Quotemining Morality

BP8OSmtCEAASdpqI’ve noticed a spate of attempts to smear atheism in the form of quote-mines from Dawkins, Krauss and Singer lately.

This usually takes the form of ‘X is excusing Y!’

EG: ‘Dawkins says rape is morally arbitrary!’, ‘Krauss doesn’t see anything wrong with incest!’, and ‘Singer advocates bestiality!’.

Obviously these are out of context and don’t take the conversation into account but that’s not the only interesting thing about this.

1. This argument most often comes from Muslims. Probably because atheists give them an absolute kicking over Aisha. The irony here is that they tie themselves in knots trying to excuse child-fucking by Mohammed and in various Islamic nations, thereby making their own argument that morality is subjective rather than objective and divine.

2. No reason is given as to WHY we should be shocked or outraged at these statements. It is simply assumed that we must – unthinkingly – be disgusted by the very idea that rape, incest or bestiality might be morally grey in any way shape or form. This is probably true, most people will likely react that way but the people being quoted are people who are used to thinking rationally, assessing things, going over old ground looking for flaws. Singer in particular is very adept at stripping things back and examining them fresh without the inculcated blinkers we gain as we grow up. All three instances are cases of people looking at these moral issues through a lens of rationalism.

3. All of these morally difficult actions are excused by one religion or another, but not on a rational basis.

When Dawkins describes our moral objection to rape as arbitrary it is within the context of a discussion on other traits and adaptations. Evolution shapes behaviour as well as form. While there may be sound evolutionary reasons for us to have X number of fingers or Y number of eyes it seems likely that there are sound evolutionary reasons for some broad human values and behaviours. As a social species disruptive and violent behaviour can harm the group and is likely to be socially enforced against – for example. Forcible rape is the primary mode of reproduction in many species, so in other species it may be a sound mating strategy and if we had evolved differently we might have a different moral outlook on it.

Regardless, we have the subjective morality that we do have along with consciousness and awareness of the existence of others. Whatever the origin of our rape taboo we have it and there are recognisible social, psychological and other costs involved.

When Krauss talks about incest he is experimentally wondering WHY we consider it wrong. The incest taboo appears to come, somewhat, from the worry about inbreeding but incest between cousins and constant familial intermarriage is present throughout history so that can’t be the whole story. Animals breed amongst their close relatives with little – immediate – genetic concern. In a world of abortion and contraception is that reproductive inbreeding issue still truly relevant? We feel disgust even thinking about or talking about this but WHY do we feel disgust and should we let emotion get in the way of rationally thinking about this, whatever we decide?

Singer’s comment was a comment in a review on a book that asked that sort of question. There’s several arguments against bestiality including disease and whether an animal can give meaningful consent. Medical and consent reasons also lie behind our taboos against underage sex or statutory rape. Singer’s argument is simply a question. If the animal has agency, choice, effective consent and the person consents and both derive pleasure from it (or at least no harm) what is the rational reason to reject it, to make it taboo, to react as we do?

‘Hey. Why do we feel the way we do about these things and is it justified that feel that way?’ is a valid and important question to ask, about everything.


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