Morality Without God?

Morality Without God?I just read a nice little book, Morality Without God? by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. Ostensibly, he argues that we don’t need God to have an absolute moral code. But more important, he argues against divine command morality. This is the idea that morality comes from something like the Ten Commandments. It is only wrong to murder because God told us not to. See: it’s right there in the book! Sinnott-Armstrong argues that without having an independent (or intuitive) idea of morality, there would be no way to know that the Ten Commandments were really God’s rules and not, say, Satan’s.

Consider the serial killer Albert Fish. According to Wikipedia, “Fish, suffering from religious psychosis, felt that God was commanding him to torture and sexually mutilate children.” How are we he to know that it wasn’t God telling him that? Most Christians would say that they just know that kind of thing is wrong. And that pretty much proves the point. As far as I know, there is no specific admonition in the Bible against torturing and sexually mutilating children. But I wanted to know.

So I set out to find if the Bible mentioned that it was wrong to have sex with dead bodies. I went over to Yahoo! Answers and found a page that seemed appropriate, Does the Bible Prohibit Necrophilia? Here is the whole question:

The Bible does not mention necrophilia but it does condemn sex outside of marriage, so if a man’s wife dies and he wants to have sex with her one more time before she is buried, would he be sinning?

As usual on such pages, the answers were not very helpful. Most of them were like fifimsp3’s answer, “Uh, even if the Bible doesn’t say it’s wrong, your mind should. If it doesn’t, go see a therapist.” That doesn’t really answer the question. In fact, it seems to imply that person asking the question wants to do this. It doesn’t sound like that to me. It sounds to me like he thinks he’s found an interesting loophole in the Bible. Whatever.

The best answers noted that the Bible does say you can’t have sex out of wedlock. Also: marriage only lasts until death. So having sex in this way would violent the Bible. Fair enough. But it would not be a sin for the reasons that most of us find it objectionable. It would just be wrong for the same reasons as masturbation. That’s some weak tea there!

What this all shows is that you really can’t depend upon a set of rules for your morality. You have to depend upon a system of ideas. There are always going to be questions that are not dealt with in the rules. Just look at the Ten Commandments. There are lots of immoral acts that are not dealt with in that document. (There are also a lot of immoral acts that are implicitly condoned like slavery and female subjugation.)

Often, when I think about such ethical issues, I am struck by just how limited the thinking is of those who follow dogmatic religious systems. (Note: I have lots of religious friends but they aren’t fundamentalists, which is what I have problems with.) Isn’t it obvious that everyone knew that murder was wrong before the Ten Commandments and that was why murder was included on the list? Isn’t it obvious that slavery was taken for granted in the Old Testament because it was socially acceptable at that time? Isn’t it obvious that religions reflect their societies rather than define them? That’s why Christians don’t avoid shellfish and mixed fiber clothing! Believers take from the Bible what works for them in their time and place. There is nothing absolute or eternal about it.

And that gets to my fundamental problem with Morality Without God? I don’t accept that there is an absolute morality. I do accept Sinnott-Armstrong’s ethical system that is based upon harm and empathy. But I don’t think there is anything absolute or eternal about it. Hopefully, if the species survives long into the future, it will look back on us with the same horror that we now look back on the “Godly” slaveholders. There are loads of things we all do everyday that strike me as being morally repugnant. I will give you just one example: killing an annoying house fly.

What I do think is that the harm and empathy system for morality works very well for this time and place. It provides for a decent society with a fairly limited amount of pain for our fellow humans. But I very much hope that we will become better over time.


Check out Sinnott-Armstrong’s faculty page. It’s very funny!

Pete Townshend Refuses No River

Pete TownshendOn this day back in 1870, one of the best arguments against the divine commands argument of morality, serial killer Albert Fish was born. Shockingly, Malcolm X and Pol Pot were born on the same day back in 1925. Pol Pot, being one of the great evil men of the 20th century, managed to live 33 years longer than Malcolm X. And of natural causes. Screenwriter Nora Ephron was born in 1941.

And the great Joey Ramone (Jeffry Ross Hyman) was born in 1951, dying just shy of 50 years later of lymphoma. Here he is doing “What a Wonderful World”:

Actor James Fox is 64 today. Grace Jones is 65, so we won’t hear anymore from her. And actor Polly Walker is 47.

The day belongs to one of my favorite songwriters, Pete Townshend who is 68 today. Although he’s best known for his work with The Who, I’ve always found his solo work far more compelling. The Who is too much rock music BS; his solo work is more personal and thus more truthful. Here he is doing “Give Blood” with David Gilmour, which is good because Townshend really isn’t much of a guitarist:

Happy birthday Pete Townshend!

More Anti-Venezuela Propaganda

Mark WeisbrotWhen I was just in college, I worked for a conservative small business owner. He knew I was liberal, even if I didn’t talk about it. So one day he told me that he understood that our standard of living depended upon the exploitation of people in poorer nations but that he was fine with it. I simply acknowledged what he had said while thinking, “What a dick!” For one thing, it isn’t really true. The standard of living of the super rich is depended upon such exploitation, but I believe that fair and open markets would be best for almost everyone. What’s more, that kind of wise-sounding cynical talk is just a way of not engaging with an issue.

Still, I wish that this kind of candor were more evident in our country. All my life, I’ve heard governmental representative and the media denounce different governments around the world for their undemocratic and authoritarian ways. I used to believe them. But it doesn’t take long to understand what’s really going on. The first thing I noticed was that we had a hell of a lot of friends who were authoritarians. And then I noticed that a lot of our enemies weren’t all that bad. And then I noticed that a lot of our enemies really were democracies. When our government complains that Venezuela isn’t free, what they mean is that Venezuelan oil resources are not free to the oil companies.

Over the years, I’ve found myself in the uncomfortable position of defending Hugo Chavez. What you need to understand is that I would probably have blasted him if I had lived in Venezuela—at least the same way I blast Obama when he’s wrong. But in the United States, there was almost nothing but negative coverage of Chavez. And he was far from a pernicious actor in Venezuela. On balance, I’d have to say that he was quite good for the country. People who complain about him cherry pick information. And although there are plenty of pickings—Chavez was no angel—such attacks are grounded in the fact that American corporate interests were not best served by this democratically elected leader.

On Friday, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Mark Weisbrot reported on a new International Crisis Group (ICG) report, Venezuela: A House Divided. In general, the ICG is not a bad group. But it is mostly funded by the United States and there are just some issues on which it is not objective. As Weisbrot pointed out, most of the report “reads like a statement from the Venezuelan political opposition, rather than a neutral third-party observer.”

The 14 April 2013 election put Chavez’s former vice president, Nicolas Maduro in power. Pretty much everyone outside of the United States thinks it was a free and fair election. On the day of election, an audit was run on 53% of all voting machines. The machines were compared to the paper ballots they provide. And it was found that Maduro won the election to within a doubt of one in 25 quadrillion. Since that time, the opposition has been demanding that another audit be done. They agreed with the government to audit an additional 30% of the ballots. But then they changed their minds and demanded that all 47% be audited. These are clearly the actions of a group that knows it didn’t win the election and just wants to cause problems.

But the ICG report just mimics the complaints of the opposition. Weisbrot noted, “But the most ugly and pernicious thing is the report’s insistence that ‘the validity of the election result [in Venezuela] needs to be clarified’ and that a ‘full and transparent audit result’ is necessary, or else the government’s ‘rule will increasingly come to be seen by many as an imposition, with unpredictable, possibly violent consequences.” He rightly notes that this is an apologia for future violence. Remember, this is in a country where the military and business leaders staged a coup d’etat in 2002 against Chavez. A prominent businessman was put in power. But hundreds of thousands of protesters surrounded the presidential palace and eventually Chavez was returned to power. So the ICG report claiming that displeasure by the opposition could lead to violent consequences is very bad indeed.

Of course, there has been next to no coverage of the ICG report. But that isn’t how these things work. Instead, after a coup attempt, US papers will be flooded with reports about how “according to the International Crisis Group” this was bound to happen because of Venezuela’s “questionable” election. No mention will be made of an election audit that is far better than anything we ever do in the United States. Nor will there be mention that Venezuela’s elections are more free and fair than our own. Because none of that matters to the power elite in this country. All that matters is that Shell and BP (who contribute to the ICG) are not getting their drilling rights like they want.

Rethinking Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US

George W. BushIn the past, I’ve given George W. Bush a pass on the 6 August 2001 President’s Daily Briefing (PDB) Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US (pdf). My thinking revolved around two issues. First, fighting terrorism is like house cleaning: no one notices what isn’t there. There will always be failures and only a jerk looks at them alone and claims that you are incompetent. Second, the PDB did not have actionable information. After reading the document, I’ve rethought it.

In Against All Enemies, Richard Clarke notes that a major terrorist attack was probably inevitable because the American people were not going to pay attention to the issue until there was one. Now, it didn’t have to be nearly as bad as 9/11, but something had to happen. I think there is much to this argument. However, I think it has also clouded my thinking regarding Bush’s reaction to the PDB. There is a big difference between the people of American paying attention to the terrorist threat and the White House paying attention. The Clinton White House paid close attention to this threat. But when Bush took over there was almost complete apathy.

In fact, the purpose of the 6 August 2001 PDB was to get Bush to take terrorism seriously. And it didn’t work at all. After the briefing, Bush said, “All right. You’ve covered your ass, now.” And then he went fishing. This shows that before the PDB Bush didn’t care and after it he didn’t care. That’s a real problem and speaks extremely badly for Bush.

On the second issue it doesn’t look much better. I’m not sure what the apologists for the Bush administration are getting at here. Did they think that the PDB should have mentioned flight numbers? Here is what it says:

Nevertheless, FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.

I understand that this sounds very different after 9/11 than it did before. But it is actionable. If I was given that memo, I would want to know what this suspicious activity was. I would want options. It is clear from Bush’s reaction that he understands that the intelligence and law enforcement parts of the government are concerned. But he is not moved.

The question is really not whether this memo would have stopped 9/11. It almost certainly would not have. But it should have made the Bush White House less complacent about terrorism. It shouldn’t have taken the deaths of over 3,000 people to get them interested in the subject. This is particularly sad when you consider the fact that Bush got a 40 percentage point bounce in his approval rating for ignoring the PDB. As a result of being apathetic about the threat of terrorism, Bush’s approval rating jumped up to 90%. And it went down constantly for the next eight years.

So yes, Bush should be judged very harshly for ignoring the 6 August 2001 President’s Daily Briefing.

When Mom Has a Meltdown

Whenever my son has a meltdown or a tough time with a lesson, I tell myself, “Keep your eyes on the prize.” When he was a newborn, I didn’t expect him to walk or talk. When he was a toddler, I didn’t expect him to read. Now that he is 10, though he can walk and talk and read, I don’t expect him to have the abilities a 15 year old would. Definitely I would not expect him to have the maturity and communication skills of an adult. All learning is a process, and because my son has that unique ADHD brain, some things will take even longer to learn.

At the moment, I am focusing on teaching my son what I feel are some of the most important qualities. These are empathy and kindness. Things which can be difficult at times. I keep reading and hearing that I have to model good behavior so my child will understand how to behave, but I don’t always do this. Sometimes I lose my temper. Often it’s me yelling at other drivers who do (what I think are) crazy things. Sometimes it is me yelling at my son out of frustration. Intellectually, I know this doesn’t do anyone any good.

So what do I do? Well, I’ve certainly done plenty of beating myself up verbally (and not out loud, so you know). But just like with yelling at my son, being angry with myself doesn’t do any good except to feed the guilt monster. I know I’ve been trained to react in certain ways, and not in good ways. What I’ve been slowly attempting to do is some very difficult deprogramming. Before I explode with angry emotion, here are some of the things I try to do:

*Self talk, like “I know he can’t help having a difficult time focusing on this boring lesson,” and such

*Count to 10

*Have a glass of water

*Give myself a time out in my room

*Deep breathing–Breath in to a count of 7, and breath out to a count of 11 while in a comfortable position with my eyes closed. I do this several times until my breathing becomes less shaky, more fluid.

My outbursts have slowly become fewer and farther between as I’ve worked on dealing with frustration. It’s not easy, but I am learning. And when all my good intentions break down and I do have an outburst, I provide a heartfelt apology. I’m very good at saying I’m sorry. I also try to figure out ways of avoiding such situations in the future, often including my son in the conversation once everyone has calmed down.  Conflict is a two-way street, after all.