and fairness.

It is hard to see how a rationalist would explain these results. How could children self-construct their moral knowledge about disgust and disrespect from their private analysis of harm? There must be other sources or moral knowledge, including cultural learning or innate moral intuitions about disgust and disrespect.

Moral Triggers as Modularity

Dan Sperber and Dan Hirschfeld coined the term “modularity” to refer to the little switches in the brains of all animals. They are switched on by patterns that were important for survival in a particular ecological niche. For example, many animals react with fear the very first time they see a snake because their brains include neural circuits that function as snake detectors. As Sperber and Hirschfeld put it:

An evolved cognitive module – for instance a snake detector, a face-recognition device … is an adaptation to a range of phenomena that presented problems or opportunities in the ancestral environment of the species. Its function is to process a given type of stimuli or inputs – for instance snakes [or] human faces.

This is a good description of what universal moral “taste receptors” would look like. As Haidt states, they would be adaptations of long-standing threats and opportunities in social life. They would draw people’s attention to certain types of events (such as cruelty or disrespect), and trigger instant intuitive reactions, perhaps even specific emotions like disgust or anger.

This can help us understand the cultural variations between, say, the people tested in Recife compared to Philadelphians. Sperber and Hirschfeld distinguished between original triggers of a module and its current triggers. The original triggers are the set of objects fir which the module was designed (that is, the set of all snakes is the original trigger for a snake-detector module). The current triggers are all the things in the world that happen to trigger it (including real snakes, as well as toy snakes, curved sticks, and thick ropes). Haidt explains that modules can make mistakes, and many animals have evolved tricks to exploit the mistakes of other animals. For example, the hover fly has evolved yellow and black stripes, making it look like a wasp, which triggers the wasp-avoidance module in some birds that would otherwise enjoy eating hover flies.

Quick Thought On Innateness

Our morality has been organized in advance of experience. Original triggers (noted above) is an indispensable part of our nature. It used to be risky to claim anything about innate behavior. Fortunately, we have advanced a lot since the 1970s in our understanding of the brain, and now we know that traits can be innate without being hardwired or universal. As the neuroscientist Gary Marcus explains, “Nature bestows upon the newborn a considerably complex brain, but one that is best seen as prewired – flexible and subject to change – rather than hardwired, fixed, and immutable.”

To replace wiring diagrams, Marcus suggests a better analogy: The brain is like a book, the first draft of which is written by the genes during fetal development. No chapters are complete at birth, and some are just rough outlines waiting to be filled in during childhood. But not a single chapter consists of blank pages on which a society can inscribe any conceivable set of words. Marcus’s analogy leads to the best definition of innateness I have ever seen:

Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises … “Built-in” does not mean unmalleable; it means “organized in advance of experience.”

Conclusion

What we can agree on is that both nature and nurture is integral to moral development. The constellation of cultural milieus provides the architecture for morality to have any force at all. A nation at war will modulate the ethic of freedom/liberty to a moral rule – or absolute. A country ravaged by oppression and exploitation may modulate the ethic of care/harm to high levels. Likewise, a society who has escaped fascist rule will modulate the role of authority to low levels and see democracy has a moral need. But the deeper question I have tried to address is the moral psychology of putting a moral rule and social convention in context. I believe it is when we transcend are own social context to understand other social contexts that we can expand our moral domain. I cannot help but view the world through WEIRD lenses. I am speaking of a (WEIRD) Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic perspective. Thus, when we understand moral foundations throughout different cultures, we begin to see less in black and white (or WEIRD) lenses and shift to seeing the world through a kaleidoscope of experiences. If a culture in the East views going to the symphony in one’s pajamas as a moral violation, then there is an opportunity for me, in my WEIRD mind, to increase my compassionate understanding through the process of trying to see the moral rule through another’s eyes.

Ontology of a Secular Morality

Written over two days and finished at Great Bear Coffee on August 8th while listening to “Blink 182” station on Pandora and drinking a Cafe Americano.

uhgoiuI recently drove up to a 4 way stop with no stop signs and no properly functioning traffic lights. It was obvious that, for some reason, there was something wrong with the traffic lights. The boulevard I was on was heavily populated, so I wondered if any sense of value driven morals would kick in once cars pulled up to the intersection, or would mass chaos ensue. I pulled off to an adjacent parking lot that was perpendicular to the intersection so that I could see how people would react to the poorly defined expectations of what one ought to do at the intersection. I mean, what does the car traveling south owe to the car wanting to go east bound through the intersection? Who is obligated to stop? And if you’re feeling rushed, why not roll through the intersection since, technically, you are not breaking the law since the traffic lights are not enforcing the rules? Perhaps, most importantly, what’s the impetus and ontological reason for acting morally in this situation? This is critical given this real life situation reveals desires, values and expectations of society that will manifest into a moral context in which right and wrong become objectively true.

As I observed the intersection for around 20 minutes, it appeared that civility prevailed and people displayed typical evolutionary and cultural traits of respect and consideration for the group. But this should not surprise us. We are in situations every day where the opportunity to cause someone’s loss will in turn be our gain. Yet more times than not, mutual respect wins out. The evolutionary and cultural trait of mutual respect is seen in every country and observed in remote tribes. Sure some defect and live duplicitous lives of greed with complete lack of regard for other people, but this is the exception and not the rule. Furthermore, just about all societies have done their due diligence to set up norms to punish and deter the defectors who choose to live duplicitous lives. But what is the basis of these “norms”? Is it a divine commander in the sky? Is it relative to the context you’re in so what is considered cruel in one place is a virtue in another? This pushes the conversation towards to the root of the matter: the ontological basis of morality. I believe, however, that it is clearly evident that objective moral facts can be known.

gtfuytcFirst of all, we are surrounded by physical relationships [that can be known empirically]. Physical relationships are objective realities that encompass how things physically relate to each other. Physical systems can be reduced to properties that can be understood objectively. Take for example the scariness of a tiger: a tiger is scary to a person (because of the horrible harm it can do) but not to Superman, even though it’s the very same tiger, and none of its intrinsic qualities shave changed. Thus the tiger’s scariness is relative, but still real. It is not a product of anyone’s opinions, it is not a cultural construct, but a physical property about tigers and people. Thus the scariness of an enraged tiger is not a property of the tiger alone but a property of the entire tiger-person relationship. This scariness is also not simply subjective. Our emotional experience of fear is subjective, but the ability of the tiger to harm us is an objective fact of the world. The tiger “ought” to scare you.

Second of all, it’s important to note that there is a neurobiological and social aspect to the statement: the tiger ought to scare you. Stimuli in the brain, specifically norepinephrine in the amygdala, engage the receptors that indicate fear, anxiety and stress. So yes, science can help us to understand what situations trigger panic or joy for the sake of our well-being. Science, based on neurological responses in our brain, can say: you ought to be afraid of tigers. Contrasted to panic, dopamine and oxytocin within the brain help us to understand feelings of bonding and happiness. Thanks to fMRI imaging, we are quickly learning how the brain reacts to ethical dilemmas and situations to either panic or bliss. Science can tell us that engaging with a wild tiger or forcing women to wear burqas does not transmit dopamine in our brains. All this to say, evolution has created neural pathways in our brains to provide indicators of how should feel in certain situations that might not be advantageous. This is a physical relationship that helps us understand our relationship between us and tigers.

jkhbouThe social aspect is not so apparent in the tiger analogy, but is nevertheless a physical relationship that provides objective imperatives. If, for instance, you are working with a group of around 10 people, is there an objective moral duty that you should have within the group? The answer is yes, if your goal is to provide a net positive contribution to the group. Virtues such as respect, trust and cooperation play into the physical system of human relationships. Therefore, it objectively behooves those who demonstrate trust and cooperation. For those who defect by demonstrating selfishness and dishonesty, however, will inevitably be ostracized. Before moving on to my next point, I want to reiterate: the ontology of morals has an objective basis due to the physical relationships around us that invariably cultivate moral pretexts in which to act.

But what separates moral facts from personal opinions? Moral facts consist of imperatives about what we “ought” to do. But why should I do anything? Take for example, “you ought to change the oil in your car” which means “if you knew your car was running low on oil, and you don’t want you car’s engine to seize up, then you would change the oil in your car (as long as you were able to without harm).” If you don’t want your engine seize up, then “you ought to change your oil” is objectively true. My opinion is irrelevant to it being true.

(1) You ought to be scared of tigers because they can harm you.

(2) You ought to demonstrate trust and cooperation in groups or you will be ostracized.

(3) You ought to stop at a 4 way intersection if the lights are not properly functioning because you may get hurt or hurt someone else if you carelessly speed through.

In these three examples, both my opinion and cultural factors are completely irrelevant. All three examples function within physical relationships that demonstrate how they relate to each other in an objective and empirical way.

;iuhiuBut we can go deeper and bolster moral objective facts with the concept of well-being. I suggest that it may be best to think in terms of well-being, rather in terms of right or wrong, good or evil. Well-being is like the concept of physical health: it resists definition, and yet it is indispensable. In fact, meanings of both terms seem likely to remain perpetually open to revision as we make progress in science. Today, a person can consider himself physically healthy if he is free of detectable disease, able to exercise, and destined to live in his eighties without suffering obvious decrepitude. But this standard may change. Moreover, we must occasionally experience unpleasantness – medication, surgery, etc. – in order to avoid greater suffering or death. My point is this: all sane people would prefer to have good health over bad health; and we can have consensus to what good and bad health would look like. A healthy lifestyle, thus, can be known in an objective way. [Sam Harris expands on the concept of well-being in “The Moral Landscape”]

Let’s keep unpacking well-being. Most people would describe a good life as involving: happiness, fulfillment, no stress, meaningful friendships, all basic needs are met, etc. All of these have a high degree of personal well-being. At the same time, most of us would describe the worst possible life as involving pain, isolation, war, lack of basic needs met, etc. Again, the bad life carries a low degree of well-being. Anyone who doesn’t see that the good life is preferable to the bad life is unlikely to have anything to contribute to a discussion on well-being. Must we really argue that beneficence, trust, creativity, etc., enjoyed in the context of a prosperous society are better than the horrors of civil war endured in steaming jungle filled with aggressive insects carrying dangerous pathogens?

I conclude my point on well-being by reiterating that it is critical to underscore the fact that the concept of well-being within the framework of morality can give us an objective foundation to scrutinize morals. Well-being can provide a lens to look through when it comes to common ethical conundrums that I, for instance, experienced last week. A man in a coffee shop dropped a clipped wad of cash on the floor as he stood up to leave. Through the lens of well-being, my moral duty is made clear: get the man’s attention and inform him that he dropped his cash. But what does this have to do with well-being? First, given that this has happened to me, I would want someone to inform me if I dropped a wad of cash. Second, it feels good to help someone and to know that I assuaged a potential frustration for the stranger. Lastly, I am cultivating a virtuous character – rather than duplicitousness – by quickly acting to help someone, irrespective of anyone else’s opinion or what another culture thinks. All of these foster an objective standard of well-being within my life which I can point to and say, “I ought to help this stranger.”

So what did I, as an atheist, do at the 4-way intersection that I mentioned at the beginning of this post? I proceeded slowly to the intersection and stopped, then allowed the car to my right to go because she stopped 2 seconds before me; then the car to my left gestured for me to turn, and so I did. Darwin was right, mutual respect feels really good and benefits the group.

This post in a nutshell:

Physical Relationships > Creates Moral Constraints > A Moral Context is Formed