Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Is it 4:20 yet?

Sin. Degradation. Vice. Insanity. Debauchery! The smoke of hell! A vicious racket with its arms around your children!

Am I talking about Fox News? The Republican Party? Teletubbies? My first apartment? Although, I could be describing any of the above, what I am in the mood for today is a little of the diggidy dank. Colorado has seen a bit of a mini entrepreneurial boom in the midst of this nationwide recession with the decriminalization of marijuana and the opening of dozens of massively profitable herbal dispensaries throughout the state. This economic windfall has stirred up many of the same old questions and fears about pot that have been beaten into the American psyche over the past 70 years. Is it a gateway drug? Will it lead to increased crime? Is it the demon seed of Satan that will morally corrupt our youth? Can it get out grass stains? To be honest and up front I’ve never really bought the party line about Aunt Mary (it should be clear by now that I don’t buy any party lines), and I’ve always been a bit frustrated when I hear people regurgitating fear-based marketing ploys that were created in the 1930’s. Boooriiing… So I thought that I’d dig down deep into the corner of the bag to see if I can smoke out some of the truth about this wacky weed.

Marijuana has been cultivated as a crop for almost 5000 years. It is perhaps the oldest non-food crop known to man. In fact the first woven fabric ever discovered is believed to have been made from hemp. The seeds from the plant are an excellent source of oil and have been consumed as a food source for eons. It was considered one of the five sacred plants in ancient India and was often left as an offering on royal tombs throughout the world. Its use for medicinal purposes dates back thousands of years. When it was brought to the Americas it was deemed so useful that it was required to be grown by early settlers. It was used heavily in the industrial revolution as a source of fiber for textiles and was even turned into plastics and fuel. So why is it that now this seemingly miraculous plant is placed in the same realm of criminality as assault with a deadly weapon? The answer is simple when placed in the context of U.S. history, or, more appropriately, geography.

In the early 1900’s the Southwestern states were still fighting for their identities and were just beginning to emerge from the dusty, trail-riding days of the Wild West. As part of that struggle for identity the indigenous people of the area, namely Mexicans, had to either be assimilated or vilified, much the same as the Indian population throughout the rest of the U.S. was treated. In order to control the public perception of Mexicans stereotypes were created and attacked viciously. They were portrayed and seen as lazy criminals that lay around poisoned by the loco weed which gave them superhuman strength and a voracious appetite for white women. So, as a way of controlling the native population, part of their culture, (smoking marijuana) was first banned and marked with a scarlet letter forever more in the Southwest. California, Texas, and Louisiana all passed fear-based laws in the early 1920’s strictly to control and incarcerate the Mexican population. Soon, state-by-state, similar laws began to spring up. After the Great Depression in the 30’s in order to protect scarce white jobs from brown people shwag was officially criminalized by the federal government. The propaganda war was so well executed that many of the stereotypes surrounding whacky tabacky still linger today, and constantly fall at orthogonal angles to common sense.

Today marijuana laws and the “war” on drugs are truly insane and wholly outrageous. Through the Office of National Drug Control Policy, federal and state governments spend $50 billion per year on this “war”, which is equal to the combined budgets for all of our country's agriculture, energy, and veteran's programs – three times more than is spent on Food Stamps and the Space and Technology budget. Meanwhile, it is estimated that the market for illegal drugs is about $322 billion. Seem a little lopsided to anyone? This war on drugs is more like a war on logic itself. Drug kingpins obviously factor the losses into their costs just like any other business. They could conceivably pay double what the government spends to buy security and develop technology for their illegal operations and still walk away with $222 billion annually. Futile, pointless, and stupid if you ask me.

Current estimates are that over 25% of all of the pot consumed in the U.S. is grown within its borders; the street value of which is anywhere from $10 to $25 billion. How does that relate to the annual harvest of corn, our #1 cash crop? Last year the value of our entire corn harvest was $19 billion. Hmmm… So that makes dope our top cash crop in the U.S. even though only a quarter of our supply is grown here. The DEA estimates that somewhere between 1 and 3 million Americans grow pot…yes, million. Of those around 100,000 to 200,000 are considered “commercial” operations, or around 2000 to 4000 commercial farms per state. All of them illegal and punishable by life in prison without parole.

Seem like our $50 billion is going to good use now? Yeah? How about this then? About 100 million people in the U.S. readily admit that they have used dope more than once. Although statistics for illegal substances tend to vary, there are anywhere from 25 to 60 million current consumers of the chronic. That’s up to one sixth of the total population. Partay! How much money changes hands from this single herb? Let’s say that a joint costs $5. If all of the stoners in the states (40 million) smoke three blunts per week, we’re looking at least $31 billion every year. It could be as much as four times that. Possible tax revenues are nothing to thumb your nose at. I found this excellent article about the economics of legalization written by a Harvard economist that does a much netter job explaining the situation than I can.

If the war on drugs is a complete waste, then the criminal laws surrounding giggle twig offenses border on the diabolical. As I write this there are around 200,000 inmates in federal prisons for marijuana-related offenses, mostly simple possession cases. Add another 30,000 for state pens. Currently ganja is classified as a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance along with GHB, heroine and LSD. These substances are considered to have a high potential for abuse, no accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and no accepted safety for use of the drug even under medical supervision. What the?!? Less-harmful Schedule 2 substances include morphine, cocaine, and PCP. Uhh… I’m sure that makes sense to someone… Since it is a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance crimes involving pot hold hefty fines and punishments, including potential revocation of over 400 federal benefits (student loans, subsidies, business licenses, etc.) that are not denied to convicted murderers, pedophiles and rapists. Possessing the equivalent amount of pot as pack of cigarettes is felony offense in many states, and is definitely a trip to the big house if you take it across state lines because then a local offense becomes federal. Even something as benign as selling bongs in Idaho carries a possible sentence of 9 years without the possibility of parole. Any idea what the average sentence for murder in the United States is? Turn your screen upside down for the answer. It’s about fifteen years. Smell what I’m stepping in yet?

There has never been a recorded instance of someone dying or even overdosing on grass…ever. There is no known lethal dose. 435,000 people per year die from smoking tobacco. 85,000 people die from alcohol related issues, not counting drunk-driving deaths - tack on 17,000 more for those. Want to know something else? 60% of all homicides are attributed to alcohol use. Throw on ~ another 12,000 there. We lose another 32,000 folks to adverse reactions to legal prescription drugs annually. The total number of deaths attributed to illicit drug use comes out to 17,000 per year of which exactly zero are attributed to marijuana use. That’s right, zero. Now, even I find the zero number a little hard to swallow, but I’m not the guy writing toe tags. The DEA itself has concluded: "In strict medical terms marijuana is far safer than many foods we commonly consume. For example, eating 10 raw potatoes can result in a toxic response. By comparison, it is physically impossible to eat enough marijuana to induce death. Marijuana in its natural form is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man. By any measure of rational analysis marijuana can be safely used within the supervised routine of medical care.” Yet it still remains taboo federally.

Fine. It has hundreds of uses, is a great revenue stream, and you can’t die from using it, but won’t it make kids want to start huffing glue and lay on my couch all day listening to Bob Marley? I don’t want my kids living with me forever, you know. It’s a gateway drug, right? The Institute of Medicine's 1999 report on marijuana explained that marijuana has been mistaken for a gateway drug in the past: "Because it is the most widely used illicit drug, marijuana is predictably the first illicit drug most people encounter. Not surprisingly, most users of other illicit drugs have used marijuana. In fact, most drug users begin with alcohol and nicotine before marijuana, usually before they are of legal age." Alcohol and tobacco, which are legal and thousands of times more lethal, are the true gateway drugs. As far as the psychological and physiological effects of smoking or ingesting pretendica goes, study after study shows that the effects of use, even in heavy users (you know who you are), disappear after one stops using MJ on a daily basis. No long-term health effects, it’s non-addictive, and the body can’t build up a tolerance or a dependence. The one true negative side effect comes from smoking it, since inhaling superheated smoke is never a good idea and tar levels in cannabis are higher than in tobacco. Having said that, even my stoner neighbor with his six-foot bamboo steamroller and four-foot bong can’t smoke two ounces of pot every day, which is the equivalent of two packs of cigarettes.

Medical marijuana advocates estimate that the aggregate annual sales tax revenue that's paid by the approximately 400 legal dope dispensaries in California is $100 million. As of right now, Colorado has around 100 doobie dispensaries in operation or planning operation. The largest is in Colorado Springs and serves 1400 patients to the tune of $30,000 monthly sales tax revenue. Many dispensaries get their weed from private growers, many of which have been growing dope illegally for years. Now the illegal operations must become legit and have to claim their sales on their annual income taxes. This will have two major effects. First, obviously income tax revenues will be reaped from what was previously black-market sale. And second, these growers who by default have been selling to illegal dealers will now cater to the legal enterprises, which will mean a decrease in supply for non-dispensary sellers. Finding weed will be harder and harder for the guys that sell out of their apartments as the farmers begin to offer their high-quality harvest preferentially to boutiques. So, either there will be fewer dudes hawking pot or they will be selling ditch weed, which will drive their customers to herbal shops anyway. Win-win.

The stigma that has followed pot around for the past century has been nothing short of amazing. It is one of those propaganda wars that was waged so effectively at the time we now have great difficulty separating truth from fear-based marketing. The vilification of this plant to control minorities is a shame, and I believe this underlying racism in the U.S. is what keeps it illegal today. Untold numbers of cancer patients, college students, chronic pain sufferers, people with autoimmune disorders, vision problems, depression, paralysis, etc. are made de facto criminals or denied treatment for their maladies and billions of dollars are wasted on prosecution of a futile “war” and lost to the black market because some cowboy lost his girlfriend to a Mexican over 100 years ago. Silly and shameful. Do small towns need 20 dispensaries? No. However, as with any new business, we should let the market decide who and how many survive. Should we sell it to kids? No. Should people drive after they do ten b-rips and slug down eight brownies. No. Simple common sense regulations on marijuana usage will be infinitely better for the country than cramming the prisons full of non-violent people that are only there because of mandatory minimum sentencing and ignorance. So I say pass the Dutchie from the left hand side and lay down your swords. It’s time to end this war.

Here are a couple of useful links for more info: Reefer Madness video, Early Propaganda, War on Drugs, and CO marijuana law.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


Somebody is diagnosed with prostate cancer every 8 minutes. Every 18 minutes somebody dies from the disease. This year (2009) there have been 192,280 new cases of prostate cancer in US males alone and 27,360 deaths. It is the second-leading cause of cancer death in the US behind only lung cancer, which killed 88,900 bro’s this year. Everyone is aware of women’s health issues relating to breast cancer, and every-other car that passes has a pink ribbon proudly displayed to confirm the fact that nearly the entire population of the world cares deeply about boobs. However, nobody seems to care about prostate cancer awareness because, frankly, it’s not sexy. Quite the opposite, actually. So this year I decided to join an elite organization of men (and a few hirsute women) who’s only goal is to change the face of men’s health.

Since 2003 the Movember movement has been raising awareness about men's health issues, and the donations that the foundation brings in each year directly help over 22,000 dudes with prostate and testicular cancer through research and development into cures, prevention and education. All the organization asks in return is that members start off the month clean-shaven and grow a moustache for the entire month formerly known as November. The style of your Mo is up to artistic discretion. This seemingly simple task is not without it’s perils, however. In 2006 five men died from complications which all started from ingrown mustache hairs. And I’m sure I can speak for many of my other Mo Bro’s when I say that the backlash from the opposite sex is…substantial. But the cause is just, and The Hippy talked me into it, so you can blame him.

Anyway, I have dutifully rocked the Mo for the entire month.of Movember. I think I’ve probably raised more eyebrows than awareness, but whenever people ask what the Hell is wrong with my face I take it as an opportunity to curse The Hippy and preach the prostate cancer gospel. My manscaping effort is shown in the pic above. It turns out that without trimming the beast for 30 days my Mo will grow ~3/4 inch. That ends up being around .00000231 miles per hour, not exactly a blistering pace, but respectable enough to warrant looks of disdain all month. For your education, the longest mo on record belonged to an Indian gent and was 12.5 feet long in 2004. He hadn’t shaved in 22 years. Ew.

Let’s just say that if I were to let mine grow out for another month I would be looking for other accommodations…It was a fun ride for a worthy cause, and if anyone wants a ride of their own you’ve got one day to speak up.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Gett This

Seven score and six years ago the central mythological figure of American politics gave a speech to 15,000 onlookers at the dedication of a cemetery on the site of the battle that resulted in the largest number of casualties in the entire civil war. The figure was, of course, Abraham Lincoln, and the site was Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. This week marks the 146th anniversary of that speech which has become one of the most-quoted, most-mimicked, and most-influential political addresses in American history, and we’ve had some doozies.

The speech was delivered at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg on the afternoon of Thursday, November 19, 1863, during the American Civil War, four and a half months after the Union armies defeated those of the Confederacy at the Battle of Gettysburg. The Battle of Gettysburg took place from July 1-3 and resulted in around 46,000 to 51,000 casualties in that short time span. At the end of the last day of fighting there the battlefield contained the bodies of more than 7,500 dead soldiers and several thousand horses of the Army of the Potomac and the Confederacy's Army of Northern Virginia. All that carnage strewn about a wheat field in the middle of summer in Pennsylvania had to smell real nice…{wretch}. Gettysburg is often noted as a turning point in the war for many reasons, but I think it is telling that after the loss at Gettysburg Lee's Confederate army conducted no more strategic offensives and merely reacted to the initiative of Ulysses S. Grant for the remaining two years of the war.
SOunds like they had their tails tucked firmly you-know-where.

So, around four months after the battle, when the burial of the American soldiers that were lost was about halfway done (remember there were no backhoes back then…{hork}), a formal dedication ceremony to remember the fallen and consecrate the site was put together. The official program organized for that day included:

Music, by Birgfield's Band

Prayer, by Reverend T.H. Stockton, D.D.

Music, by the Marine Band

Oration, by Hon. Edward Everett

Music, Hymn composed by B.B. French, Esq.

Dedicatory Remarks, by the President of the United States

Dirge, sung by Choir selected for the occasion

Benediction, by Reverend H.L. Baugher, D.D.

The intended main event on the program that day was not the President’s remarks, rather it was the oration given by Edward Everett. Everett's almost 14,000-word speech was two hours long and, although it wasn’t poorly written or received, was greatly overshadowed by Lincoln’s simple address that followed. The political import of his words cannot be understated. Here was a president that was forced into a civil war that he didn’t want, and was constantly fighting against his mishandling of it. American casualties and damages were higher than any war before or since, and he had just instituted a draft. In short, he was on the fast track to sawing logs for a living. back in Illinois. However, the President seized this opportunity to use the battle to galvanize the nation and pull his arse out of the fire. So, after the two hour discourse given by the previous speaker (and the people in the crown had the chance to wake up), the President took the stage and said the following words:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate---we can not consecrate---we can not hallow---this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us---that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion---that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain---that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom---and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

That’s it. In two minutes and roughly ten sentences Abraham Lincoln had captured, penned and delivered one of the most-important speeches in all of American history. It was over so quickly that the photographers didn’t even have time to get set up, so there are no known pictures taken of the speech. The speech was powerful enough to keep him in office, which, as we all know, led to his eventual assassination. At the time, newspapers either panned or praised it depending upon what side of the aisle they were on, but the simplicity and direct nature of this speech have allowed it to live on through almost 150 years and continue to be an example for many speeches and addresses today.

I think all political speeches should be limited to ten sentences, don’t you?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Chew on This

We’ve had a pretty heady month by Daniel P. Daniel standards with our excellent discussion on the origins of human morality (big round of applause to TJ and Bill, everyone), so I thought that it would be nice to take it down a couple of notches and revert back to old form. Get back to the basics so to speak. What’s on the table for this week, you ask? I’m not going to talk about what’s on the table; rather I think a discussion about what’s going on under the table is in order. How’s a frank conversation about blow jobs sound? Good? I thought you might like that. Actually I’m not going to be discussing blow jobs directly. {Boo…Hisss…} Yeah, I know I get you all excited about it then I snatch it out of your hands. If you’re married you’re probably used to it. No, the topic of discussion for this round is something very closely related to hogan smoking. In fact, many of you are slobbering all over it right now. It’s something so pervasive and seemingly miniscule that you don’t really notice it until you start looking, then you realize that it can be found everywhere. It’s one of those things that we somehow manage to ignore even thought it is everywhere, and once you notice it, it drives you nuts. So let’s talk about gum. Yes, chewing gum. Hey, wait a minute…get back here…

Humans have been chewing gum for thousands of years to quench thirst, freshen breath, clean our teeth, annoy teachers and help suppress our ravenous oral fixation. The first known types of gum were made from tree sap. Mmm, tree sap. Then we moved on to wax and chicle, a type of sap from the sapodilla tree of Mexico and Central America. Here’s an interesting tidbit: about 150 years ago chicle was introduced to an American candy maker who then launched us into the modern gum era. Who was this intrepid soul that introduced the Mexican chaw to the Americas? None other than General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Remember the Alamo! {POP!} Nowadays modern gums
are made from industrial plastic resins or rubber so they last longer without breaking down in the harsh environment of the human mouth.

The desire for the everlasting piece of gum has led us into the era of the super gum that never breaks down because it is made from synthetic chemicals. Now we can chew and chew and chew until eventually we suck all of the flavor out of the gum, but the gum base will essentially remain unchanged forever. I think we all knew that weird ass girl in high school who chewed the same piece of gum for nine months, right? She probably still has it in her curio cabinet next to her collection of toenail clippings. Even our digestive system can’t break the gum base down. Seriously, this guy can eat a Cessna 150, and we can’t digest a single stick of Double Mint? This brings me to the point of the old wives’ tale about a swallowed piece of gum sticking around in your guts for seven years. It’s just not true. To prove it, here’s a little experiment for you to try out at home, or the office depending upon how weird you actually are. It’s simple: just slug down a huge wad of Big League Chew mixed up with some corn and sift through your deposits until you find the undigested gum. The corn will act as an indicator as to when you should start looking. Once you find it, give it a good rinse and pop it back in your mouth. Be sure to report your findings back to me (so I can capture your I.P. address and ban your sick ass from the site). Not that curious now, are you? In fairness to all of the old wives out there I did manage to find one case on the books of a four-year old that swallowed 5-7 pieces of gum every day since he grew teeth until he had a "'taffy-like' trail of fecal material" leaking from his nether regions which eventually had to be suctioned out of his rectum. {Hork…} Nice parental guidance on that one, guys.

Who cares if you can’t digest gum, anyway? It stands to reason that since we cannot break the gum base down in the acid-filled, bubbling Hell that is our digestive system then the natural environment has no chance. Modern gums are not biodegradable. Take a look down next time you are outside. All of the little black splotches covering the sidewalk are the remnants of someone’s once intimate relationship with a piece of flavored rubber. They are everywhere. If you’re feeling adventuresome run your hand under the table at a restaurant, park bench, or your seat on the bus and hope that you only find the dried up old stalactites of Hubba Bubba not a warm hunk that some hobo just finished slobbering on. Next to cigarette butts chewing gum is the second largest littering item in the world, and we’ve already gone over the cigarette butt filth here. This discarded gum is the bane of city managers and maintenance personnel worldwide. Specialists must be called in to steam, blast, etch or scrape that gooey mess off of pathways, sidewalks, buildings, landmarks, etc. at a huge cost to taxpayers. Because of this, chewing gum is the one thing that we eat that actually increases in value after we are done with it.

To illustrate that fact, let’s say that a pack of gum costs $1.50. With 15 pieces of gum per pack, each piece costs around $0.10 before it is chewed. After it is chewed and strategically placed in the ear of the bust of Ronald Reagan downtown, each piece costs about $1.50 to clean up. That’s a 15 times increase in value, making the cost to clean up one pack of gum somewhere in the vicinity of $22.50. The costs of cleaning up seemingly innocuous wads of chewing gum is so high, in fact, that the country of Singapore until recently had a ban on all recreational gum sales.

How do these costs add up across the U.S. and worldwide? According to the National Confectioners Association gum sales in 2008 reached retail sales of $2.7 billion which translates into 0.4 billion pounds of gum. Taking some quick measurements from the pack of gum sitting next to me here, that translates into around 1.31 lbs. of gum purchased for every U.S. citizen from 0 to 120 years old. That’s something on the order of 314 pieces per resident per year. If you factor out the people that don’t have teeth that brings us close to one piece per day for the folks in the U.S. alone. If even 1/8 of all of that slobbery plastic has to be cleaned up professionally, the costs of cleanup nearly equal the retail sales numbers. Obviously there are economies of scale to be factored into the cleanup, but I think you get an idea of how high the costs are.

Worldwide, the chewing gum industry in 2006 was estimated to be worth $19 billion in retail sales which translates into 1.3 million metric tons of gum. Based on the numbers taken from my pack (which may or may not be representative), that turns out to be at least 100 billion sticks of gum sold per year. That amount of gum smeared 1/16” think would cover 300 square miles. If you were to stack the sticks of gum up they would reach to the moon and back 3 times. Volumetrically speaking, this would be singe cube of gum that is over 350 feet per side, covered in gravel, hair and ants of course. How many gallons of human saliva does it take to chew a piece that big? {Shudder} You’re on your own for that one.

With that much gum and spit flying around it’s easy to see how the cleanup costs are out of line with the value of the product itself. So what can be done about it? Some officials propose that a cleanup tax should be added to each pack of gum at the point of purchase. The taxes collected would be used to offset costs incurred scraping ant-ridden messes from the stairs at the ballpark. Some major gum manufacturers spend millions of dollars every year trying to come up biodegradable gum that doesn’t stick to everything. They spend millions more in outreach programs encouraging people to chuck their spent gum in the trash. But I say these solutions don’t address the real issue which is the obvious oral fixation that humans have due to societal suppression of our sexual instincts. So, again, a simple, more beneficial solution is overlooked by gum manufacturers and the government: we need to be handing out more blow jobs. This is a win-win solution across the board. It will satisfy our genetically ingrained oral fixation. It will decrease the environmental costs of the manufacture and disposal of a non-biodegradable product. It will promote social interaction and well-being. It will give us an outlet to our frustrations and decrease stress levels which will in turn decrease health care costs. It’s a great form of exercise. It’s also good for team-building and fostering a good work ethic (they are called blow “jobs” after all). So I say instead of reaching for that stick of gum at the end of the day, slobber on a pole or some chuff instead.

Please join me in the “Blow Jobs for the Environment Campaign” and make all checks and charitable donations payable to Daniel P. Daniel.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Source of Morality: Part IV

This is the final essay on the discourse about the origins of morality as originally posted on TJ's blog.

Dan's Reply:

First of all I want to say, “Thank you,” for posing the question and sharing your views. It’s not very often that you find honesty and truth on the internet. Except maybe on YouTube…it’s usually a sad, sad version of truth, but you get what you pay for. It is easy in discussions such as this to break down into personal attacks and arguments to gain emotional ground with the audience. I’m glad to see that you guys are able to keep it on a level that is educated and informative. I’m also glad to see that such foul language as “moral relativism, anti-realism, emotivism, absolutism, and divine command theory” haven’t been thrown into the mix yet. Not only is jargon like that elitist, it is boring as well. If you’ll permit, I’d like to hijack your thread momentarily. Hopefully my comments will serve to further this interesting discussion.

In the interest of full disclosure, I suppose that I can be considered an agnostic regarding my religious point-of-view (which TJ aptly calls “Atheist Lite”). I tend to look at the issue of morality from a humanist/scientific point-of-view. So, to me, statements such as “The bible teaches…” immediately make me think, “The bible is an inanimate object and cannot teach anything. It must be read (not to mention written) and interpreted by people who (presumably) have moral values of their own.” So, in discussions about morality, I believe that although the beliefs of the people that wrote the bible have merit they must have gained those beliefs before writing the tome. It’s a bit of a cart-before-the-horse argument in my mind.

I can’t engage in a discussion about the origins of morality without first stating what I believe morality is. So, what exactly is “morality”? In my mind morality refers to the concept of human ethics, which pertains to matters of right and wrong -- also referred to as good and evil. The are miles of people lined up in front of me who have had way more time on their hands to devote to the study of morality. Marx, Nietzsche, Jung, Plato, Bill & Ted (be excellent to everyone) are just a few of those hopeless layabouts. The way I see it the ideas of what actions are good and what actions are evil are hopelessly entangled in the nature versus nurture argument.

It seems to me that we cannot separate the moral compass instilled upon us by society and the biological traits that we have accumulated over time (or the traits that were stuffed into us when we were created out of a pile of dirt, depending on your belief set). If I were a feral human that managed to survive in the wilderness from infancy without any human or pack-animal contact would I believe that tax evasion, cutting in line, or watching Jerry Springer while I’m at work was morally wrong? For that matter would I even have morals? Some people might ask if I have them now, but that’s another story entirely. Societal influence on morality is undoubtedly heavily weighted. The idea of what is right and what is wrong can only be argued from the perspective of the cultural and geographical location of any individual at any specific point in time. It’s easy to say that human sacrifice, infanticide, spousal abuse, racism, mass marketing, and women’s basketball are morally wrong from the our perspective at this point in time and this spot on the globe. However, we cannot impose our personal mores onto societies in other places and times. Is it wrong for me to slap my wife? The answer is obviously yes. Or it’s mostly yes. Well, it depends on my mood, really, but that’s getting a bit off track. Would it be wrong to deny her the right to vote, show her face in public, and walk beside me on the street? Again, it depends on my mood. Only joking of course, but you can see where I’m going with this. I look at my son, who is a toddler at the moment, as about a half-clean slate in regards to societal mores. His beliefs about what is right or wrong (although they will follow a distinct pattern of development) will be created in situ. At any rate it will be interesting to see how my son’s ideas will be influenced since the world is getting smaller and foreign traditions and values are immediately available to him through the media and worldwide connectivity. His generation will undoubtedly be screwed up, especially since they have us as parents.

Just like my son, we all follow certain stages of moral development in our lives. Kohlberg tests this with his Heinz dilemma. The Heinz dilemma is stated as follows:

A woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a pharmacist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the pharmacist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to produce. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman's husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $ 1,000, which is half of what it cost. He told the pharmacist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the pharmacist said, "No, I discovered the drug and I'm going to make money from it." So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man's store to steal the drug for his wife. Should Heinz have broken into the laboratory to steal the drug for his wife? Why or why not?

I first heard about the Heinz dilemma from an eighth-grade girl who’s science experiment I was judging…precocious bitch. It turns out that there are six categories of moral development that answers will fall into. I don’t want to get too deep into that (unless invited), but I’m curious what you guys think of this.

Since we’re on the subject of progeny it seems like a good point to look the genetic origins of morality or the nature side of this conundrum. Simply-stated - humans are animals. We have the same zoological traits and biological drives as any other animal in the world: procreation, self-preservation, fashion, and hunger. We are top predators, and, as such, we are lethal adversaries and have the potential to cause great physical harm, even death, to ourselves and to each other. It would not do to have us (or any other top predator) going around maiming and killing one another as adults. It can be said that sometimes in nature infanticide (lions killing the young or the above-mentioned Suruwahá Indians) occurs, but this is usually for lack of resources or preservation of a specific line of genes. Also, often, young animals kill one another in the battle for resources (birds eject their siblings from the nest). However, it is rare that adults kill one another, with the exception of humans, dolphins (of all creatures), and animals in captivity. In skirmishes over territory, mates, the TV remote or food large predators rarely kill one another, especially in socialized animals such as wolves, lions, primates, etc. It wouldn’t make sense to remove a healthy adult that can aid in protecting, hunting, gathering, tending to the young, etc., especially since so many resources have been spent on growing that individual into an adult. So a paradox occurs in dangerous animals. We have the tools to trap, kill and consume our prey, but we have a strong genetic aversion to expending the energy to kill one another. We socialized animals must necessarily have aversions to theft, deceit, and murder; since without these aversions we would not get very far, raping and murdering each other constantly and continually living in fear of being raped and murdered. Since humans are so potentially dangerous we have even extended our vulnerability by remaining nude (hairless) throughout or lives. It is an outward symbol that we need each other to survive. I guess to sum up I believe that the origins of morality along with the definition of what is right or wrong are rooted not only in our environment and upbringing, but at the same time they are bolstered by an innate genetic component.

This line of thinking is very close to the Anthropic Principle of physics. We observe the universe that way that it is because we exist. Meaning that everything in the universe has to be how it is in order for us to exist in it. A little one way or another and POOF no Judge Judy on weekdays, no Laffy Taffy, and no morality.

Although I am an agnostic let me just throw it out there that I understand that religion has formative aspects when speaking about morality. It is unavoidable for something that is as ingrained into society to as religion to have huge influence on daily life and human interaction. However, when it comes to morality I believe that religion and religious beliefs are factors in what can be termed cultural evolution and are not (or are probably not) innate. I will get back to that in a moment.

While we are on the topic of religion, I want to take a brief look at the Ten Commandments since they have come up several times in the discussion. On inspection, it seems that they essentially fall into two categories. I’ll call them religious commandments and non-religious commandments. The first four commandments are the religious commandments (no other gods, no idolatry, don’t take the lords name in vain, and rest on the Sabbath). The last six can be considered essentially non-religious (honor mom and pop, don’t kill, steal, cheat, lie or covet). It seems like the first group of laws are there to present an authority figure and compete for ground with other religions – essentially marketing and indoctrination. They basically say, “I’m the Man, and if you don’t follow My rules I’ll put a pox on your family for four generations. Oh, by the way, you get Sundays off.” It’s interesting that these are the first of the commandments. I would think that killing and stealing would top the list, but I’m not big on authority figures. The last six of the commandments are what I would consider the meat of the list. These are the behaviors that affect our lives and interactions. I believe that these items are statements of boundaries that are deeply ingrained into any social animal’s psyche. Don’t kill, steal, cheat, lie, or covet because it will upset the delicate balance that we have worked so hard for over the last 1000 generations just as I discussed above. And honor Mom and Pop because you need them to watch the kids on date night.

Bill, you said that you have a hard time with believing that science can explain why we have this strong feeling of what we ought to do. Evolutionarily speaking human emotions (or, more generally if you like, the human brain) came about more easily than the adaptations that are required for walking upright, but they are no less necessary for human societies to function properly than having erect posture. So why do we have these feelings? My belief is that they are tied to what is called “altruism.”

Biological altruism is a bit of a strange beast. It can be seen in many animals besides humans. Prairie dogs, woodpeckers, primates, and bees as well as many, many others will call an alarm in the presence of a predator. Why would an animal put itself in harm’s way for the benefit of another, especially one that is not related? This is just one of a multitude of ways that species act to benefit a social group. It turns out that altruists who sacrifice themselves for the benefit of those with shared traits may have low selective value as individuals (check out, but a population bearing such altruistic individuals will have higher reproductive values than one without them. This is essentially what TJ is getting at with the “hut-thatcher analogy” earlier. Conversely, social parasites that increase their frequency at the expense of others in a population may have high individual selective value, but they will depress the reproductive fitness of the population as a whole. Stated another way, natural selection will increase altruistic genes if individuals that benefit from the unselfish acts are themselves also carrying those genes for altruism.

I often hear natural selection described as the survival of the fittest: however, this implies and in my mind would better be called the destruction of the weak. If nature itself progresses through the destruction of the weak, then societies and social animals progress through the protection of the weak (altruism). These emotions and feelings that we are talking about are set in us in the same way that opposeable thumbs and our circulatory system are – they help us survive.

Now, back to cultural evolution for a bit. The information humans gather from ancestors and contemporaries can be purposefully changed to provide improved utility for themselves, their offspring, and others. The speed with which these purposeful modifications take place and the consequent speed of cultural change are limited primarily by human inventiveness. A cultural or technological improvement can now be proposed in one part of the world and implemented in another part almost immediately. Genetic evolution on the other hand is slow since it must await fortuitous accidental genetic changes in DNA before it can proceed, and each change may take a considerable number of generations before it can be incorporated into the population. It seems obvious that many profound social and cultural changes, such as those involved in the transition from slavery to feudalism, or from feudalism to capitalism, or from low tech to hi tech, are far too rapid to be caused by genetic changes. This disparity in speed between cultural and biological evolution indicates that they evolve on separate methodological tracks, yet the biological equipment needed to transmit and utilize cultural information (memory, perception, language, etc.) still connects them both.

It is clear that, since they can be consciously selected, social goals can be directed towards almost any objective that humans choose for themselves, such as wealth, poverty, chastity, obedience, revolution, and so on. So when we talk about the origins of morality it seems, to me at least, that our biology sets the framework, and we use our intellect make conscious decisions that affect the direction of societal beliefs. I guess that’s the crux of what I believe about morality summed up in one sentence. Could have saved us all a lot of time if I just said that in the beginning…

Thanks again for letting me join in. I hope I’ve shed a little light on the subject anyway.
Anyway, thanks for the interesting, informative and frank discussion, and thanks for letting me chime in. I appreciate the generosity of letting me repost the conversation here, as well. I hope that my comments will spur more thought not just hate mail. Anyone else care to have their voice heard on this topic?

The Source of Morality: Part III

Here is the third edition to our saga on the origins of morality. Enjoy.

Bill’s Reply: In the first part of your reply you asked the (not so simple) question “Is it wrong to kill?” This is indeed a difficult question because the word “kill” has so many uses in English language. So, you are correct when you say the definition is not so easy to come by. But let me ask this question instead, “Is it wrong to murder?” This question is less complex in that the overwhelming majority of people would say yes. In the same way it would be wrong to practice animal cruelty as well (i.e., killing or maiming for no reason). Is it wrong to kill someone or something in self defense? I would say not. Is it wrong to kill an animal for the purpose of survival?

Most people would say that the Inuit woman you mentioned would not be violating any moral code of ethics because she was acting on the instinct of motherly love. The point I’m trying to make here is that there is a difference between morals and instincts. Murdering and animal cruelty have no instinctual basis where as things such as killing in self defense or killing for food are quite rooted in it. As far as “right and wrong as it applies to humans”, I would say that it ONLY applies to humans. There has never been a case that I have seen or heard of where an animal demonstrated moral ethics. The actions of an animal are based purely on instinct while human actions are based on instinct as well as moral principles.

In your reply you made the statement that: “Everyone learned that they had their own part to play. Every person was important to the survival of the whole after a while, because everyone started to develop their own skills.” Well, what about the people who didn’t learn a skill that was beneficial to the tribe? What about the elderly people in the tribe who couldn’t contribute, or the maimed, or the mentally inferior? Preserving the lives of these individuals causes a drain on the resources of society and in no way enhances the survivability of the human race. Were these people simply killed in the name of social advancement? If it happened before recorded history we surely would not know it. There is no evidence to support such a premise. All I’m trying to do is look at the evidence as it presents itself. The evidence at hand would seem to suggest that there are things like compassion and kindness that often times tell us we ought to love and help these people, whether we want to or not. I don’t believe that it has anything to do with self preservation or the idea that we can’t live alone.

It seems to me that “what’s good for the tribe” or “social evolution” is unable to adequately justify giving “kindness” priority over personal well being. Or look at it another way; in our daily lives, cheating would often be more beneficial than truthfulness. On those occasions when we know we won't be caught, do we really refrain from cheating because we know, in the long run, society will be a better place because of our decision? The person who does this is an unusual person to say the least.

OK. I think we both agree that Moral Law exists. The question now seems to be: is Moral Law a social behavior we have learned and developed through necessity, or is it something altogether different – a real concrete truth that has always existed? Some of the things we have learned are mere conventions which might have been different. For example, we learn to drive on the right side of the road, but it might just as well have been the rule to drive on the left. Other things, like mathematics, are real truths that we have been taught but did not make up. Mathematics is what it is and we could not have made it different if we liked. So, which class does Moral Law belong to? I believe it belongs to the same class as mathematics. One of the reasons I believe this is because, as I said before, even though there are differences between the moral ideas of one culture and another (one time and another), the differences are not really that great. Not nearly as great as most people imagine.

You can recognize the same theme running through them all. On the other hand, mere conventions, like the rules of the road or the clothes people wear, may differ to any extent. Another reason is this. When you think about these differences between the morality of one culture and another, do you think that the morality of one culture is ever better or truer than that of another? If no set of moral ideas were better or truer than another, there would be no sense in preferring civilized morality to savage morality and there would be no moral progress. Progress doesn’t just mean to change; it means to change for the better. In fact, we all do believe that some moralities are better than others. Well, ok then. The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. But the standard that measures two things is altogether different than either. You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality. You are admitting that there is such a thing as a Real Right, independent of what people think, and that some people’s ideas get nearer to that Real Right than others. Think of it this way; if your moral ideas can be better or truer then those of the ancient Romans, then there must be something – some Real Morality – for them to be true about. To put it another way; the reason your idea of the United States can be more or less true then mine is because the United States is a real place. The USA exists, apart from what either of us thinks. In the same way - our perceptions of morality may differ, but it is a real thing none the less.

One quick note about the Roman civilization. You mentioned that many of the privileged people felt little or no guilt about doing whatever they wanted to whomever they wanted. I agree with you that many people in that civilization did terrible things to one another. But the moral theme is still intact here. That moral theme is you can’t just do anything to anybody or be selfish in any circumstance you please. Although the Roman culture and others like them were corrupt, they still had the moral basics. To illustrate my point all we need to do is think of what a totally different morality would mean. Think of a culture where we were admired for cheating or running away in battle, or where people were proud of a man for double crossing all of his friends and family. We might as well try to imagine a culture where two plus two equals five.

At this point I would like to address the part of your reply in which you said that some Christians have approached you in the past, saying that you can’t be a law-abiding, decent person without the fear of going to Hell. Tim, my first response to this is “I’m sorry!” I’m sorry that you have been told this and that it made you angry. As a Christian myself, please accept my apologies for those who have approached you, or anybody else, with hatred or a self serving agenda. Secondly, I want to point out to you that this is not what the bible teaches. It would seem to me that the people who said these things to you have not researched the matter. If I heard fellow Christians saying these things, I would refer them to this verse in the bible:

“Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.” (Romans 2:14-15) Here, the apostle Paul is making reference to the fact that even though the Gentiles (non-Jews) didn’t have the laws of Moses to guide them, they still had laws written on their hearts. They had an internal guide so to speak. And this internal guide, I believe, is the Moral Law.

Toward the end of your reply you talked a good bit about the bible and Christianity. You said things like “The bible says this” and “Christians believe that”, and that the bible is read by many rather selectively. I agree with you that many people read only the bits of the bible that appeal to them and leave out the rest. That is why we don’t get much further: and that is why people who are fighting for different things can both say they are fighting for Christianity. So, I would say this – don’t judge the bible by what Christians do because people make mistakes, some big and some even bigger. Rather, judge the bible by what it says to do. Look at what the bible says and the context in which it says it. If you do this you will find the bible very solid. As far as critics are concerned, the bible is like an anvil that has worn out many hammers. It has taken a pounding and stood the test of time.

In regards to morality and the bible, the thing to understand is that the bible does not profess to teach any brand new morality. The Golden Rule of “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” is a summing up of what everyone, at bottom, has always known to be right. Really great moral teachers never do introduce new moralities – it’s quacks and crazy people who do that. In other words, people need to be reminded more than they need to be instructed. The real job of moral teaching is to keep bringing us back, time after time, to the old simple principles that we know to be right. You said it yourself when you said “I am a good person because it’s the right thing to do”. Well, why is it the right thing to do? There is something more than instinct at work here. Or at least it seems that way to me.

Now, for some final thoughts: As far as “what Christians believe” and the doctrine of Christian theology are concerned, I have not yet gotten within a hundred miles of that. All I have gotten to so far is that there seems to be a Power behind Moral Law and it is inside each of us, urging us to do the right thing and making us feel responsible and uncomfortable when we do wrong. At this point I don’t want to go completely into Christian beliefs. That is another subject altogether and I really hope we cover it and the Atheistic viewpoint in our up coming discussions. But for now I will say this: In the end, Christianity is quite comforting but it does not begin there. If there is a Power behind the Moral Law then, as far as I know, Christianity is the only thing that offers us any kind of explanation about it. It explains how the demands of Moral Law, which we all seem unable to meet, have been met on our behalf. Christianity does not really begin to make sense until we realize that there is a Moral Law and that we have broken it and put ourselves at odds with the Power behind it.

Tim’s Reply: You bring up some good points and, of course, there is a difference between murder and killing. There is a difference between self-defense and cruelty; there is a difference between sport and survival. I was pointing out with this example the nature of absolutes. The bees were another example. For most there is an enormous gray area, as there should be, and to make a commandment like “Thou Shalt Not Kill” is something that is all at once so absolute yet still so vague, it is absolutely impossible for ANY creature to follow.

I deliberately left my question open-ended like that when I asked: “is it wrong to kill?” because this is the one of the biggest moral issues that affects the Human species. This is one of the biggest issues in court, in religion, in the heart, in society. I didn’t bring up animal cruelty or maiming, nor did I bring up murder, since those were outside of the scope of the absolute. I don’t know anyone who would say that murder is OK (unless it’s related to war, in which case it’s justified differently – different conversation), nor do I know anyone who would torture another creature for his or her own pleasure. These people are called sociopaths in our culture.

I completely I agree with you that killing for survival or self-defense is not necessarily wrong, but even this has an enormous case-by-case gray area. Anyway, let’s call that horse dead and move on, shall we?

To your next point: “Well, what about the people who didn’t learn a skill that was beneficial to the tribe? What about the elderly people in the tribe who couldn’t contribute, or the maimed, or the mentally inferior? Preserving the lives of these individuals causes a drain on the resources of society and in no way enhances the survivability of the human race. Were these people simply killed in the name of social advancement?” In some cases, yes. The Suruwahá Indians in the Amazon Basin of Brazil kill infants that have birth defects, if they are of multiple births, or even if they are of an undesired gender. The cursed babies are said to have no souls and are put to death. This tribe doesn’t preserve the lives of those that would be a drain on the tribe, they kill the infants; it’s part of their culture. It still goes on today with this particular tribe, although many in the tribe feel that it’s wrong. But it’s happening, right now, and there is evidence to support such a premise. “OK. I think we both agree that Moral Law exists.” Well, I agree that morality exists, but I’m not really comfortable calling it Moral Law. I know it might just be semantics, but this definition seems just a bit too…I don’t know…formal for me.

Moving on: “The question now seems to be: is Moral Law a social behavior we have learned and developed through necessity, or is it something altogether different – a real concrete truth that has always existed?” Does it have to be one or the other? Setting it up like this seems to imply that it is either social or divine. What if it’s neither? What if it’s an artifact of nature or some genetic construct that prevents or causes changes in human behavior? What if it’s part of Earth’s gaiaology? Now I’ve never really given much credence to the Gaia Hypothesis, but saying for the sake of argument that it exists, could morality be a physical manifestation of that gaiaology forcing us to act out kindness or cruelty for the sake of the planet’s overall health? Something to ponder.
“The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. But the standard that measures two things is altogether different than either. You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality.” The moment that you say one set of morals are better than another, you are generally guilty of ethnocentrism, which is a cultural bias that pretty much everyone on the planet is, has been, or will be guilty of. I’m not sure that I could ever presume to know what Real Morality is, because my definition of it would be my definition, just as yours would be yours. I can’t really say that I know what Real Morality is. Who the hell am I? I’m just some schlub who has a couple of brain cells he can rub together and hope for a synapse. Measuring them both by a standard even is far too presumptuous, in my opinion, because there is no standard. Just because I think something is right or good or just, doesn’t mean that it is.
Let’s say for instance I see someone being mistreated. Not really beaten but maybe just shaken around a bit or yelled at. My first thought, my first visceral instinct might be a strong desire to get in the person’s face and say “Hey asshole, what’s your problem? Why do you have to treat this person that way? How do you like it?” Then start throwing down. Would this be the right thing to do?

You compared morality to mathematics, Bill, but I know how to figure out the area of a square. What’s the area of a theft?

“You are admitting that there is such a thing as a Real Right, independent of what people think, and that some people’s ideas get nearer to that Real Right than others.” Well yes and no. What I said was I believe in morality and we should be good to each other because it’s the right thing to do. “Think of it this way; if your moral ideas can be better or truer then those of the ancient Romans, then there must be something – some Real Morality – for them to be true about. In the same way - our perceptions of morality may differ, but it is a real thing none the less.” I see what you’re saying here, Bill, I do, but what I can’t agree with is that my moral sense is somehow inherently better than the Romans was just because it’s different. Different doesn’t make it better just because it’s different. That’s the kind of thinking that keeps people divided. I know that’s not what you’re trying to say – probably wasn’t even a subconscious mental implication – but I think a lot of people take the moral high ground when they look at the world. Who can say that anyone’s moral ideas are ‘better’ or ‘truer’ than theirs were? I guess I’m just having a hard time with the Real Morality being concretized; I’m just not ready to do that. I only know what’s right and wrong to me, and what my own moral ‘code’ is. I can’t really throw it up and judge anyone else’s against mine; I’m not nearly so venerable as all that.

I appreciate your apology for the wackos that have thrown hellfire and damnation in my face, Bill, but you don’t have to. You’re not responsible for their insecurity in their own faith and moral fiber. I could just as easily apologize for all of the people that have said mean things to you as a religious person, but zeal works in both directions.

I think fear and intolerance are just part of the human condition, unfortunately. Some people try so very hard to be nothing more than what they already are. Some, on the other hand, try to be a little bit more.

Thanks for bringing up the golden rule. I think it’s one of the best things that’s ever been invented by the thinking, moral mankind, and it’s shown up in nearly the same form in every religion or philosophy that we have a record of (Wait – did I just make your case?) the oldest of which (that I could find) from 3200 BC was from the Hindu Hitopadesa who said "One should always treat others as they themselves wish to be treated." Apparently this guy was a fountain of morality and was quoted all of the time.

Bill’s Reply:

Some final thoughts: As far as the bible and it’s teaching of “Thou shalt not kill” is concerned, the word used for ‘kill’ in this instance is the Hebrew word ratsach which nearly always refers to intentional killing without a cause, or murder as we call it. The Hebrew language has many different words for ‘kill’. Some of the Hebrew words refer to accidental killing (nakah) and the killing of animals for food or sacrifice (shâchat). So, when the bible says Thou shalt not kill, it is saying you should not murder. It is not talking about accidentally taking a life or killing an animal for food.

The Suruwahá Indians that you mentioned are an interesting case. You said that the babies in this culture are killed because they have deformities or because they are of the wrong gender. You said “The cursed babies are said to have no souls and are put to death.” I think there is a misunderstanding here about the difference between morality and a belief of what some people think are the facts. Let me explain: A few hundred years ago people in England were putting witches to death. Now, the reason we don’t execute people who claim to be witches today is because we don’t believe in such things. If we did – if we really thought that people had sold their souls to the devil and in return received supernatural powers and were using these powers to kill, then surely most people would agree that if anybody deserved the death penalty, it would be these individuals. There is no difference in moral principle here. The difference is simply about what is believed to be the facts. The people in old England believed that witches were real. Today, we don’t believe it. It may be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches but there is no moral advance in not executing them when we don’t believe they actually exist. In the same way, if the Suruwahá Indians execute babies because they believe they are cursed, it would not be a moral advancement if they stopped doing it because they learned that these babies were not cursed. It would be an advance in knowledge but not an advance in morality.

As far as “ethnocentrism” is concerned, I agree that we have a tendency to look at the world primarily from the perspective of our own culture. And when we look closely we see moral differences that don’t sit well with us. But it seems to me that the moral theme of “Do as you would be done by” runs through all cultures, or at least to some degree it does. What we don’t see is “Do anything you want to do”.

You said “but what I can’t agree with is that my moral sense is somehow inherently better than the Romans was just because it’s different”. Well Tim, if your moral code gets closer to the theme of “Do unto others”, then I believe it is better then the Romans’ code.

Finally, in my opinion, there seems to be something above and beyond the ordinary facts of human behavior and it is quite real. It is a real law that none of us made but which we find pressing on us. And somehow we have the notion that we ought to obey it. Man ought to be unselfish and ought to be fair because, in the end, that is what moral law is all about.

Ooh, this is excellent, guys.

The Source of Morality: Part II

Here is the second part to our continuing discussion of the origins of human morality.

Tim’s Reply:

Well Bill, it’s true that the source of morality is a sticky (but interesting) situation to discuss. As you wrote, it has to do with the concepts of right and wrong. Sometimes this is a very broad, very ambiguous concept, and sometimes it is very specific and absolute. Or at least, it is used so for the sake of argument or persuasion.

I ask a simple (not so simple) question: who defines what is right and what is wrong? Is it wrong to kill? Some would say yes without any clarification to the statement. Let me then ask again: Is it wrong to kill a wolf so that an Inuit woman can have a fur to keep her baby warm? It’s a different question now, isn’t it? Who determined that it was right for ancient humans to kill animals so that they could skin them and thereby ensure their own survival? The definition is not so easy to come by. I would say that right and wrong AS IT APPLIES TO HUMANS* is something that has evolved with us as we have learned what is best for our own survival as a species. You mentioned above that “Some people believe that all of the laws and codes of conduct are a mere product of thousands of years of social evolution and it is passed down by education for the benefit of all. They believe that it’s just a human invention.”

I think that this is close to the mark, but not so much that it’s an invention. As humans were evolving and learned to live in groups, extended families, tribes, etc. Everyone learned that they had their own part to play. Every person was important to the survival of the whole after a while, because everyone started to develop their own skills. They learned how to skin animals, how to treat leather, how to treat wounds, make weapons, make bread, fire, store food, communicate, cultivate crops, build homes, etc. Eventually even make things out of metal. But not everyone knew how to do everything else.

At this point, there was really no reason for one tribesman to kill another within the tribe, and I think this was understood because if one of them were killed, say the guy who knew how to thatch the huts, that’s something that could threaten the survival of all of them. Now I’m sure there were neighboring tribes who knew this too, and would try to kill the more important members of the tribe or whatever.

The point is, in a small community, when one person is removed, it affects everyone, and I don’t think that’s something that ever really went away from us. I think it predates any religion, because I think it predates any form of language. It’s a simple matter of survival. We cannot survive alone. Yes there were squabbles, yes this guy wanted that girl, etc, and this is also where the biologics came in; where the alpha males established the pecking order and the stronger genes flourished. Don’t think I was going to argue this sociologically only. It’s just that since morality is more of an esoteric topic, it lends itself to more of a behavioral rather than genetic discussion for the most part. I’m not saying that there isn’t a genetic motivator; I’m just not going to discuss it right now. End of disclaimer.

I think there is something to the herd behavior that would be relevant to mention at this point also when it came to the moral upbringing of the tribe. When everyone was doing their part; when everyone was contributing, when there was a healthy growth of the population, children learned by following the examples of their elders and the other villagers. Furthermore, since they were ostensibly raised by the village, there were not the egregious mistakes and prejudices that are passed down from generation to generation like we see today.

(* I say as it applies to humans because we have a double standard when it comes to morals and ethics. We always have, we always will, it’s just an accepted part of the Human condition. We’re more important than anything else on the planet. Don’t believe me? Here’s an example: It’s OK for us to go fishing, catch a shark and kill it. If a shark attacks a swimmer at a beach though, we will hunt it down and kill it. Fact.)

With civilization came a breakdown of morality from the “natural” morality that existed previously. I have to disagree with you that older civilizations had the same moralities that we share today. The Roman rulers believed that they had the gods on their sides. Hell, many believed that they were gods, and did not, at least overtly, feel any guilt at doing whatever they wanted to whomever they wanted, whenever they wanted. Some cared about their country and people, it’s true, but they were the divine and the noble, and through the luck of birthright, were privileged not poor. The poor have been lesser creatures since the advent of civilization. Now to your point earlier about selfishness, I’ll agree that there were some in these societies, (read here as the poor and a very, very small number of politicians) who were selfless in nature and cared more for others than for themselves. The rest believed that the world was made to serve and entertain them, be conquered, and by being conquered, serve and entertain their needs. Who would throw someone in an arena with lions today? We have boxing, not Gladiators.

I think it was probably little different in Egypt where the Jews were kept as slaves and worked building temples to other gods, don’t you think? I know you remember all of those stories about Moses. This does not demonstrate to me an abiding moral fiber, even in the deeply religious society that Egypt was.

For the remainder of my reply, I’m going to stick with what I consider the main ‘heavy hitting’ moral issues. I noticed you mentioned fairness, cutting in line, etc, and I don’t want to you to think that I’m ignoring that. I’m not really going to talk about these because I don’t believe that consideration and morality are on the same level. Assholes are assholes. They are as ubiquitous as biting insects and often just as hard to ignore, but being considerate or inconsiderate can wax or wane with a person’s mood. Whereas I don’t believe that a moral person will suddenly become amoral or vice versa. Ebenezer Scrooge being the exception, of course.

I’m going to shift my topic a bit because one of the most important arguments I’ve heard for morality is that it comes from the bible. Now Bill, I’m not saying that this is your argument, it’s just the one that I’ve heard the most. Many Christians who believe that morality comes from the bible, believe roughly that if they are not good people, if they do not follow the ways of the Lord, go to church on Sunday, confess, tithe, go on missions, or do whatever their particular sect of Christianity is supposed to do, that they will go to Hell and burn there for all eternity with Satan and his demons poking them with pitchforks.

Now these same people approach me, an atheist, and absolutely refuse to believe that I can be a good person without the fear of Hell hanging over me. They believe that there is nothing to keep me from flat out raping, pillaging, murder, and lawlessness because I have no fear of Hell. My first aghast response is: Are you fucking serious? My second is: The only thing that keeps YOU a good person is living in fear of eternal retribution? And finally, I answer: I am a good person because it’s the right thing to do. Sure I could walk up and shoot someone in the face; anyone could. Why don’t I? Well, because it’s wrong. Am I afraid of Hellfire and damnation? No. But it’s wrong. It was wrong before the bible said so.

I have a really hard time with people who use the bible as the gold standard for morality. Most Christians, most religious people in general, really, use their gospels selectively to make it say whatever they want it to say to achieve their ends. I’m sure I needn’t remind you of the atrocities carried out in the name of God over the ages, but even those that were not vicious, hateful warmongers might not have been the most moral people by today’s standards.

What would you say about our founding fathers like Washington, Jefferson and the rest of their ilk? Granted, not all of them were religious, but many of them were. Good staunch Christians. Now most Christians would agree that slavery is wrong. Why? Because Humans are not property, they are people. But slavery is very much accepted in the bible. OK, it was a long time ago, we’ve realized that it’s wrong now, we don’t do that anymore. Of course, it’s only 150 years gone from this country. That’s not very long.

Wait, did I just say the bible is…wrong? Well, of course it is. It’s wrong about a lot of things, which is part of the reason it is read so selectively. It’s a good historical tale that has an incredible amount of wisdom for those who choose to listen and read it for what it is.

But there’s an interesting paradox in the biblical commandments isn’t there? The commandments are absolute, but people are very liberal with their interpretation.
Is it wrong to steal? The bible says it is. We steal honey from bees don’t we? What, you think they make that stuff for us out of the goodness of their stingers? No. The commandment is very clear on this, isn’t it? Thou Shalt Not Steal. Let’s not even talk about Kill.

So back to the question, where did moral law originate? Why are we more inclined to treat people better than worse? Well, I believe self-preservation is at the heart of every person. It drives us to eat, it drives us to procreate; drives us to seek shelter in a storm; drives us to run from a large beast; fight to protect what we need. These are very powerful instincts that are deep inside any animal, and we are animals, regardless of the promises of Heaven and Hell.

But what makes the moral drive so strong is the deep and primal knowledge that we cannot survive alone. We cannot procreate without mixing out genetic material with others; we cannot thrive without a large enough population to have genetic diversity, and part of us knows this. This is part of what makes other people attractive or unattractive to us. We are social creatures that NEED other people. Yes, there are those among us that are deviants, yes there are those among us that have killed, stolen, been megalomaniacal, evil, twisted, everything you can think of. But every population has its exceptions.

The bottom line is, we should be good to each other because it’s the right thing to do not because we are told to be or scared of consequences if we are not. Can science prove it? Maybe, with the proper experiment, I don’t know. Did it come from God? Well, I don’t know since I’ve never seen God. I guess it’s just something we’ll just have to decide for ourselves. Peacefully.
Another brilliant essay, TJ.

The Source of Morality: Part I

Over the next several weeks I’d like to introduce you to a discussion about the source of morality that I was part of a couple of years ago. This is a brilliant debate that TJ started on his blog with a dear friend of his, Bill. This discussion is a series of essays, the first written by Bill and serves brilliantly as the introduction to the topic, the second written by TJ, and the last is essentially a follow-up chime-in by yours truly in which I effectively barge in on their discourse. I wanted to bump it up to the front of the blogosphere again for a couple of reasons: first, because it is not every day that you get to read a brilliant discussion about the possible origins of human morality posed by a Christian, an atheist, and an agnostic in which all parties are frank and honest about their beliefs; and, second, I thought that it would be interesting to see if it might generate a similar type of discussion here about some other topic. So, if anyone would like to engage in this type of conversation on any topic please let me know.

I have tried my best to do very little editing to the original posts. However, I did have to do some clipping in order for the discussion to flow a little better here since blogs are essentially living forums, and it wouldn’t work to simply do a drag and drop. I encourage the reader to visit the original posts on TJ’s blog. I further challenge the readers of The Missing Piece to think about what each of the authors have written and join in the discussion. So, without further adieu, here are the essays. In the interest of giving the readers time to digest the material I will split the exchange up into four parts: Bill’s essay, TJ’s Essay, their follow-up arguments, and my essay. So here we go. Are you ready for a month-long banter about the source of morality? I hope so. Enjoy, and thank you TJ and Bill for letting me be a part of your brilliant conversation.

Bill’s Essay:

I guess the place to start in regards to the subject of “The Source of Morality” would be the very definition of the word itself. The word “morality” is defined by Wikipedia as “The concept of human behavior which pertains to matters of right and wrong.” The definition seems to be straight forward but what it is and where it comes from has been the subject of much debate. The word “concept” is just that, a concept, and it basically means that there is no empirical or scientific proof of its origin; meaning that you can’t put a drop of this and a drop of that in a test tube, mix it all together and come up with morality. But I do believe there is some evidence that exists that may help shed some light on what morality is at its core and where it comes from. This evidence presents itself on a daily basis and I think that if we look a little deeper into our own actions and expectations of others we will discover some interesting facts about morality and its source.

Often times we hear people arguing with each other and saying things such as “How would you like it if I did that to you?” or “Hey! I was next in line. Wait your turn.” Everyone has said these sorts of things, adults as well as children. The interesting thing about these types of statements is the reason for saying them in the first place. Is the person who says such things saying them because he happens not to prefer the other person’s behavior? Or is he appealing to some standard of decent behavior that he expects the other person to know about. Most of the time when someone says these things to us we are quick to make an excuse as to why we did the thing we are accused of or why we butted in line. It would seem that both parties to the argument are thinking about some kind of law or rule of fair play that has been broken. Call it Rule of Fair Play, Morality, The Law of Right and Wrong or whatever you wish. It would seem in these cases there is a definite agreement between the people involved as to what fair play (or right and wrong) really is. In fact, quarreling means trying to show the other person is in the wrong. And there would be no sense in doing that unless both parties had already agreed on it; just as it would make no sense calling a foul on a football player unless there was an agreement on the rules of football.

Now, this Law of Right and Wrong is also referred to as The Law of Human Nature because it is assumed that everyone knows it by nature and does not need to be taught it. Of course you may find some odd people who don’t seem to know it but if you take the human race as a whole it appears that decent behavior is known, in some degree, by all people. If this wasn’t true then there would be no sense in condemning the actions of someone like Adolph Hitler or even the Rwandan Hutus when they slaughtered 800,000 Tutsi civilians. In other words, what right do we have to say that the Nazis or the Hutus were in the wrong unless Right and Wrong are real things that the Nazis and Hutus ought to know as well as most of the human race? If there was no standard of Right and Wrong, then how can we blame them for their actions?

I am aware some people say that The Law of Right and Wrong is unsound because different civilizations have different moralities. I don’t believe this is true. There have been differences in their moralities but nothing that would amount to a total difference. If you look at the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, Romans, Hindus or any of the others you will see just how alike their moralities really are to each other and our own. Take Selfishness for example. Civilizations throughout history have differed on who you should be unselfish to – whether it was only your own family, or your countrymen or so on. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired in any group of people. Men have differed as to whether you can have one wife or five. But they have always agreed that you shouldn’t simply have any woman you liked. See, there are levels of selfishness and greed that are unacceptable in all civilizations. No matter where you go, things like selfishness and greed are not something to be proud of.

Once I realized that there is a Law of Right and Wrong I noticed one problem; the problem is that sometime this year, or this month or, more likely, this very day, I and every person I know will fail to practice the very behavior that we expect to receive from others. If there is someone out there who thinks they always conform to this code of conduct then please forgive me. They really should stop reading this. And now, I turn my attention to the ordinary people who are left.

The points I wanted to make so far are: First; that people all over the earth have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way and can’t really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not actually behave that way in many situations. They know the moral law and they break it. It’s as simple as that.

There are a few different ideas about the source of Moral Law. Some of these ideas seem to have merit at first glance but they start to fall apart when examined in depth:

The first of these is the idea that Moral Law is really what we call “The Heard Instinct” and that it gets developed just like all the rest of our instincts. It’s my belief that Moral Law is something altogether different than instinct. Now, we all know what it feels like to be driven by instinct whether it be motherly love, sexual instinct, instinct for food or the instinct to help someone in trouble. Instinct means that we feel a strong want or desire to act in a certain way. Suppose you hear a cry for help coming from someone in danger. You will probably feel two desires – the desire to help or the desire to stay back, away from the danger. These two desires come from instincts. The desire to help is the Heard Instinct and the desire to stay away is the instinct of Self Preservation. The interesting thing we find here is that in addition to the two instincts, there is a third thing in us that tells us to follow the instinct to help and suppress the instinct to stay away. Now, this third thing that judges between the two instincts cannot itself be either of them. The thing that encourages the instinct to help must in fact be something different than either of the two instincts. It’s like playing the piano; the sheet music that tells you which notes to play cannot itself be the notes on the piano. The Moral Law is the sheet music and our instincts are the notes. Moral Law tells us the tune we ought to play and our instincts are the keys.

The second idea is that Moral Law is a mere creation of society. Some people believe that all of the laws and codes of conduct are a mere product of thousands of years of social evolution and it is passed down by education for the benefit of all. They believe that it’s just a human invention. I agree that social justice and ideas of right and wrong are passed down from parents to children. No doubt we have all been taught some form of decent behavior by our parents or teachers. But this is not broad enough to answer the question “Where does Moral Law originate?” The real question is “Where did society get its idea that we ought to behave decently to one another?” Why would most human beings throughout history feel inclined to behave in a certain way even though there might not be any consequences for misbehaving? Something inside us says “Do the right thing”.

The other view, in my opinion, that seems to explain the origin of morality is the religious view. According to it, there is something behind the universe that seems to be more like a mind than anything else we know. And this ‘Something’ is conscious, has purpose, and prefers one thing to another. Now this view has existed as long as any other view. At any place in history, when powerful thinking people come together, this view has been a prominent player in the topic of morality. If there is ‘Something’ behind moral law then it would show itself to Man in certain ways or remain altogether unknown. The statements ‘There is something behind it’ and ‘There is nothing behind it’ are both statements that science cannot make. Science uses experimentation and observation to come to a conclusion about the outcome. Science takes a drop of this and puts it on a drop of that and records what happens. Basically, science is an outside observer. It only looks at the elements being tested. Please don’t get me wrong. Science is both necessary and useful in many ways and I would hate to be without it. I, personally, am a science nut. But in the case of morality, science can offer us nothing in terms of its origin. Now, the religious view would be difficult to defend if it were not for one thing. There is one thing that we know more about than any other thing in the universe. And that one thing is Man. We don’t merely observe Man, we are Man. We have what you could call ‘inside information’. And because of that we know that Man finds himself under Moral Law and cannot, as much as he may try, get it out of his head. Also, he knows that he ought to obey it. Science can’t touch that. If someone from another world did a science experiment on the human race they would never know that we had Moral Law. How could he? His observation would be based on what we did and Moral Law is about what we ought to do.

So, it comes down to this; we can say that the universe simply happens to exist, and is what it is for no reason, or we can say there is a power behind it that makes it what it is. This Power behind the universe and Moral Law, if it exists, would not be one of the observed facts. It would be the reality that makes them. There is only one case we have that can give us the information we need to know about this Power. And that case is US. If we are a product of that Power, you may very well expect it to communicate to us in some fashion. Since this Power would not be one of the observable facts inside the universe, then it would stand to reason that it would show itself inside of us. It would show itself as an influence or command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is exactly what we do find. In the only place we can expect to find an answer, that answer turns out to be YES. It seems to me that there is ‘Something’ that is directing the universe. It’s telling me to do the right thing no matter how painful or inconvenient it may be. I call this ‘Something’ by another name. I call it God. Or more specifically, Jesus Christ. But that’s another subject altogether, isn’t it? We’ll save that one for another time.

Brilliantly done, Bill. Next week we hear from TJ.