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.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Popcorn (1991)

As part of my continual quest to find the perfect horror movie I stumbled across Popcorn (1991) a while back while flipping through titles such as The Beast Within, The Mangler, and Cannibal Holocaust. It has a pretty impressive cast loaded with veteran genre stand-outs like Jill Schoelen (Cutting Class, Curse II, The Stepfather), Dee Wallace (Cujo, The Howling, The Hills Have Eyes) and Kelly Jo Minter (Nightmare on Elm Street), and, like most decent slasher films, it has a great back story: insane filmmaker Lanyard Gates in an act of defiance against his detractors creates a movie with a live ending that includes the slaughtering of his entire family on stage which ultimately ends in the theater burning to the ground killing everyone inside. Brilliant! So I thought that I’d plunk myself down for a nice evening of gratuitous nudity, gore and off-color humor that the movie seems to have promised. Let me interrupt for a second to say that popcorn as a food is horrible. It is bland, smells awful, and gets stuck in your teeth (if you’re lucky enough to still have teeth after gnashing them down on a petrified un-popped kernel). Totally useless and annoying. Unfortunately, Popcorn (the movie) lives up to its name.

The plot of the movie is great. A group of theater students need to raise money to keep their department afloat. So what brilliant fund-raising scheme do they come up with? Auctioning off props from old productions? Selling celebrity autographs? Bake sale? Prostitution? Nope. How about restoring a burnt-out theater for an all night horror movie marathon? Oh yeah! I can see the bodies piling up already. O.K., maybe the plot doesn’t make too much sense since the theater restoration would undoubtedly cost more than the ticket sales for a one-night horrorfest, but this is supposed to be a horror film not Good Will Hunting after all. It turns out that this horror movie marathon is possibly the only good decision that the producers of Popcorn actually made. The movies that are featured are an homage to a bygone era of moviemaking. Creature-features like “Mosquito”, “The Stench (filmed in Smell-o-vision)”, and “Attack of the Amazing Electrified Man” are all throwbacks to the 50’s era films made by William Castle such as Macabre, The Tingler, and 13 Ghosts, and are absolutely the types of shows that are only likely to be seen today on Mystery Science Theater 3000, Son of Svengoolie or Joe Bob Briggs reruns. The coeds attempt to recreate the same gimmicky movie-going experience complete with electrified seats, nurses giving fake injections to out of control patrons, gag-inducing smell-o-vision, and a giant remote control mosquito that hovers menacingly over the audience.

The movie has a distinctly 80’s low-budget slasher flick feel complete with bad editing, grainy filming and plot discontinuities. It has all of the ingredients that it needs to slip delightfully into being a great exploitation flick, but sadly for some reason it never reaches that desired grindhouse status. Admittedly, the production of the film was fraught with problems including switching directors and lead actors midway through filming. But every fourth-grade fan of the genre knows how to solve any problem with production of a horror film: more nudity and more gore, bitches! If you pile on the dismembered corpses and nude coeds and pepper in some distasteful jokes all will be forgiven. Sadly, the makers of this film must not have gotten that memo. As it stands, I seriously doubt that Popcorn even warrants an “R” rating.

However, somehow almost inexplicably the movie is still watch-able, which I attribute to the way the cast, directors, producers…well, anyone involved in the film, really… seems to not take themselves too seriously. I mean, the villain is played by the sincerely goofy Tom Villard (One Crazy Summer), and the best piece of acting in the whole film is from a one-minute cameo appearance by Ray Walston (Mr. Hand in Fast Times at Ridgemont High). Popcorn also has probably the worst closing scene to a horror movie ever, which is saying something. Plus, there is a montage in the middle of the film as the students restore the theater, and you can never go wrong with a montage. Can you? Anyway, the saving grace of the whole picture is the hat-tip the horror films of the 50’s which (even though they distract the viewer from the plot) take on a persona of their own and act as their own character in the film. Also, the near total lack of gore, sex and suspense make Popcorn probably the only slasher movie in history one can watch with the whole family, but I highly doubt the uninitiated will have the patience to sit through the entire thing.