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From the eyes of babes

The cognitive psychologist Paul Bloom has a long piece in The New York Times Magazine, The Moral Life of Babies. Such research always interests me because the biological and cultural shape that humans give to morality are important parameters in setting the framework for a society which can flourish. But in regards to morality I’ve always felt that the Christian Right and secular Left often share a strangely similar world-view. Bloom alludes to the former:

A few years ago, in his book “What’s So Great About Christianity,” the social and cultural critic Dinesh D’Souza revived this argument. He conceded that evolution can explain our niceness in instances like kindness to kin, where the niceness has a clear genetic payoff, but he drew the line at “high altruism,” acts of entirely disinterested kindness. For D’Souza, “there is no Darwinian rationale” for why you would give up your seat for an old lady on a bus, an act of nice-guyness that does nothing for your genes. And what about those who donate blood to strangers or sacrifice their lives for a worthy cause? D’Souza reasoned that these stirrings of conscience are best explained not by evolution or psychology but by “the voice of God within our souls.”

In other words, without God on High humans are consigned to depravity most deep. It is in its own way an implicit endorsement of the Blank Slate model, which finds praise in the eyes of Christian conservatives when it comes to homosexuality as well. But Bloom does not mention the other proponents of a purely cultural origin for all norms and the judge of human action, the secular Left. Here it is not the voice of God within our souls, but the revolutionary vanguard, the cultural intelligensia who can tell us how properly to flourish, for their own intuitions are the judge of man.




Moral thought, rational or reflexive?

Rod Dreher, Does moral action require rational thought?:

What do you think? My answer is, “Mostly, no.” I believe virtue is mostly a matter of habit. This is not to say that reason has nothing to do with morality; obviously there are many dilemmas that require serious moral deliberation before one acts, so there is absolutely a place for reason. My point is that in most cases that confront us, we don’t have to think before we act morally; we behave morally (or immorally) because we have gotten into the habit of thinking and acting in ways that lead us to a particular moral response to a challenge.

Presented this way, I mostly agree with Dreher. Rather, it seems that rational justifications are created after one makes a moral judgement. But this quote from The New York Times gets at the issue more subtly:

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Saints & Sinners

Normally I would post this at one of my science blogs…but it might be relevant right now in politics. Sinning Saints and Saintly Sinners: The Paradox of Moral Self-Regulation:

The question of why people are motivated to act altruistically has been an important one for centuries, and across various disciplines. Drawing on previous research on moral regulation, we propose a framework suggesting that moral (or immoral) behavior can result from an internal balancing of moral self-worth and the cost inherent in altruistic behavior. In Experiment 1, participants were asked to write a self-relevant story containing words referring to either positive or negative traits. Participants who wrote a story referring to the positive traits donated one fifth as much as those who wrote a story referring to the negative traits. In Experiment 2, we showed that this effect was due specifically to a change in the self-concept. In Experiment 3, we replicated these findings and extended them to cooperative behavior in environmental decision making. We suggest that affirming a moral identity leads people to feel licensed to act immorally. However, when moral identity is threatened, moral behavior is a means to regain some lost self-worth.

ScienceDaily has a summary. Shorter: after strenuous exercise many people are apt to “treat themselves” to less than healthy concoctions….


A recent featured two philosophers, and was titled “Explaining and Appraising Moral Intuition”. A considerable proportion of the discussion involved the utility of cognitive and evolutionary psychology in probing the reflexive roots of our moral intuitions, and how that might modify our moral reasoning. One of the interlocutors, Joshua Greene, suggests that exposing the proximate cognitive processes and the ultimate evolutionary rationales which set the framework for our reflexive moral judgments may allow us to reconsider their validity. What should be the criteria which we use? Greene alludes to utilitarianism. But that begs the question: what is this utility you speak of Dr. Greene?

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Romania weighs decriminalizing consensual incest:

Three European Union nations — France, Spain and Portugal — do not prosecute consenting adults for incest, and Romania is considering following suit.

Laws exempting parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters from prosecution for incestuous acts if they are not forced upon adult family members are decades old in France, Spain and Portugal.

In Romania, decriminalizing incest among consenting adults is being considered as part of a wide range of reforms to the country’s criminal code. No date has been set yet for a parliament vote on the bill, and opposition to the proposal is fervent even among some lawmakers in the ruling coalition.

Before anyone makes the connection between godlessness & depravity, do note that only France is particularly secular in a European context (90% of Romanians aver a belief in God, and 8% a universal spirit). So why criminalize incest between consenting adults? From a rational individualist libertarian perspective this might fall under the “victimless crimes” category. But most humans have a reflexive repugnance to this sort of behavior, and there are plenty of evolutionary psychological theories & data which suggest that the sexual relations between first-order kin are unnatural (though to be fair, many things that modern humans engage in with gusto are unnatural). In any case, see Larry Arnhart on incest.

Note: I do not, as an empirical matter, believe that decriminalizing brother-sister sexual relations will result in an epidemic of incest, anymore than a removal of the taboo upon corprophilia would result in its widespread practice.

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On objective ends

Jim Kalb offers a criticism of the general mission statement of this weblog, Is “the secular” so clear?:

My own view, which my book goes into at length, is that by itself rational empiricism gives you desire and technique as (radically anti-conservative) guides to life. Satisfaction of desire doesn’t seem to constitute human flourishing. To get beyond it though you need a moral tradition that’s understood to connect to something that transcends desire and thus the empirical.

So far as I can tell, an adequate theory of such a thing is going to have to explain why life objectively has a purpose, and that’s going to involve attribution of purpose and intention to the world at large. In other words, the theory is going to be religious. And it’s going to say something definite, otherwise it will be useless. So it’s going to make specific religious and non-empirical (“supernatural”) claims.

This is an old argument. Religious people often believe that morality grounded in the reality of God gives their own worldview a consistency and coherency which those who do not believe in God can not have. But I think that religious people often forget the power of their argument emerges in large part when you presuppose that such a God does exist, with the characteristics which religious people attribute to it. An objective ethics and metaphysics outside, above, and beyond, the natural does exist in your own mind when you presuppose it does exist. But saying it is won’t make it so.

Recently I was engaged with a discussion with an anarcho-capitalist who agreed with the assertion that his politics were metaphysically true. Obviously I disagree, and have an extreme skepticism toward metaphysics in general. Rather, I believe politics are simply a means to an ends, a subset of the utilitarian inclination. The ends are defined in large part by the custom & tradition of a community, and to a large extent rooted in urges and impulses which have a biological grounding. In other words, at the end of the day the is-ought dichotomy and naturalistic fallacy collapse. But to say that human morality is fundamentally natural does not mean that there is no room for debate in terms of the what it is in the specific sense.

As for the idea that a transcendent reality is necessary, I will venture to offer that I have always found the models and theories posited by religious people about their gods less than awe inspiring. There certainly beauty and glory in this universe which is simply outside the purview of human animal comprehension; anyone who has grappled with the formalisms of Quantum Mechanics can claim that they seen the face of the incomprehensible & awesome abyss. But I believe that its relation to a human political and social order are tenuous at best. Rather, the primary entity which transcends is the community and society, because I do believe a strong case can be made that individualistic hedonism which is the final form of classical liberalism offers diminishing returns precisely because of the nature of the human beast. We are a social animal, and individual happiness is contingent upon communal amity.

Note: These sorts of philosophical discussions are of course only relevant for a very small, if influential, minority. Most human animals operate in a world of custom and innate reflex, not analytic reflection.

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Somewhat related to Heather’s post, God’s Problem, see this fascinating New York Times Magazine piece on neo-Calvinism, Who Would Jesus Smack Down?:

Mars Hill — with its conservative social teachings embedded in guitar solos and drum riffs, its megachurch presence in the heart of bohemian skepticism — thrives on paradox. Critics on the left and right alike predict that this delicate balance of opposites cannot last. Some are skeptical of a church so bent on staying perpetually “hip”: members have only recently begun to marry and have children, but surely those children will grow up, grow too cool for their cool church and rebel. Others say that Driscoll’s ego and taste for controversy will be Mars Hill’s Achilles’ heel. Lately he has made a concerted effort to tone down his language, and he insists that he has delegated much authority, but the heart of his message has not changed. Driscoll is still the one who gazes down upon Mars Hill’s seven congregations most Sundays, his sermons broadcast from the main campus to jumbo-size projection screens around the city. At one suburban campus that I visited, a huge yellow cross dominated center stage — until the projection screen unfurled and Driscoll’s face blocked the cross from view. Driscoll’s New Calvinism underscores a curious fact: the doctrine of total human depravity has always had a funny way of emboldening, rather than humbling, its adherents.

The author here points to the strange outcomes of the doctrine of Predestination. For a psychological explanation for why Calvinism can seem counterintuitive, read Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t.

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Mozi vs. the Confucians

From Wikipedia on the bête noire of the Confucians, Mozi:

…Though Mozi did not believe that history necessarily progresses, as did Han Fei Zi, he shared the latter’s critique of fate (?, mìng). Mozi believed that people were capable of changing their circumstances and directing their own lives. They could do this by applying their senses to observing the world, judging objects and events by their causes, their function, and their historical basis. (“Against Fate, Part 3”) This was the “three-prong method” Mozi recommended for testing the truth or falsehood of statements. His students later expanded on this to form the School of Names.

Mozi tended to evaluate actions based on whether they provide benefit (?, lì) to the people, which he measured in terms of an enlarged population (states were sparsely populated in his day), a prosperous economy, and social order. Similar to the Western utilitarians, Mozi thought that actions should be measured by the way they contribute to the “greatest good of the greatest number.” With this criterion Mozi denounced things as diverse as offensive warfare, expensive funerals, and even music and dance which he saw as serving no useful purpose. Mozi did not reject to music in principle — “It’s not that I don’t like the sound of the drum” (“Against Music”) — but because of the heavy tax burden such activities placed on commoners and also due to the fact that officials tended to indulge in them at the expense of their duties.

Mozi tried to replace what he considered to be the long-entrenched Chinese over-attachment to family and clan structures with the concept of “impartial caring” or “universal love” (??, ji?n ài). In this, he argued directly against Confucians who had argued that it was natural and correct for people to care about different people in different degrees. Mozi, by contrast, argued people in principle should care for all people equally, a notion that philosophers in other schools found absurd, as they interpreted this notion as implying no special amount of care or duty towards one’s parents and family….

What we know about Mozi is colored by the fact that the losers do not get to write history. But, I think it is easy to see the distant affinity to the radical utilitarianisms of today. Confucians, despite their lack of perceived direct practicality because of their focus on rituals and cultivation of personal virtue while some starved or there was injustice abroad, served as the philosophical cement which bound together the Chinese state for nearly 2,000 years. Note by the way that Mozi’s school of thought was ancestral to the School of Names, logicians (though I caution too direct an analogy to logic in the Western tradition).

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Truth matters

In Heather’s post she mentioned that at the end of the day for her it is about truth, not consequence, in relation to supernatural claims.  This is a point that needs to be made because intellectuals such as Michael Novak have argued for the efficacy of Christianity in terms of promoting good in this world, while naive believers who adhere to trends such as prosperity theology seem to mix the worth of truth with the material manna it might presage.  But at the end of the day for all the consequentialist arguments about Christianity’s role in the rise of capitalism, or abolition of slavery, it’s irrelevant for intellectual believers, at least notionally.  Two years ago Rod Dreher said in chronicling his conversion to Orthodoxy from Catholicism: (more…)

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