Subjective Morality

What are morals? Are they relative values? Are they subjective or are they objective? Where do we get them from?

Morals are (sometimes) codified criteria by which we decide what is good and bad, right and wrong.

Morals are relative because they vary from culture to culture, time period to time period and are also situational. An Aztec would have considered it a good thing to be sacrificed and to have their heart cut out. Slavery was considered morally acceptable up until mid-way through the 19th century, and isn’t today. We would be more lenient with someone with someone who stole a loaf of bread to feed their starving family over someone who stole diamonds purely for personal gain.

Even these are relative, there are bound to be people who disagree with me even on these.

Are they subjective or objective? Given that they’re relative as we’ve already established and given that people’s opinions and reactions differ it is obvious that they are subjective. Even if we reduce it down to the level of ‘what’s good for humans?’ in the way Sam Harris has tried to, or in the way utilitarian or epicurean systems have tried to, that’s still only applicable to humans (or given the evidence from other primates, some of them too). If a snake, a lion or any other creature with a different evolutionary history was intelligent enough to codify a moral system then we would expect their conception of right and wrong to be very different indeed.

Where do we get them from? The evidence would suggest evolutionary psychology being where. Instincts and behaviours can be passed on biologically as well as socially. We see that in the behaviours of all manner of creatures, many of which are quite complex and cannot reasonably be considered to have been passed on culturally. We also see natural variation on morality within humans, though we only recognise its negative extremes (sociopathy/psychopathy). Genetics are a reasonable predictor of where someone will fall in allegiance to political parties. Most of human contention in politics and in personal relationships seems to be about this tension between selfishness and altruism, though even selfishness is excused as an appeal to naturalism (Randian Objectivism, trickle-down economics, the invisible hand of the market).

I think of morality as existing in three layers (foundation at the bottom):

Individual: Our own moral decisions from experiences, thought etc. A personal code of ethics.
Nurture: The moral codes and behaviours instilled in us by our culture, parents and education.
Nature: Our inherited, evolutionary moral sense.

The higher ones on the chart can override those lower on the chart.

For example, our instinct might be to provide care for someone in need. Our received notions of morality might override this by telling us that someone got themselves into trouble or somehow deserves what is happening to them. Our individual, personal sense of ethics might override this by leading us to make exceptions for friends or people we think are ‘the deserving poor’.

What hope, then, of finding any kind of universal morality?

Well, none.

There is hope of finding a human moral system, or multiple human moral systems that work though. There will be some things that are natural and universal to humans but there may be multiple ways of getting to them. The idea of ‘least harm’ and ‘most gain’ is a good guide, as is accurate information upon which to make decisions. Any moral system must have room to flex, to deal with situations, exceptions to bend and change with new information.

Utilitarianism and epicureanism are an obvious place to start as they measure relatively objective factors. We can test things and judge their results. Thereby finding our way to things that work, much in the same way we might seek to find a new design of wing. Of course, we cannot turn this into dogma, we would need to constantly reassess, explore and test as we would in any other field.

There’s hope, but the old way of thinking needs to be torn down first. Intellect needs to overcome ideology, faith and black and white thinking.

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Religious Spam Round-Up 3: Won’t Somebody Think of Society?!?

Every day social media users, especially those identifying as agnostics, atheists and skeptics, are subjected to a barrage of religious spam from true believers. This tends to be repeated, day in, day out, several times a day with no attempt to engage or discuss the matter. It’s spam, plain and simple. Some groups even seem to use small botnets, multiple accounts or proxies to spam hundreds of identical or similar messages all in one go.

Let’s look at some, all from one afternoon and evening on Twitter and only a small sample…

Atheist Morality!

So the claim runs, I think, that by dismissing god somehow that means an end to basic morality and empathy between human beings. Needless to say, numerous lines of evidence show nothing of the sort. The less religious the nation the less criminal and violent it tends to be (Scandinavia). Atheists are less likely to be criminals of any sort.

Why is this?

Well, it’s a complex number of interlocking things. Less religious nations tend to have better social safety nets and less existential fretting about the future. Atheists tend to come from more educated and financially secure demographics and that has been shown in various studies to be the biggest deciding factor in criminality.

Anyway, the long and the short of it is that irreligiosity has fuck all to do with people being horrible to one another and, if anything, the reverse is true. Needless to say, even if religion made saints out of everyone, that wouldn’t mean its assertions were true and if atheism made everyone into monsters that wouldn’t mean its conclusion was false.

This whole line of argument is an enormous irrelevance if your concern is what’s true.

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.

Aethics: On Abortion

 

Aethics is what I’m tentatively calling my own attempt at an objective (or at least only human-subjective) moral philosophy. The idea being that by incorporating ideas from Epicureanism and Utilitarianism you can come to a fact-based, rational and logical moral decision on difficult problems. There’s some important key components to this though:

  • Facts first: Any decision must be based on facts.
  • Provisional: An ‘aethical’ point of view accents that any decision made through it is provisional, not absolute.
  • Situational: Any moral or ethical decision depends on context. What is wrong in one instance may not be wrong in another. No decision is set or settled in its entirety.
  • Emotions & Feelings Have Value: People’s emotional pain should be taken into account and weighed up in a decision.
  • Strive for Objectivity: While emotions have value and meaning they should not guide the moral decisions.

Given recent objectionable events in the US (and oh, there’s been so many) and a couple of discussions from anti-abortion atheists it felt like this would be a good subject to take these thoughts on a test-run.  I am not used to seeing anti-abortion sceptics and atheists and it was disappointing to see that they had no real, co/gent or fact-based arguments against abortion.

What’s the Goal?

To maximise liberty, minimise pain and to consider what is the best possible course of action in most circumstances.

 

What are the Facts?

What are the facts that might influence our decision whether abortion is right or wrong?

  • Scientific consensus is that a foetus cannot even potentially feel pain until at least the 24th week.
  • The very first stuttering of foetal consciousness occur around 20 weeks but this is intermittent, they’re only synchronous and ongoing from 27 weeks. The best evidence that we have that the transition has been made from ‘lump of flesh’ to a human being.
  • In the UK elective abortion is allowed up to 24 weeks.
  • In the UK abortion for medical reasons (mental or physical problems for the mother, or deformity and issues for the foetus) is allowed later.
  • In the UK 91% of abortions take place beneath 13 weeks.
  • Medical abortions made up 47% of abortions in the UK.
  • 1% of abortions were due to foetal deformity.
  • Abortions cause distress and regret is some people (whether this is down to abortion itself or social disapproval is unclear).
  • This is a contentious public issue.
  • Unwanted children or children raised in care are more likely to be societal problems as a demographic.
  • Contraception fails.
  • It is unrealistic to expect people not to have sex.
  • An unwanted pregnancy can curtail a woman’s academic or professional career.
  • The man may not want to be a father as much as the woman may not want to be a mother.

What Can I Conclude and What’s the Reasoning?

Given that what defines our humanity is our consciousness we can consider abortion completely problem free up to 24 weeks. Nothing is being lost, nothing we should rationally consider human is being lost and there’s no question of the foetus feeling, comprehending or understanding pain. Given the relative uncertainty over brain function this is probably the best cut-off point for elective abortion in any case.

Given that a foetus can probably feel pain after 24 weeks abortions after this period should include anaesthesia to prevent needless suffering on even the most basic level.

In the case of medical abortions past 24 weeks we need to consider what does the most or the least harm. When it comes to mental distress and illness this is more difficult to process but mental illness is real illness and pregnancy and birth can be stressful and even life threatening to someone with mental issues. It should be treated as seriously, then, as physical risks to the mother. Ultimately, the mother – a fully realised, actualised, thinking, feeling human being with experience, talents and societal contributions has more inherent worth by any measure than a potential human being.

How should we approach the interface between the desires of the mother and the father in the case of an unwanted pregnancy?

It is the mother’s body and thus, ultimately, it has to be her decision. We cannot ethically either force a woman to become a brood mare or force her to get an abortion. Either would be an absolute violation of personal autonomy and would devalue a real and present human being compared to a potential human being.

unwanted pregnancyWe cannot ignore the role of men in this though. An unexpected pregnancy can and does create a burden for the father that they may not want and over which they are given no choice. If we are to respect the personal autonomy of the mother we must also respect the personal autonomy of the father. Since the father cannot either demand a pregnancy be continued nor that it be aborted we have a problem. A man who wishes the child to be carried to term is simply out of luck. There is no way to compensate him for the loss of his potential offspring without causing a very negative effect on others. There is no simple way to negotiate this issue. The other way around we do have an option though. An unplanned, unexpected or accidental pregnancy that a man does not wish brought to term he might be able to legally disconnect himself from his responsibility to that child. A sort of ‘legal abortion’ that allows him to evade child support and other responsibilities for a child he never wanted, in exchange for giving up all rights and claims to that child.

I think I’ve covered the main issues here. If I’ve missed anything or you see a flaw in the reasoning, please let me know.

Seven Refutations

Seven-Dwarfs

Insomuch as is possible I will limit myself to simple atheism, that is ‘I do not believe in god/s’ without involving naturalism, science etc. This is a basic, sceptical stance wherein we require evidence for a god before we believe in one (or indeed anything else). William Lane Craig’s ‘Seven arguments for god‘ keep getting brought up as ‘evidence’ when they’re not evidence and they’re barely even arguments. I will now show why:

1. Why is there something instead of nothing?

Leaving aside the science for a moment, ‘I don’t know’ is a perfectly acceptable answer. Is there a reason? There may or may not be. Is it even possible for there to be ‘nothing’? There’s some suggestion otherwise. Whatever the case, whether there a reason, an actor, a natural force at play or otherwise if you’re going to say ‘god did it’ you need evidence that god did it. WLC only has an assertion which, without evidence to back it up, is useless.

One down.

2. Cause and Effect

Again, leaving aside the scientific examples of exceptions to this this is a poor argument and not evidence. IF everything requires a cause then this must also apply to god itself, leading to an infinite regression of gods each creating the next one. Clearly this is not a logical or rational position. Craig takes up the ‘Kalam’ argument, which I have covered before. This one says ‘everything needs a cause, except god’. Well then, if there can be exceptions then not everything requires a cause.

Even if everything does require a cause that could be natural, one of any number of gods or something else entirely. Asserting it is god doesn’t make it so. You would need evidence to prove that assertion. Again, this is just an assertion and again, without evidence to back it up, it is useless. This is without even getting into issues like the impossibility of cause and effect before time and context.

Two down.

3. Argument from Design & Complexity

Again, ignoring the fact that science can account for the appearance of design and for natural complexity we still find this to be a poor argument. Things certainly might appear designed or special but that’s just our perspective on them. If they were different, they’d be different. If you shuffle a deck of cards the odds of them coming out in any particular order are around 1 in 10 to the power of 68 (I think, the point is that they’re long odds). Yet every time we shuffle a pack those incredibly long odds are made manifest in that particular order. We just happen to observe them in the order they have happened into.

Even then, much of the natural world is interdependent and deterministic, shortening the odds and moves in building cycles.

So, we can certainly say things ‘appear designed’ but there are a multitude of possibilities for this. Again, natural laws and interactions, again, any number of possible gods and again, other things we maybe haven’t thought of. WLC presumes god and wedges it in there because that’s all he can think of. Yet again, this is an assertion. Yet again, this assertion requires evidence to back it up. Yet again, he has none.

Three down.

4. Objective Morality

There have been innumerable moral systems over time. Morality is subjective, conditional and contextual. We really cannot point to anything at all that would universally be bad or wrong (or the worst option) in any and every circumstance. Ignoring the science, again, all we have here is an assertion and yet again, one without evidence. Craig specifically believes the Abrahamic god to be true, and that god has tremendous problems when you look at its morality. It breaks virtually every one of its own commandments, it kills, it lies, it even rapes children (Mary being adjudged to be a child by modern standards). The very split between the OT and the NT undermines this suggestion of objective morality.

Even if there were an objective moral system there are many possible explanations, natural ones, theistic ones and others. Craig fails to provide evidence that there is an objective moral system or that his god is the one behind it.

Four down.

5. Ontological Argument

This one is really rather crazy so why anyone takes it seriously I don’t know. The basic idea runs something like this:

  • We can conceive of an all powerful, perfect being.
  • Existence is a prerequisite of being all powerful and perfect.
  • We can conceive of god.
  • Therefore god exists.

I call this the ‘if wishes were horses’ argument.

Here’s my formulation.

  • I can conceive of the perfect roast beef sandwich.
  • Existence is a prerequisite of being the perfect roast beef sandwich and it is MY perfect roast beef sandwich so it would have to be here right now for me to eat.
  • Where the fuck is my sandwich?

That we can conceive of a thing doesn’t, apparently, mean that thing actually exists outside of the conceptual space of our mind. Physical reality certainly appears to be much more limited. This conceptual being could also be anything from god to Allah to The Great Green Arkleseizure. We can also constantly improve on our concepts over time.

Yet again, no evidence here, just a theological/philosophical mind game that, in the end, provides no evidence.

Five down.

6. Resurrection

Here’s where Craig gets specifically into the Christian god. In brief there is:

  1. No historical evidence for the existence of Jesus, even as a mortal man.
  2. No historical evidence for the resurrection.

In short, again, these are claims which require evidence, not evidence themselves.

Six down.

7. Experiential

Subjective, personal experience is not evidence. Yes, people inculcated into a particular religion may claim to have a particular experience but this varies from person to person and culture to culture. The ‘spiritual experience’ of a Hindu is no more or less convincing than that of a Christian. While we give certain things a pass on the need for evidence (mundane, everyday experiences and so forth) really, we need evidence to rationally believe anything.

Your ‘encounter’ with god is no more convincing than my ‘encounter’ with an Aztec god after having taken mushrooms.

Seven down.

Summary

Every single one of WLC’s arguments are arguments from ignorance (I don’t know, therefore god did it) or arguments from personal incredulity (I can’t believe this happened any other way than god). These are, needless to say, fallacious lines of reasoning. There is no evidence here, just questions into which ‘god did it’ has been crudely rammed on absolutely no basis.

And yet WLC is considered the ‘best’ apologetics has to offer.

No Hell = No Trust

There’s a fascinating article talked about over HERE.

The short version, for those not wanting to delve through all the study, is that the reason that a lot of people don’t trust atheists is that they think that – because we don’t have a hell to fear – that we have no reason to act honestly or morally. This comes up damn often in arguments with the religious and I’ve pretty much dismissed it out of hand before, after all, theism didn’t exactly stop many of the great tyrants and dictators of history being epic fucktards now did it?

The good thing now is that we know why we’re not trusting and we can attack that belief. It is, after all, not only nonsense but actively disprovable. Just take a look at religious affiliation by prison intake HERE.

You will, of course, get served up with a sizeable dollop of No True Scotsman (after all real religious people would never do criminal stuff) but even so we can see here that, if anything, atheists are far less likely to be dishonest/criminal than those who profess a religious belief. That pretty much shoots that prejudice out of the water and demonstrates that, if anything, the opposite is true.

Honestly, if you need the threat of hell to be a good person, you’re not a good person.

Bad Reasons to Believe in God: Morality

It is quite often argued by proponents of the the Abrahamic faiths that god, whichever god it is, is the ultimate and inviolate source of humanity and that somehow the existence of our conscience, our guilt when we do bad things, is evidence for this god.

Needless to say there are problems with this.

  1. The god described in their holy books is a capricious, violent, hypocritical fuckwit of the first order. Dawkins puts it more poetically but you can find his description for yourselves. Suffice to say if you’re looking for a perfect moral guide a mass-murdering torturer and engineer of genocide isn’t a safe bet.
  2. Morality does change, it’s subjective. One can see that even through the books. Christians would even argue themselves that the New Testament overrides the old (even though it explicitly says it doesn’t) but to argue that moral systems can change is to argue that god is not all knowing or perfect since otherwise he’d have gotten it right first time. Different cultures, different times, different morals. This is particularly difficult for Muslims since Mohammed was, by any remotely modern standard, a kiddie fiddler. Try asking them if screwing children is wrong and, well… see what happens. Morality is also situational, stealing to feed a starving child would – for example – be considered good.
  3. Our conscience can enforce any moral system with which we’re ‘programmed’. While certain very broad and general moral rules seem to apply across humanity these are extremely basic and can be accounted for through evolutionary psychology and our existence as a social species (altruism good, selfishness bad). Whatever morality you’re brought up into, otherwise, will determine what you feel good, bad or indifferent about.

Summary: Offensive and ignorant, as well as being bollocks.