Morality Has No Place in the Law

By Sarah Braasch

"Surely if we have learned anything from the history of morals it is that the thing to do with a moral quandary is not to hide it." —H.L.A. Hart

"This lesson is that the distinguishing characteristics of true law must be sought for somewhere else than in the nature of the authority from whence it proceeds, and in the certainty of the punishment by which its infraction is attended." —Sheldon Amos

In loving memory of my baby brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (01/28/86 – 02/02/10)

"Morality has no place in the law." I remember the first time I asserted this claim. In the fall of 2004, I was a reluctant guest at a book club meeting in LA, at which the assembled motley crew discussed a recent book on the gay marriage debate. I hadn't read the book in question, and my unsolicited commentary came as something of a surprise, to myself included. I was met with a bevy of incredulous stares and, subsequently, protestations. How could I assert something so obviously preposterous, so patently ridiculous, and so demonstrably asinine? Almost immediately thereafter, I decided to change the direction of my life, to attend law school, and to become an international human rights lawyer.

At law school, I was met with more disdainful scoffing and eye rolling. Of course, law and morality are inseparable. Of course, morality serves as the basis for any legal/political system. Of course, a law is nothing if not a moral claim, a moral imperative, a moral prescription. In all of human history, had there ever existed a legal system, which hadn't purported to further justice, as grounded in morality? And, if so, from whence would the legitimacy of the government derive? Why would the vast majority of the society feel any sense of moral obligation to conform to the law's dictates? What is a legal norm if not a moral command, constraining the behavior of the citizens/residents, of whichever state/society, upon whom the law (moral code) is imposed? How could I claim otherwise?

I will begin by laying out my definitions of both law and morality, since in my opinion most debate is the result of misunderstandings over definitions and premises. I will not defend these definitions (well, maybe a little), because this essay purports not so much to define law and morality, as to show why and how to create a legal/political system devoid of conceptions of morality and communitarianism.

Law is the mechanism (usually a set of norms/rules with corresponding sanctions) by which we define interpersonal relations. Morality is the categorization of human behaviors as "good" and "bad", which, I would argue, is a wholly personal, subjective exercise without recourse to objective moral truth or authority.

How is this not necessarily the same thing? In the mid-20th century, H.L.A. Hart, the father of modern legal positivism, argued the separability of law and morality in his seminal writings. Hart argued for the distinction between the law as it is and the law as it ought to be. Law does not cease to be law based upon one or another moral criticism. It is possible to study and practice law in a descriptive sense (how people do behave), instead of a normative sense (how people should behave).

Also, it is possible to use deontological (moral) language without making moral claims. As Hart pointed out, use of the word ought "need have nothing to do with morals". One may use the moral language of ought and should (and rights and duties) to further a specific aim without the attendant implication of categorizing whichever human behaviors as "good" and "bad". (The error theorist/non-cognitivist debate about whether we should refrain from the use of such language will not be addressed here.)

But, the legal positivists leave much to be desired. They concede far too much to the natural law theorists for my taste. Even H.L.A. Hart conceded an appeal to the overlap of law and morality at the moment of creation of a legal/political system. He questioned whether a legal system, on the whole, which did not espouse some notion of "justice" as its central aim, had ever or could ever exist for long, despite the brutal imposition of severe sanctions, because the vast majority of persons living beneath its reach would feel no sense of moral obligation to abide by its dictates. He asked whether the nature of law itself demands recourse to a bare minimum of the most basic and general moral precepts, such as equal protection. However, he largely dismissed the question as holding little interest for him and as an "innocent pastime for philosophers".

Brian Leiter is anything but dismissive of this methodological debate about the nature of law itself. He describes the challenge posed to legal positivism by natural law theorist John Finnis as significant and outlines it as such: "If the very enterprise of understanding the concept of law requires positive moral appraisal of law, then it turns out that questions about the moral foundations of law can not be treated as conceptually severable from questions about the nature of law."

I find the legal positivists disappointing and hypocritical. They forego one fantasy, but dare not forsake another. Even Hart. And, especially Leiter. Hart is a bit like an evolutionary biologist who doesn't feel many qualms about not being able to explain the origin of the universe. Just because he cannot disprove the existence of God doesn't mean he has to accept Christianity. But, despite his admonitions to refuse to address moral quandaries at one's peril, I see him rather as a Christian who scoffs at the foundational myths of a Muslim while unable or unwilling to acknowledge the folly in his own foundational myths.

The legal positivists are the Stephen Jay Goulds of legal/moral philosophy. They espouse the NOMA position, i.e. they hold to the stance that descriptive/analytic legal theory (legal positivism) and normativity are Non-Overlapping MAgisteria, except for when they don't, but they fail to acknowledge the usurpations of morality perpetrated upon the law and how the law suffers as a consequence. They are accommodationist agnostics, uncomfortable with identifying as atheists or noticing the lack of evidence for any objective moral truth or authority. Maybe it's better to perpetuate the myth. Maybe we all really will take to raping and pillaging without the reassurance or threat of some objective moral authority looming large, to which we may seek recourse. Maybe our societies really will fall apart like a house of cards, if people realize that their foundations are nothing more than foundational myths.

I stake the case that burying one's head in the sand is never a good idea. Nor is pretending to know things that we, in fact, do not know. Denying the existence of or refusing to deal with a philosophical quandary neither negates the dilemma nor ameliorates the situation in question. So, imagine my relief when I discovered the moral anti-realist philosophers.

The moral anti-realist philosophers, like Joshua Greene, deny the existence of objective moral truth or authority. Morality (the categorization of human behaviors as "good" and "bad") is a wholly personal, subjective exercise. Any moral claims, which claim to be objectively true, are false. There is no objective moral truth or authority. Therefore, there is no objective legal truth or authority. I am not a legal positivist. I am a legal anti-realist, just as I am a moral anti-realist. Laws are not real, and neither is morality, and they certainly aren't natural. The determination of legal validity (deciding whether or not any law or legal/political system is valid, just, moral, and, thus, merits adherence) is a wholly personal, subjective exercise, just as any moral viewpoint is a wholly personal, subjective exercise.

The most common retorts to this position, which I have encountered, are that: 1) this position is itself a moral claim, and 2) I have left myself in an untenable position in which I will never be able to justify my approbation or disapprobation of any other entity or act ever, and I cannot justify advocating for any legal/political scheme in particular or any legal/political scheme at all. I have condemned myself to anarchy, or, at least, absolute and universal moral relativism. If someone wishes to keep me as a slave, I can have no objection worth considering. If someone wishes to keep someone else as a slave, I can have no objection worth considering.

First of all, denying the existence of objective moral truth is a meta-ethical claim, not an ethical claim. Second, I am free to advocate for whatever I wish. I am free to condemn whomever I wish. I am free to try and convince as many others as possible to adopt my personal, subjective moral viewpoint. It is possible to advocate on behalf of my subjective moral viewpoint, informed by evidence and science and reason, while maintaining a moral anti-realist stance. Moral anti-realism does not condemn one to moral relativism or anarchy. It is possible to advocate for the establishment of a legal/political system without recourse to the myth of objective moral/legal truth. Greene's dissertation, available on his website, lays out this position nicely.

But, these common retorts just seem like either fatuous delusions or disingenuous and specious sophistries. Because objective moral/legal truth or authority does not exist. And, there is no evidence that it does. And, in fact, there is a great deal of evidence otherwise. And, yet, we, or the vast majority of we, do, in fact, create and abide by and live under legal/political systems. We, or the vast majority of we, do, in fact, advocate for our personal, subjective moral viewpoints.

And, anyway, whatever happened to looking philosophical/moral quandaries in the face without flinching? When has burying our collective head in the sand ever made our problems better? Or, go away? When has pretending to know things that we do not know improved our lives?

Even secular humanists, rationalists, materialists, freethinkers and atheists can fall prey to that human, all too human thirst for order, structure, pattern, authority, and explanation. The noted "New Atheist" Sam Harris takes his turn at the fount of foundational myth in his latest book, The Moral Landscape, in which he advocates for a science of morality. He claims that, with the proper application of our reasoning faculties to enough factual evidence, we can access objective moral truth via the scientific method. His definition of "good" is that which promotes "well-being", which he admits he is unable to define, and his definition of "bad" is whatever detracts from "well-being". While he isn't so foolish as to suggest that evolutionary biologists should be the new moralists, he rejects Hume's contention that there exists an impermeable barrier between facts and values; that values are never objective; that we can never get an ought from an is.

This indulgence in myth is understandable, but regrettable. The objective moral/legal truth fairy is not going to save us, and no amount of data, experimental results, or observations will conjure her. This latest indulgence is a considerable threat to our secular, liberal, constitutional democracies. When religionists draw from the fount of myth, we are protected by the wall of separation between church and state. When scientists pretend to have in their possession objective evidence of moral truth, humanity takes a step backwards into the Dark Ages.

Facts reveal nothing about morality. Facts and evidence are always separated from moral viewpoints by subjective value judgments. To pretend otherwise is to play into the hands of the religionists, to open us up to the threat of tyranny, to call into question our concepts of individual civil, constitutional, and human rights, and to provoke a societal existential crisis. Instead of religious wars, we will have morality wars. Instead of prophets in possession of the one true revealed scripture/religion, we will have scientists who are able to divine morality from indifferent facts and extract policy from apathetic data.

Do we want judges engaged in gleaning nonexistent moral truth from the evidence presented in their courtrooms? The judiciary has been moving away from any incorporation of concepts of morality in judicial decision-making and as a valid basis for legislation. The line of recent cases, including Lawrence v. Texas and Perry v. Schwarzenegger, are explicit in their rejection of subjective moral viewpoints as a legitimate basis for legislation or the denial of constitutional rights, and also take the time to point out that the side advocating for the imposition of its subjective moral viewpoint upon others lacked any evidentiary basis for its morality. The District Court in Perry stated, "A private moral view... is not a proper basis for legislation," and "Moral disapproval alone is an improper basis on which to deny rights," as well as "...those individuals' moral views are an insufficient basis upon which to enact a legislative classification." The Supreme Court in Lawrence decided that the moral majority may not "use the power of the State to enforce these views on the whole society through operation of the criminal law". Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's concurrence in Lawrence was particularly scathing in its denunciation of the suggestion that moral disapproval, in and of itself, was a legitimate government interest. In Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, the Supreme Court made plain the obligation of the Court, "Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code." Let us not take a step backward after we have made such strides to eradicate any notion of morality from our jurisprudence.

Sam Harris also fails to grasp the nature of our democracy when he suggests that we need not pay heed to those ill-equipped to interpret factual evidence and to derive objective moral truth therefrom. We are constantly engaged in conversation with mob rule. The moral majority gets a say in how you and I live our lives. As far as Justice Scalia is concerned, the moral majority may dictate to you and I as they please, as long we are not claiming an explicitly and specifically enumerated constitutional right or membership in a constitutionally protected class, and he includes gays and women in the category of persons whose rights may be curtailed at the whim of the moral majority. Do we really want to say that, given enough evidence and reason, anyone can access objective moral truth? If you read the data the right way? If you perform the correct exegesis? No amount of evidence and reason will ever result in a definitive determination of objective moral truth, and to pretend otherwise is not only folly but dangerous.

As an example, consider the recent slew of suicides by young gay men, often after having been bullied, much publicized in the media. Much of the commentary focused on the statistically significantly higher incidence of suicide among gay teenagers than their straight peers. The higher incidence is a fact (a fact which is called into question by the cited article). But what objective moral truth is to be derived from this fact? And, what policy decision should result? Is the higher suicide rate demonstrative of the inherently morally reprobate nature of homosexuals? Does the higher suicide rate indicate that homosexuality is good? Bad? Does it indicate that homosexuality or the homosexual lifestyle is conducive to well being? How should we respond? Should we outlaw homosexuality? Should we outlaw homosexual sex acts? Should we segregate gay teens from straight teens? Should we implement a Don't Ask Don't Tell policy in public high schools? On the campuses of public universities? Should we attempt to employ gene therapy to eradicate homosexuality? Should we enact hate speech legislation, which criminalizes gay slurs?

I don't know about you, but I don't want to have to care about my uneducated and ill-informed next door neighbor's personal, subjective moral opinion about my life choices, and I don't think I should have to care. No matter how much evidence he thinks he has in support of his personal, subjective moral viewpoint.

So, I have been thinking a lot about how to devise a legal/political system, which eradicates any conception of either morality or communitarianism. Don't get me wrong. The moral majority serves its function in our current (American) democracy. The moral majority fills the void of authority left vacant by the lack of objective moral/legal truth. The moral majority, as expressed by the electorate, is the majoritarian half, representing the interests of society, of the precariously balanced equation in the conversation between the majoritarian (the electorate, the moral majority, culture) and counter-majoritarian (the judiciary, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, case law) elements, which is our system of government.

But, wouldn't we be better off without having to constantly be in conversation with mob rule? Wouldn't we be better off without having to constantly wage a fight to hold back the tide of moral majoritarian tyranny? Wouldn't we be better off without the threat of theocracy constantly looming large over our heads? Wouldn't we be better off without religious/moral communitarianism in a pitched battle with secularism and individual rights, especially women's rights?

Sam Harris wants to defeat religion and the threat it poses to democracy and to humanity. And, so do I. But, in a paradoxical twist, which he seems unable to see, he, too, wishes to perpetuate a myth, which will only serve to strengthen the resolve and the position of the religionists and the cultural relativists.

But, how to create a legal/political system, which balances the needs of the individual and society, without resorting to false notions of morality and communitarianism? I think the answer is to create a legal/political system based upon game theory to maximize individual liberty.

The choice of maximizing individual liberty is not arbitrary. And, it isn't about creating a moral code, which holds liberty in higher esteem than the values of happiness or well being or goodness or utility. It also isn't about a classical libertarian's or an anarchist's liberty fetish. It is about trying to replicate our current form of government without resorting to a relationship with mob rule. Our current majoritarian / counter-majoritarian push-pull is a crude approximation of a legal/political system based upon game theory to maximize individual liberty.

The interests of society will fall out of the exercise. This is the case, because I am not free to live my life as I wish without a minimum threshold level of security and safety and order. I wouldn't be terribly free to live my life as I desire in the midst of chaos or anarchy. I am not terribly free to live my life as I see fit, if I can't afford to feed and clothe my children, if I'm dying for lack of decent healthcare, or if I can't get a decent education. And, I'm not going to be at liberty to pursue my individual goals, unless there are minimum guarantees in place for my societal peers as well.

Unlike happiness or well being or, even, utility, liberty may be assessed objectively, not subjectively. Is one or is one not constrained in one's physical behavior? This is not a subjective assessment. The vagaries of the mind are not in play.

While I recognize that I can advocate for the creation of an amoral legal/political system, which employs deontological language, based upon my subjective moral viewpoint (which is informed by science and reason and evidence) that I wish to live in a society structured as such, without pretending to be acting under the authority of some objective moral/legal truth, how will I ever convince anyone else to adopt my approach?

This is like asking how the very first human society came into being. Or, like asking how life or the universe began. We exist. We live in societies. We live under human-devised governments. Societies evolve. The law evolves. Culture evolves.

The old mind games and tricks don't work any longer. We've seen the man pulling the levers behind the green curtain. We know that our foundational myths are just that – myths. We will adapt and evolve or we won't survive.

Maybe we should be asking how we are going to continue to convince everyone to keep pretending to believe in our foundational myths.

January 14, 2011, 7:33 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink130 comments

Using Purchasing Power for Good

Since 'tis the season for commercialism, shopping sprees and big-ticket purchases, I thought I'd write a post that I've had in mind for a long time. It's less about atheism per se, more about rationalism and being aware of the ways our choices shape the world around us.

We may scoff, and rightfully so, when the Supreme Court uses free speech as an excuse to lift campaign-finance restrictions on huge multinational corporations. But it's true, nevertheless: Money is a form of speech - and not just in the sense that it lets you rent billboards or buy ads on buses. Every purchase you make, every person or business to which you send your dollars, sends a signal about what you value - and, in essence, is a vote for what kind of world you want to live in.

If you send money to companies that cut down old-growth forests to make tissue paper or clear rainforest to plant oil palms, you're voting for those practices to continue. The same applies if you shop at businesses that fire workers for trying to organize, that use child labor, that pollute the atmosphere with carbon, or that have a record of supporting fundamentalist and conservative religious causes.

Adam Smith imagined market forces as an invisible hand, but that metaphor makes it seem as if there's a single, invisible agency consciously deciding how the economy will go. A better one might be that the market is like the planchette on a Ouija board, and the motion of the "hand" is determined by the sum of billions of small pushes from each of us. When our buying decisions collectively indicate that we only care about price, we should expect businesses to respond accordingly - to focus on reducing the price of their product at the expense of all else - even if it means acting unethically or unsustainably.

But the opposite side of this is that our buying decisions can support good causes as well as bad ones. If we buy from companies that practice business with an eye to sustainability, companies that treat their workers well and pay them fairly, companies that support progressive and liberal causes, then we're signaling that we support those practices and that will naturally encourage more businesses to follow suit to claim their share of that market.

Granted, it's hard not to be complicit in bad business practices. For most people in developed countries, except a fortunate few who live in dense urban areas with readily available mass transit, it's impossible to make a living without owning a car - and that means we have no choice but to enrich corporations that lobby for destructive drilling in environmentally sensitive regions, that cause disastrous spills and pollution, and that enrich repressive theocracies and corrupt dictatorships. Still, even if every buying decision can't be virtuous, there are a lot of things the average person can do. This includes, wherever possible, buying products that are:

Fair trade: Fair trade certification ensures that products are produced by workers who are paid a living wage, work in safe conditions and have the right to organize and bargain collectively. The best known fair-trade product is coffee, but certification is expanding into other markets, including fresh flowers, cotton, chocolate, wine and tea, even ice cream.

Certified sustainable: Many of Earth's natural resources are in danger of being destroyed by voracious harvester companies that use them up faster than they can replenish themselves - for instance, most sought-after wild fish species are being fished into extinction. Groups like the Forest Stewardship Council and the Marine Stewardship Council certify that paper products, timber and seafood are being harvested at a sustainable rate (but beware of "greenwashing", where corporate-owned front groups sell their own, virtually meaningless "certifications" to companies that want the cachet of a green reputation without the work).

Organic, local and humane: Modern agriculture is driven by vast quantities of fossil fuels, fertilizers and antibiotics, often ending up by shipping food halfway around the world from where it's produced. This approach has its advantages, particularly efficiency and economy of scale, but it also has unintended costs. Much of the meat and poultry you can buy in the supermarket comes from CAFOs - massive industrial complexes where animals are raised, often in cramped and filthy conditions - and even aside from humanitarian considerations, the constant dosing with antibiotics to keep the animals healthy encourages the evolution of resistance in dangerous human pathogens. Meanwhile, the carbon pollution caused by fossil-fuel-intensive farming and shipping contributes to climate change.

Theree isn't a perfect solution to this - it's best to buy locally grown produce if possible, but few people live in places where it's available year-round. And while organic food does have advantages, realistically, its benefits are modest, especially if it's a large corporate-run operation (and be aware that "natural", unlike "organic", is a fluff term that has no legal meaning). But again, buying these products sends a signal about what consumers want, and that helps to steer the market in the right direction. There are also programs like the American Humane Society's certified humane standard for livestock.

Low-carbon or zero-carbon: The greatest threat facing humanity is climate change caused by CO2 emissions from fossil fuel. And yet, surprisingly, there's no international standard for certifying a business as low-carbon or zero-carbon. However, many utilities give consumers the option to buy their power from alternative energy programs that rely on environmentally friendly sources like solar, hydroelectric, wind, biomass and geothermal. If your utility offers a program like this, consider taking advantage of it. The more of a market we create for alternative energy, the more we speed the decarbonization of the world economy - and that will pay dividends beyond just the environmental ones.

December 24, 2010, 12:06 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink13 comments

Chris Hedges Doesn't Believe In Moral Progress (Except When He Does)

A Review of When Atheism Becomes Religion, Part III

As I've written before, Chris Hedges is a nihilist. He flatly denies the possibility of moral progress, and vehemently asserts that any efforts to improve humanity will inevitably end in mass slaughter and destruction. He says so bluntly at the beginning of his book:

Those who insist we are morally advancing as a species are deluding themselves. There is little in science or history to support this idea. Human individuals can make moral advances, as can human societies, but they also make moral reverses... We alternate between periods of light and periods of darkness. We can move forward materially, but we do not move forward morally. The belief in collective moral advancement ignores the inherent flaws in human nature as well as the tragic reality of human history... All utopian schemes of impossible advances and glorious conclusions end in squalor and fanaticism. (p.10-11)

A harsh verdict, to be sure. But this doom-and-gloom fatalism raises a puzzling contradiction with statements Hedges makes elsewhere in the book:

The religious figures I studied and the ones I sought to emulate when I was a seminarian at Harvard Divinity School, included Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, William Sloane Coffin Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, and Daniel Berrigan. (p.3)

and later:

[The atheists'] attacks dismiss those - and there are millions - who found the inner fortitude through religion to fight for justice and lead lives of compassion. It seeks to invalidate the achievement of those religious figures who lost their lives in the defense of humanity. (p.34)

Did you catch it? Hedges speaks of the "achievement" of religious figures like Martin Luther King Jr. who fought for justice and compassion. Achievement? What achievement is he referring to? Didn't Hedges just get done telling us that no collective moral progress ever has been or ever can be achieved? Isn't he thus forced to believe, by his own argument, that the efforts of King and others didn't make any lasting difference? And if so, what exactly is it that he admires them for?

But it gets worse. For, you see, the truth is far more appalling: Martin Luther King was one of those dreaded utopians!

"When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

...This is for hope for the future, and with this faith we will be able to sing in some not too distant tomorrow with a cosmic past tense, 'We have overcome, we have overcome, deep in my heart, I did believe we would overcome.'"

—Martin Luther King Jr., Southern Christian Leadership Conference Presidential Address, 16 August 1967

These statements conflict with the received wisdom of Chris Hedges, who assures us that there is no moral arc in the universe, that no one ever will overcome, and that in fact, nothing will ever get better in any way, so we might as well give up hoping.

What this shows, I think, is that Hedges don't hold the worldview he says he does. He doesn't really believe in the impossibility of moral progress. He just hates the way we advocate it - by attacking religious prejudices at the roots, by encouraging people to put aside their superstitions and become rational. (His angry denial that religion played any role in the Bosnian conflict is a good example.) In other words, he too wants a better world - it's just that he's deluded enough to believe that religion has no responsibility for the state the world is in, and that there's no reason we have to give it up. If he instead acknowledged the necessity of atheism, he might see it as a promising solution to some of the problems he regards as intractable, and he wouldn't be so embittered and pessimistic.

Other posts in this series:

December 22, 2010, 6:47 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink56 comments

Evolution Isn't a Moral Theory (Except When It Is)

A Review of When Atheism Becomes Religion, Part I

At the beginning of chapter 2, Chris Hedges says that science is a "morally neutral discipline" (p.45) which offers potential for both good and evil. He goes on to assert:

Evolution is a biological theory that helps us grasp descent, with modification, within living species. It is not a theory about economic systems, government, morality, ethics or the behavior of nations. [p.46]

So far, so good - there's nothing in that paragraph that I disagree with. But a little later on that very same page, Hedges excoriates people who believe in moral progress as follows:

Darwinism sees our animal natures as intractable. It never attempts to argue that human beings can overcome biological limitations and create a human paradise. It infers the opposite. The belief in collective moral progress is anti-Darwinian. [p.46]

So, evolution isn't a theory about morality, and yet belief in moral progress is contradicted by evolution. I scarcely need to point out that these statements can't both be true.

This sloppy, careless self-contradiction reminds me of Francis Collins and John Haught, both of whom said that it's a misuse of science to make statements about whether the universe has purpose - unless you're arguing for purpose, in which case appealing to science is totally legitimate. It's only the conclusions they disagree with that they think science can't legitimately be used to defend. Hedges is doing the same thing.

So, who are these evil scientists who misuse Darwinism to argue for moral progress? Hedges' villain of choice is Richard Dawkins, whom he quotes as follows:

He writes that the human species, unlike other animals, can transcend its biological map: "We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators."

...Wilson and Dawkins build their vision of human perfectibility out of the legitimately scientific theory that human beings are shaped by the laws of heredity and natural selection. They depart from this position when they assert that we can leave that determinism behind. There is nothing in science that implies that our genetic makeup allows us to perfect ourselves. (p.53)

Hedges is sparring with his own fantasies, since none of the atheists he quotes ever use the word "perfect". That was his choice of words, not theirs. It's a bad sign when the linchpin of your argument depends on putting words in your opponent's mouth.

What Dawkins was actually saying, and which should be obvious, is that human beings can evaluate the reasons for or against acting in a certain way and then choose on that basis - even if those choices contradict the instincts instilled in us by our evolutionary past. For example, we can choose to never have children - or adopt and spend our lives caring for a genetic stranger's children - in spite of the overriding evolutionary imperative to pass on one's genes. We can choose not to eat sugary and fatty foods, despite our appetite's subconscious promptings to store up calories for the next dry season. We can choose to suppress territorial and xenophobic urges and settle conflicts peacefully with diplomacy. Atheists' pointing out these incontrovertible facts of human nature become, to Hedges, further proof of our complete depravity.

The interesting follow-up question this raises is, what does Hedges believe we should do? Later in the chapter, he declares his opposition to "memetic engineering", which he defines as the process of "disseminating good memes and curtailing bad ones" - i.e., trying to teach people to behave morally. He calls this plan "a new variation of thought control" and fulminates that "it would result in anti-intellectualism, a war on science and democratic freedom, and a silencing of those who fail to conform" (p.66). We should steer clear of it because evolution teaches us that "human nature is fixed and irredeemable" (p.67).

The idea that anything about us is "fixed" is a laughable distortion of evolution, and "irredeemable" is one of those value judgments which Hedges earlier told us has no place in science, though he seems to have forgotten that. But what he's really saying, it seems, is that people will never be any better than they are now, so we should give up trying. Moral education, in his eyes, is "thought control" and "anti-intellectualism", and it's more important that we not silence those who urge us to do evil. Is this man an exemplar whose views we should prefer to those of the New Atheists?

Other posts in this series:

December 10, 2010, 6:43 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink14 comments

Sam Harris' Moral Landscape and Universal Utilitarianism

I've heard that Sam Harris has a new book, The Moral Landscape, coming out soon. In it, he argues that there is an objectively best way for us to live together in a way that produces the greatest well-being for all - i.e., an objective morality - and that we can discover what it is through science:

Imagine that there are only two people living on earth: We can call them "Adam" and "Eve." Clearly, we can ask how these two people might maximize their well-being. Are there wrong answers to this question? Of course. (Wrong answer #1: They could smash each other in the face with a large rock.) And while there are ways for their personal interests to be in conflict, it seems uncontroversial to say that a man and woman alone on this planet would be better off if they recognized their common interests -- like getting food, building shelter and defending themselves against larger predators. If Adam and Eve were industrious enough, they might realize the benefits of creating technology, art, medicine, exploring the world and begetting future generations of humanity. Are there good and bad paths to take across this landscape of possibilities? Of course. In fact, there are, by definition, paths that lead to the worst misery and to the greatest fulfillment possible for these two people -- given the structure of their brains, the immediate facts of their environment, and the laws of Nature. The underlying facts here are the facts of physics, chemistry, and biology as they bear on the experience of the only two people in existence.

As I argue in my new book, even if there are a thousand different ways for these two people to thrive, there will be many ways for them not to thrive -- and the differences between luxuriating on a peak of human happiness and languishing in a valley of internecine horror will translate into facts that can be scientifically understood. Why would the difference between right and wrong answers suddenly disappear once we add 6.7 billion more people to this experiment?

(See also.)

I'm tremendously excited by this, because not only do I agree wholeheartedly with this argument, it sounds (at least to me) almost exactly like the moral system of universal utilitarianism which I proposed in "The Ineffable Carrot and the Infinite Stick", my own essay on nonreligious ethics! (And that essay, I'd like to point out, was first posted in 2001.)

Harris has it exactly right. Because we are all the same species, because we all live in a world with the same unchanging natural laws, there are universal facts about human biology and psychology which hold true regardless of time, place or culture. It follows directly from this that there are objective truths about which ways of organizing society do, or do not, produce the greatest well-being for humans. And those truths are discoverable by the same method we use to discover objective truth about all other aspects of the world, namely the scientific method.

Harris' metaphor is the "moral landscape", similar to the metaphor of the "fitness landscape" used by evolutionary biologists. It's as if we imagine an infinite (or at least very large) flat geometric plane, and assume that every possible means of organizing human society is assigned to a point on that plane, with societies that are similar in important ways occupying adjacent points. Then we add a third dimension to that plane, namely height/depth, and assume that the height of a given point represents the degree of well-being which that society produces for its inhabitants. Some societies will be high peaks of happiness and prosperity, while others will be deep valleys of misery. It's our task to figure out the lay of the land near our present location so that we can move uphill toward a higher peak.

Of course, I don't think there's any direct influence of my essay on Harris' book. I just think that these are ideas that are bound to occur to anyone who thinks rationally about morality (and in fact, we'd expect an objective morality to be independently discoverable). There are objective truths about human nature, and we can discover these and make our society more in accord with them. Granted, this assumes that our goal should be to maximize human welfare. But this is no more problematic, philosophically speaking, than the fact that science must begin by assuming the principle of induction, even though we can't absolutely prove that it works.

October 22, 2010, 5:49 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink232 comments

Naming Activist Fallacies: The Separatist Paradise

By Scotlyn

Apologies, folks, this post took a bit longer than promised. I have been struggling for two weeks or so to write a post on the activist fallacy of the "Righteous Victim," but it seems that the post which wants to be written first is the fallacy of the "Separatist Paradise." This concept, the concept that we will be safer, or happier, or freer, in the company of others of our own kind, (and sometimes accompanied with a concept of "our own kind" as being special, exceptional, even) often underlies certain types of nationalism - it was a defining feature of Hitler's Third Reich, of the Basque separatist movement in France and Spain, and it has had an influence on strains of Irish nationalism. It is likewise a defining feature of Zionist philosophy, and it has had a huge influence, for awhile, on the black power movement in the 70's and on feminism in the 80's and various other liberation movements in history. Currently, I see it as a motivating force in the development of the tea party, which seems to be unable to articulate its aims exactly, but which have something to do with finding common cause with "folk like us."

The underlying concept of fairness that has always underwritten the struggle for a more equitable society, is not, I think, an arcane or complex one - most of us were able to make a pretty effective "Argument from Fairness" in kindergarten, when Charlie wouldn't share the paste, or when the teacher kept picking Sarah to hand out the crayons. Therefore, it is rarely necessary to persuade people of the benefits of fairness in and of itself - most people are already mightily convinced on that score. The battle that we must continually fight is about where we should draw the circle that includes the people that we believe are entitled to fair treatment, and that excludes those who we believe do not. (For the sake of brevity, and in memory of a place where valuable moral lessons are often learned, alongside other important issues such as bladder control, permit me a "kindergarten-ish" term - let's call this our Fairness Circle).

The reasons for making exclusions from our Fairness Circle are many, and they are more or less persuasive, depending on our personal experiences or upbringing. The consequences of making exclusions from our Fairness Circle are, of course, severe on the excluded - beyond the pale, anything goes - threats, extortion, theft, dispossession, rape, torture, murder, denial of justice, denial of rights, silencing of speech. If we can be persuaded that the members of a specific group are a threat to us, then excluding them from our Fairness Circle, either temporarily or permanently, until the threat is neutralised, is traditionally an easy sell. Think Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib. A variation on this theme is if we think members of a certain group may hurt us in the future, in which case ejecting them from our Fairness Circle before they can do so, can be seen as a pre-emptive strike. Think internment of Japanese Americans, and confiscation of their homes and businesses, during the Second World War. If we can be persuaded that, in a variety of ways, people are somehow "not like us," (lots of relevant words here - childlike, primitive, inferior, uncivilised, fanatical, evil, elite, monstrous, disgusting, treacherous, etc) then the task of persuading us that our kindergarten-simple concepts of fairness and equality simply do not apply to them is made so much easier. Such words have been variously used during the course of American history to deny some or all of the benefits of the American Fairness Circle to black people, women, Jews, Muslims, Catholics, gay people, native people, communists, trade unionists, and others, seizing always on this or that identity tag that marks out membership in the excluded group.

The struggle that must be waged in each case is to demonstrate that the excluded group belongs within the Fairness Circle fold, where we can all agree that its members are perfectly entitled to the same standards of fair treatment as everyone else, rather than outside it, where they may continue to be discriminated against. But in arguing that, yes, people with black skin, or that, yes, people with vaginas, or that, yes, people whose parents had them circumcised or baptised as infants, happen to be people, just like other people, we who are in the struggle may get hung up on this issue of difference. Whatever the marker is that initially led to us being in the excluded group, it can take on a magical, powerful aura of its own - a fatal attraction, if we allow it to ensnare us in its glamour. And a fatal distraction, if we allow ourselves to be persuaded that the goal is to find a separate safe place where we can set up our own Fairness Circle, beyond the reach of those who excluded us from theirs.

Terry Pratchett calls us "Pan narrans," the story-telling ape, many liberation movements of people who have experienced exclusion, intimidation and discrimination, are held together by the story of their sufferings, and by the story of how those shared sufferings make that people special. And how we will naturally be happiest and safest in the company of others in our "special" group. I want to illustrate my point with two different takes on the same story - the story of the Promised Land.

Deuteronomy 34:1-5 tells the story of Moses, who having led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, and having placed them on the road to the Promised Land, is not permitted to go there himself. However, he is permitted an eagle's eye view of the Promised Land from the mountain top, just before he dies.

"Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab upon mount Nebo... And the Lord said to him: This is the land, for which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying: I will give it to thy seed. Thou hast seen it with thy eyes, and shalt not pass over to it. And Moses the servant of the Lord died there, in the land of Moab, by the commandment of the Lord:"

The biblical story of the liberation of a people formerly enslaved and suffering, is a powerful story. As we shall see, it has an archetypal resonance, even today. But the original story of the land that God had promised to Israel also tells that it had people living in it already. So was God promising the Israelites a shared inheritance, a land in which all God's children could live in peace and brotherhood? Not so:

Deuteronomy 7:1-8
"When the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them: Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son. For they will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of the LORD be kindled against you, and destroy thee suddenly. But thus shall ye deal with them; ye shall destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their groves, and burn their graven images with fire. For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God: the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth. The LORD did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people: But because the LORD loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers, hath the LORD brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondmen, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt."

This is the story of a liberation, but it is fatally flawed. The Israelites are not liberated because slavery is wrong, but to fulfill an oath that God has made. And in order to help God fulfill His oath to them, the people of Israel must destroy the people who already live in the land God recklessly promised to them. They are not to find common cause with the native inhabitants, they must instead believe that they are called to be a "special people." If they were to find common ground between themselves and the Canaanites, they might be tempted to spare them.

The biblical Promise to Israel, therefore, is a Separatist Paradise - a Special land for a Special people, one where they would reside in covenant with God, but enter no covenant with any other earthly people. To my mind, this is not the story of a true liberation. Or, it is the story of a liberation that got sidetracked away from the true road of liberation based on the rights of all humans, down the cul-de-sac of "liberation" based on special privileges for the chosen few. But, if people gain the right to the land because God has chosen them to be special, what happens if, or when, God chooses differently?

It is interesting what happens with the story of the Promised Land in the hands of Martin Luther King Jr, one of the greatest orators on the theme of liberation in the 20th century. He draws on a deep well of Biblical symbolism in his speeches, as expressed in the subversive tradition of Gospel music. Just as generations of slaveholders had found comfort in Scripture for their slaveholding ways, generations of slaves had been inspired with the hope of deliverance by the biblical story of the Israelites being brought out of slavery in Egypt into their promised land. In Memphis, in April 1968, the night before his assassination, Dr King gave a poignant speech in which he presciently invokes the possibility of his death, saying it does not cause him fear or dismay, because, like Moses, he has been to the mountain top:

"Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!"

But, there are differences, huge differences in Dr King's use of this imagery. And by changing key features of the story, he avoids the biblical Separatist Paradise fallacy. Take a look at his "I have a Dream" speech, given in Washington DC in a more optimistic 1963. The Promise being claimed in Dr King's speech is not God's Covenant for a Special people, and it is not a promise to be claimed the expense of any other person. Rather, Dr King shows that the Promise being claimed in that speech, was based on a human covenant - a human covenant which promised the same rights to every citizen:

In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."
    But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

The danger of Separatism, of Exceptionalism is that it comes to base its claims not on true justice, or rights, or fairness, but on Special Privilege. Which is seductive. But once we argue for a special privilege - once we claim a "right" for ourselves, that we are unwilling to grant to others, we have lost our fight for rights, and the only road we can travel is to be the most persuasive as to our entitlement to special privileges.

Dr King unfailingly avoided this pitfall and his speeches still have an illuminating quality for anyone who cares to study a path of liberation and justice. He said, "I know that justice is indivisible, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." We are all in this together. There is only one fight for justice and we must keep waging it always on behalf of one another. And there is only one Fairness Circle - and every human being on earth belongs inside it.

October 1, 2010, 5:47 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink58 comments

The Language of God: From Atheism to Belief

The Language of God, Chapter 1

By B.J. Marshall

The chapter begins with a description of Collins' experiences growing up. His parents shrugged off the business world and lived an agrarian life on huge tracts of land in the Shenandoah Valley. His father went on to teach at a women's college. Collins was homeschooled, and faith did not play a part in his upbringing. He went to an Episcopal church, but it was more for music appreciation than theology. OK, so we have a picture here of an ardent scientist who really didn't have a place for theism.

It's funny how, written from a theist perspective, he paints such a picture of atheists. Collins recounts how, as a student at the University of Virginia, conversations would easily turn to religion, where Collins' sense of the spiritual was easily challenged by the one or two "aggressive atheists one finds in almost every college dormitory" (p.15). Later, he says he enjoyed his agnosticism because it was "convenient to ignore the need to be answerable to any higher spiritual authority" (p.16). Collins likens this to practicing the "willful blindness" of his number one idol, C.S. Lewis (p.16). After college, he pursued a Ph.D. program at Yale and shifted to atheism, where he felt "quite comfortable challenging" the spiritual beliefs of others (p.16).

That comfort obviously didn't last long. After moving from chemistry to biology and getting accepted by the University of North Carolina, he did work that put him in intimate contact with very ill patients nearing death. He was astounded by their spirituality, and in one conversation a elderly woman simply asked him what he believed. He said he wasn't really sure and admitted to himself that he had never really weighed the arguments for and against belief. He realized he "could no longer rely on the robustness of [his] atheistic position" (p.20). How does one go from being quite comfortable challenging theists to having their "robust" atheistic world-view crumble? Apparently all it takes is to have an elderly sick woman ask what one believes. Incredible. I would have loved to have seen the atheistic Collins in action when he felt comfortable challenging the spiritual beliefs of others. Of course, Collins never says whether those challenges ended in his favor; I'm guessing they probably didn't.

So, Collins decided to look for answers and was pointed by a Methodist minister to look into the theology of C.S. Lewis. Collins marveled at how Lewis' arguments seemed to anticipate what Collins was thinking. The idea that most rocked Collins' ideas about science and spirit: The Moral Law and a Christian penchant for capitalization of random words. He then details a bunch of everyday problems, noting how it seems to be a universal human attribute to defer to some sort of unstated higher standard. "Though other animals may at times appear to show glimmerings of a moral sense, they are certainly not widespread, and in many instances other species' behavior seems to be in dramatic contrast to any sense of universal rightness" (p.23).

Of course, Collins never cites his sources, so we are left wondering how he knows how narrowly spread these non-human glimmers of morality are, and we are left asking how Collins is able to differentiate between "any" sense of universal rightness and these animals' behaviors - let alone the assertion that humankind's behavior is all that noble and aligned with universal rightness. Ask Hitler, Pol Pot, or even Mother Teresa.

Jessica Pierce and Marc Bekoff's book Wild Justice highlights the broad range of what we would call moral behaviors - fairness, trust, empathy, reciprocity, and more - in other animals. (I say "other" animals, because too often theists imagine humans apart from the animals). Pierce was interviewed on the Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot podcast. Here are some examples from her web site:

(I encourage you to add your own examples in the comments)

Over at Why Evolution Is True, Greg Mayer addresses this same excerpt of Collins' book, so I will simply link to it rather than expound here.

Not only does he confuse how animals can be moral, but he goes further to conflate morality with truth: "Let me stop here to point out that the conclusion that the Moral Law exists is in serious conflict with the current post-modernistic philosophy, which argues that there are no absolute right and wrongs.... If there is no absolute truth, can postmodernism itself be true?" (p.24). I'm not here to discuss the merits of postmodern philosophy, but I do find it amusing that he goes from moral relativism to the rejection of absolute truths. I can easily see how someone who holds to a relativistic standard of morality would still be perfectly well off thinking it's absolutely true that all rocks dropped in Paris will fall to the ground.

Collins sees altruism as a stumbling block to naturalistic explanations. He claims that selfless altruism - he explicitly rules out reciprocal altruism - cannot be attributed to individual selfish genes that want to perpetuate themselves. He gives three arguments from sociobiologists such as E.O. Wilson (though Collins never cites his sources, so we don't know without looking it up ourselves whether Wilson actually posited any of these three) that Collins think fail:

  1. Altruism as positive attribute for mate selection,
  2. Altruism as indirect reciprocal benefits, and
  3. Altruism as benefiting the whole group.

Before we unpack these arguments, we should note that Collins states that if altruistic behavior on the basis of its positive value to natural selection could be shown to be a credible argument, "the interpretation of many of the requirements of the Moral Law as a signpost to God would potentially be in trouble" (p.25). Well, sorry to say for Collins' sake, there's a lot of literature out there (check the references at the bottom of the page) explaining how evolution could have led to altruism - and not just in humans. Dawkins mentions four good reasons for individuals to be altruistic in "The God Delusion" (p.250-251):

  1. Genetic kinship: We evolved in small groups, allotting plenty of opportunity for kin altruism to develop,
  2. Reciprocal altruism: This one is out by Collins' standards, but we'd have plenty of time to develop this altruism given that we'd meet the same people over and over,
  3. Reputation: Dawkins states that biologists see a survival benefit to not only being a good reciprocator but having a reputation for being a good reciprocator, and
  4. Conspicuous consumption: Those who can provide food/shelter/protection with no expectation of compensation can flaunt their superiority.

Additionally, I argue that reciprocal altruism might not be as plainly seen as Collins might think. OK, there's the obvious "I scratch your back, you scratch mine." But I think there are plenty of examples of altruistic behavior with no tangible repercussions. For example: We had a huge snowstorm, and I helped my elderly neighbor shovel out her parking space. I am not expecting anything from it, and it doesn't even fall in line with Dawkins' lines of evidence (genetic, reputation, or conspicuous consumption). I did it because it fulfilled in me a desire to help my neighbor. I felt good doing it. Collins would not have been able to see that.

So, it appears that altruism as a positive attribute for mate selection corresponds nicely with kinship altruism and conspicuous consumption. It appears to me that having a reputation for being generous does indirectly benefit oneself, so maybe Collins would cry foul that this is a type of reciprocal altruism. However, it seems to me and others that a group consisting of individual members with unique and sometimes competing desires living cooperatively together seeks a stable solution to cohabitation.

Since Collins thinks that altruism must come from outside humanity, where does it come from? Well, he quotes his beloved Lewis again (Collins says he was stunned by the logic you are about to read): "If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe - no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves...." (p.29). OK, so let me get the analogy straight. We can't expect God/architect to be a fact inside the universe/house, so the only place we would expect to find God/architect is within us?? I'm in the universe, too, so why should I expect to find God in me and not outside me? On what grounds is this good logic? Although, it does explain why I've been haunted by my architect. Oh wait, no I'm not.

Collins has now found God, and he wonders what sort of God this is. He rules out deism out of hand on the grounds that, if Collins did indeed perceive God, then God would want a relationship with me. Sadly, I've tried to use this logic on Alyson Hannigan in vain for years. Given the high standards of the Moral Law, Collins concludes this God must be holy and righteous. He doesn't even consider Euthyphro's dilemma in trying to figure out the correlation between his God and the Moral Law: Does God arbitrarily dictate what is moral (in that case, isn't he amoral?), or does God say stuff is moral because that stuff is moral (in which case, why's God the middle man?). He also apparently didn't consider any other god who might desire a relationship with him. Nope - just Yahweh. Well, Jesus: Yahweh 2.0.

It became clear to Collins that science would get him nowhere in questioning God. Collins states that, if God exists, then he must be outside the natural world (but inside all of us, I guess), and therefore outside the purview of science. Oh, if he could only get off that easily.

Other posts in this series:

August 15, 2010, 12:50 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink28 comments

Standing on Air

Despite endless reiterations of how atheists find justification for morality, we all routinely hear from apologists who claim that without believing in God, we can have no basis for ethical behavior. That's one thing, but today I want to discuss a far stranger and more disturbing variant of this argument.

Regardless of whether we agree about the existence of God, you would think that atheists and believers would agree that good behavior should be encouraged. You would think that a religious evangelist would say to an atheist, "I may not understand how you can justify acting ethically, but I'm glad you do and I hope you continue treating others with kindness and doing good deeds." But often, that's not what we get. Instead, we see apologists not just scorning the idea that atheists can have moral principles, but actively trying to convince us that we should be evil!

Consider three recent examples from comment threads on Daylight Atheism:

Why is the next step [after becoming an atheist] to treat others with kindness? We don't have to do that at all. If there's no God telling us to be kind, then I say its survival of the fittest. I should oppress as many as possible to make my own position better. (source)

You have nothing but your own mind, a clump of chemicals, to judge the actions of another clump of chemicals. It's like a dog judging the way a cat runs his life, or Uranus criticizing the orbit of Pluto. It's ridiculous, incoherent nonsense. If you were consistent, you would just shut your mouths and do whatever pleases you at any moment, and not criticize when someone else did what pleases them.... (source)

Nonetheless, why do you even care about this? As atheists I would think that survival of the fittest at any cost would be acceptable. You have no accountability to anything. Truth and right is subjective in your eyes, so why is scamming a few suckers so bad? (source)

One might assume that the apologists engage in this bizarre behavior because they want us to conform to their stereotype of atheists as selfish, amoral nihilists - making it easier for them to frighten others away from joining us. And I think, at least in some cases, there's truth to that. The atheist movement is a convenient scapegoat for religious preachers who blame every evil in the world on our wickedness. There's nothing like a good atheist-bashing sermon to get the congregation reliably riled up, and if we persist in doing good deeds, helping people, and being productive citizens, it's going to make things very awkward for the sermon-writers (especially since it's no longer socially acceptable to bash the previous scapegoat du jour).

However, I think the real roots of this behavior go deeper. Religious evangelists aren't just calling atheists immoral because it's on their list of talking points. I think most of them truly believe it: it's an article of faith for them, a cornerstone of their worldview. And when they see that expectation violated, it induces a profound and frightening feeling of cognitive vertigo that they'll try to cure by any means possible.

Imagine you were walking along the rim of a high cliff when you saw someone, a dozen paces beyond the edge, apparently standing on thin air with no visible means of support. Most likely, you wouldn't placidly accept this. Wouldn't you be stunned, amazed, terrified? Wouldn't you cry out that this was impossible? Wouldn't you demand, "Why don't you fall?"

Just so is the situation with religious apologists encountering ethical atheists. They believe, because they've been taught to believe, that belief in God is vital and necessary both to provide moral guidance to individuals and also to hold the fabric of society together. They believe that humans are inherently sinful and that only God provides a moral law that can check our selfish impulses. Thus, the conclusion that atheists have no morals isn't just a claim of no consequence; it's a link in the chain of interconnected assumptions that constitutes their worldview. It's something that, as far as they're concerned, has to be true.

No wonder, then, that they react so strongly when they see atheists who are moral. Their missives betray not just anger and denial - the usual response to someone whose worldview is threatened - but maybe even a hint of fear. ("Why do you even care about this?" has more than a hint of pleading, doesn't it?) After all, an argument that God doesn't exist or that the Bible contains contradictions is a worldview threat that most Christians are familiar with, and they have well-rehearsed apologetics to soothe their own minds. But the discovery that atheists are moral is something they can't dismiss as easily; it just doesn't fit into their worldview. (Some apologists employ the face-saving gambit of claiming that even if atheists are moral, it's only because we're unknowingly following the law of God written in our hearts - but this amounts to much the same thing, and in any case this claim tends to evaporate when we point out how our morals lead us to conclusions that differ from what's written in their holy books.)

And as a consequence, we see claims that boil down to, "If I were in your position, I'd be evil and selfish! Why aren't you?" It's the same intellectual anguish we'd experience upon seeing someone standing on thin air: "If I were in your position, I'd be plummeting to the ground! What's keeping you up?" It's the shock of someone confronted with what they believe cannot exist, the existential dizziness induced by trying desperately to explain the inexplicable. In a way, a good and moral atheist is far more threatening to them than any kind of intellectual argument against God. A committed theist can use faith to overcome any evidence or reason used against them, but they can't use faith to wish us away. But they clearly wish they could, which is what leads to the bizarre spectacle of apologists trying to persuade us to do evil.

Of course, the existence of a moral atheist isn't inexplicable in general. It's only inexplicable to people who start with the presupposition that believing in God is the only possible source of morality. To atheists who have moral principles, the answer is clear enough: we're motivated not by the fear of divine punishment, but by the emotional experience of the unpleasantness of suffering, coupled with the intellectual realization that the world is populated by other human beings who probably feel the same way. Our morality, in other words, arises from reason blended with compassion, and when you try it, it turns out to be a perfectly workable basis. We're not standing on air after all, but on good solid ground - it's just that it's invisible to the apologists who've convinced themselves that it can't exist. If they'd open their eyes and their minds, they'd see it for themselves, and maybe even consider stepping out onto it and exploring it with us.

May 14, 2010, 7:35 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink35 comments

Common Myths About Polyamory

By JulietEcho

Editor's Note: This piece emerged from the discussion of my recent post on the legality of polyamory. Please welcome Daylight Atheism's newest guest contributor, JulietEcho, who has her B.A. in both Philosophy and Religious Studies and is also the administrator of the Friendly Atheist forum. You can e-mail her at

I've been in a polyamorous relationship with my two partners for over three years now, and it's been great. The only downside: the secrecy. Many people in the US don't even know that plural relationships exist outside of Islamic countries and fundamentalist Mormon compounds. Polyamorous families tend to be very secretive - and with good reason. The religious majority in America considers any romantic relationship that's not between a straight woman and a straight man (usually in the context of marriage) to be sinful and immoral – and people in polyamorous relationships mostly consider silence the safest option, given the risks of losing jobs, reputations and even custody of children. However, bad reactions to polyamory aren't limited to reactions rooted in religion. I'm going to outline what I've found to be the three most common bad reactions to polyamory from non-religious people, and I plan to demonstrate why they're bad reactions.

1. "Polyamory? That's okay, as long as <insert horrible things here> isn't going on."

Underage marriages. Forced marriages. Abusive marriages. Polyamory is just swell, as long as it's not underage, forced, and/or abusive polyamory! While the reaction based on historical connections is understandable, it's a non-sequitur. When you find out that someone is marrying the woman of their dreams, you don't say, "That's great, as long as you don't plan on beating your new wife!" There's a long, horrible history of socially-acceptable violence against women, not to mention the centuries during which they were treated as property. This doesn't, however, mean that we're obliged to point out that it's unacceptable every time we find out about a man and a woman in a romantic relationship. No one should have to clarify that their polyamorous relationship is abuse-free, any more than someone in a relationship with a woman should have to clarify that they don't plan on treating her like property.

Some even argue that we should criminalize polyamory, or never acknowledge poly relationships as a normal part of society, because it would benefit abusers who force underage girls to marry them. This is beyond ridiculous – the fact that pedophiles are out there hasn't led us to outlaw sex, and the fact that thieves are out there hasn't led us to outlaw property ownership. There are still abusive relationships, pedophiles, and forced arranged monogamous marriages all over the world – are these things okay as long as they only involve two people? Should we outlaw one-on-one marriages so that we aren't providing a framework for abusive husbands, forced arranged marriages, marital rape, etc? The solution isn't to penalize polyamorous relationships – it's to crack down on the abuse of women, whether they're being abused singly or in groups.

2. "Those relationships are always about drama/don't last/are dysfunctional."

You don't tend to hear about the relationships that do last, because polyamorous families don't stand to gain anything from going public. You hear about the failed attempts from people who are upset and bitter about bad relationships (monogamous people don't have a monopoly on those), and from cases where there was serious fall-out between groups of friends, etc. You don't hear about the ones that last, because the people involved are generally terrified that they'll lose their kids and their jobs if people find out.

With more factors involved, poly relationships have a higher probability of failing – just like single people are much less likely to get divorced than married people. There's one more person who needs to "click" and more personal dynamics involved. It's hard to find (and sustain) a happy, healthy polyamorous relationship – but once you've got one, the people involved tend to be strong communicators, prioritize honesty and not take the relationship for granted. That's what it takes to make polyamory work.

In the end, to paraphrase Dan Savage, every relationship you have is going to fail – until one doesn't. That's true no matter how many people you date at once.

3. "Telling people that you're polyamorous is over-sharing – it's like telling them about your sex life."

Telling someone that you're dating a man is essentially telling them that you're interested in sex with men. Telling someone that you're dating a woman is essentially telling them that you're interested in sex with women. Telling someone that you're in a polyamorous relationship is essentially telling them that you don't see sexual monogamy as a necessary part of a healthy relationship. That's all. It doesn't imply (and no one should infer) that poly people have group sex, orgies, or have open relationships. It doesn't imply that every person in the relationship has sex with every other person in the relationship – in a way, it gives you less information about someone's sex life than finding out that only two people are dating each other.

It might feel like too much information to hear that someone is in a poly relationship – but that's about your personal comfort zone, not about the objective amount (or type) of information being shared. Many people are uncomfortable around gay couples or would rather not know that someone is gay – and that's tough cookies. People in love shouldn't have to (and aren't going to) go through a constant, public charade so that other people won't be grossed out or offended. No one is going to have sex in front of you. No one is going to ask you to join their poly relationship, like it's a club or something. Admitting the existence of a romantic relationship isn't inappropriate or over-sharing – it's normal.

When it comes right down to it, perhaps the biggest unspoken reason people have for objecting to (or being offended by) polyamory is fear. It's common for monogamous people to fear that a partner might leave them for a polyamorous relationship (or might demand opening up the existing relationship) if polyamory becomes normalized. But if your partner would actually leave you, or demand that you open up your relationship against your wishes, then you obviously aren't on the same page. There are tons of people out there (I'd wager a large majority of people) who want mostly or completely monogamous relationships – and they should find, date and marry other people who want the same thing.

Being honest about whether or not you're truly willing to commit to one other person sexually and romantically for life is ethical and healthy. Pretending to want monogamy (or genuinely wanting it, and then changing your mind and keeping it a secret), and then cheating is very, very common. Perhaps divorce and infidelity would become less common if more people were aware that poly relationships are an option, and if people made a greater effort to communicate their needs and desires. In short: polyamorous people aren't a threat to people who truly want monogamy – any more than relationships with men are a threat to people who are only interested in relationships with women.

Whether polyamorous marriage is ever legalized or not, I'll be more than happy if it's someday considered socially acceptable. There's nothing inherently unethical or offensive about it, and I've been surprised to find out how many polyamorous people I know, once they feel safe enough to talk about it. "Coming out" as polyamorous is currently a frightening, risky thing to do. If a friend discloses a polyamorous relationship to you, I hope you won't react in any of the ways I've discussed above, but rather give them the support and friendship that they need.

Feel free to ask questions in the comments if you're curious about polyamory, and thanks for reading.

December 17, 2009, 6:42 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink80 comments

On the Morality of: Polyamory

The comments in a recent thread on same-sex marriage have been heading in this direction, so I thought I'd offer some thoughts about polyamorous relationships and how we can view them from a humanist standpoint.

The reason I (and others) advocate full marriage equality for same-sex couples is straightforward. Marriage is a civil ceremony which confers many legal rights on both partners, rights which are either extremely burdensome or impossible to obtain any other way. At present, the law in many states denies certain couples the right to enter into marriage because of the gender of the participants. This is wrong for precisely the same reason as anti-miscegenation laws, which denied certain couples the right to enter into marriage because of the race of the participants. Both of these are discriminatory policies which deny people the equal protection of the laws by treating them differently based on which group they belong to (black/white, heterosexual/homosexual).

However, laws which restrict marriage to two partners are not discriminatory in the same sense, because those laws apply equally to everyone. Unlike with same-sex marriage, therefore, I conclude that there is no straightforward anti-discrimination argument for extending marriage rights to polyamorous partnerships. This is not a case of legal benefits being offered to certain partnerships but denied to others based solely on morally irrelevant characteristics of the partners, like race or gender. Instead, the law is consistent: no one can enter into a legal marriage with more than one partner. One can certainly argue whether this is the most rational policy for society to follow, but it's not a self-evident violation of anyone's human rights.

So far, so good. But now the further question: even if it's not discrimination, is it the most rational policy for society to forbid multiple-partner marriages?

The first thing to recognize, in my opinion, is that once we decide to allow polyamorous marriages, there's no rational cutoff point at which we can limit their size. Any argument which would permit a polyamorous relationship of N partners would equally well permit a relationship of N+1 partners. (In software engineering, my chosen field, a similar principle is called the zero-one-infinity rule: "When processing input, allow none of X, one of X, or infinity of X.")

But this presents us with some problems, because there are numerous rights and responsibilities that come with a two-person marriage that simply can't be extended in a straightforward manner to a multiple-partner marriage. Take the right not to testify against your partner in court, for example, or the death benefits paid to partners of federal employees, or the right to gain residency or citizenship by marrying someone who is already a citizen. Allowing such rights to be extended to an arbitrarily large group of partners could lead to chaos - but having permitted them for two-person marriages, how could we fairly forbid them to larger arrangements?

And then there are the legal issues, which would be orders of magnitude more complex than the already difficult dilemmas that arise in family law. How do you take a new person into a polyamorous relationship - must it be by unanimous consent of all current partners, or a mere majority vote? If such a partnership dissolves, how do we fairly divide up property, or settle on child custody or visitation rights? If you're married to two or more people and become incapacitated, who would have the deciding vote in matters of care? These problems aren't insoluble - but they would be extraordinarily difficult to grapple with. (This, again, contrasts to same-sex marriage, where the nature, rights and responsibilities of the relationship don't change just because we've removed one limitation on who can participate. Polyamorous marriage, on the other hand, would truly be a brand-new kind of relationship requiring its own set of rules.)

All these factors would seem to indicate that our current policy is rationally justified. And yet, the libertarian in me rebels against the idea that the state has any business butting into people's private relationships. Mutually consenting adults should be able to enter into any kind of arrangement they please. I have to admit that I find considerable justice in this argument. If three people rather than two want to share household responsibilities, by what right can we deny them that? A larger family structure might even, arguably, be superior to pair marriages in terms of sharing childcare duties and other responsibilities, and more resilient against tragedies like the death of one partner.

On the other hand, these lofty principles, so clear and simple-seeming in the abstract, inevitably get snarled in the complications of the real world. And here's one whopping big complication that atheists and freethinkers should be especially sensitive to: in the real world, one of the most common manifestations of plural partnerships is in religious cults that use polygamy as a way to keep women subjugated.

Escapees like Carolyn Jessop and Elissa Wall have written grippingly of their virtual imprisonment in isolated sects like the FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints - an extremist offshoot of the Mormons), which force girls into harem-like polygamous marriages with older males whom they're expected to obey absolutely. (See also this article, or my older posts on Warren Jeffs.)

This is an evil that no society should tolerate - but if we legally permit polyamory, how can we prevent it? Better enforcement of age-of-consent laws would help, but even so, this would not prevent women who feel they have no place else to turn from being coerced into these relationships of subjugation.

With all this in mind, my qualified conclusion is that society should not legally recognize polyamorous relationships. I certainly don't think consenting adults should be prohibited from doing whatever they want in their private lives, but the full range of legal benefits that come with marriage should be limited to two-person partnerships, at least for now. However, I'm open to counterarguments. Is there a way to treat all kinds of committed relationships evenhandedly without encouraging women's subjugation or opening the door to legal absurdities?

Other posts in this series:

November 16, 2009, 6:51 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink84 comments

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