Friday, December 18, 2009

Evil will always triumph, because Good Is dumb.

The title of this post is from a movie, can you guess which one?

Where does your average person get their moral viewpoints from?  This is a question I have been pondering, particularly as it relates to religion.  I think that generally speaking people have a fairly generic, common set of moral viewpoints with a few outliers here and there, but that people's views of *where* their moral guidelines and sensibilities come from varies tremendously.   It is my firmly held belief (for reasons I will outline here) that even though people have incredibly varied ideas of how someone should decide moral issues that they pull their actual day to day moral decisions and feelings from very common sources.

So where do people think they get their morals from?  Many or most people would claim that their morals come from their holy books.  Even those who are very casual religiously often suggest that their decisions morally come from the texts their religion holds dear even though in most cases they have never even read those books.  For example, the Old Testament has all kinds of rules in it that people hold up as examples of why you should use the Bible as a authority on morality.  I will phrase them in modern terms.

- Do not kill people.
- Do not steal from people.
- Do not lie.

These are moral guidelines that every culture follows, whether or not they ascribe to the theory that their laws are laid down by some greater power.  Regardless of whether you are looking at hunter/gatherers, atheists, religious groups or any other you will find these and other similar laws.

However, there are many other laws in the Old Testament that are if not really wrong, at least extremely bizarre or incomprehensible.

- Wear tassels on your clothing.
- Do not wear clothes of mixed fibres (generally held to refer to wool and linen)
- Do not boil a lamb in its mother's milk  (there are plenty of Jewish rules drawn from this, but I honestly can't see how you can really conclude that a complex set of meat/milk separation laws is really derivable from this one phrase)

These are laws that define a culture, but are not found universally.  One of the most important points thought is that people who would list the Bible as their moral guide very rarely follow these laws.  If you really want to believe that the Bible is a authority on what you should and should not do, I would think you should obey all of it.

Here are some things in the Old Testament that virtually nobody actually believes but yet are quite clear:

- The appropriate response to finding someone collecting firewood on the Sabbath is to throw rocks at them until they die.
- When you conquer a people militarily the appropriate action is to murder every male citizen of every age, then murder every nonvirgin female, then take the virgin females for yourself.  (Moses ordered this)
- Slavery is acceptable
- Women should not be accorded rights as human beings, but rather considered property of a man

I think you would have a hell of a hard time finding anyone who actually thinks these are solid grounds for moral decisions, and yet here they are.  It is certainly true that the New Testament contains much less of the blood and destruction of the Old Testament, but if anyone is to claim that the Bible is really a source of morality it seems a bit bizarre to claim that we should only read specific portions of it to obtain that guidance.  

The fundamental issues are these:  If you go to the Bible to find support for something you believe you are not using the Bible as a source of morality, but merely a instrument of persuasion.  If you believe that any source of moral guidance is true and reliable you should go to that source and act as it suggests, not edit it and ignore anything you don't like.  A good test would be to ask "which things that the Bible advocates as moral but you personally find repugnant do you uphold?"  If in fact you do what you think is right and only quote the Bible phrases that support you then the Bible is useless, throw it out.  If you truly go to the Bible to read when you are confused and literally follow its instructions then perhaps you can claim to use it as a moral guideline... but people don't do this.

A huge component of my dislike for Bible centric morality structures is that they are often used to advocate actions I would deem immoral but are used in such ways very selectively.  For example, there are many people who are against being homosexual.  There are a huge number of people in the United States (and some, but much lower proportions in Canada) who advocate against gay rights on the basis of Biblical quotes.  To be sure, the quotes in the Bible come very strongly down on the side of 'being homosexual is bad'.  Those advocating removing marital rights from people who are gay do not act equally on all Bible moral lessons.  They do not throw stones at people who work on Sundays, nor do they openly advocate that women should be relegated to the status of 'not a person', nor do they suggest that we return to slavery.  The only conclusion that can be reached is that these people do not decide what to do strictly based on what the Bible says, but rather they decide what is right and then ignore the Bible if it conflicts and quote it if it agrees.  This is further complicated by the fact that the Bible contradicts itself in many ways, so it is possible to quote the Bible as supporting two completely opposed viewpoints.

So if even those who claim to take their right and wrong from the Bible do not, where do we get our right and wrong?  There are many options:

- What our parents tell us.  This isn't a particularly great source from a societal perspective because many parents give bad advice and there isn't going to be agreement, yet most people get their basic moral sense this way.

- What our laws say.  While obeying laws is going to generally be a good idea to make sure we all are safer, our laws have to be derived from a set of morals and guidelines we trust.

- What our cultural norms are.  Very much like obeying our parents, this is something nearly everyone does without thinking about it.  These norms can be good or bad though, and some cultural norms are considered unthinkable in other places, so there is again no consistency.

- A rational set of rules based on maximizing happiness for all members of society.  This I think is the place we have to go to for fundamental decisions.  If we assume that our goal is to maximize happiness in all citizens then we have subgoals of promoting safety, longevity, freedom, equality and sustainability.

Basic concepts like Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not lie all come naturally when you are setting up a moral framework based on maximizing happiness for all people.  You start at that point and end up setting up particular tax laws and driving restrictions but the most basic principles can simply be ones that protect people from others.  This system of deriving morals is not something new and it would not revolutionize our society.  The vast, vast majority of laws and customs are completely compatible (or close enough) with maximizing overall happiness, and those that are starkly against (women not being able to vote, slavery, discrimination based on race are examples) have generally already been struck down in most nations.  

Any time you base your moral principles on something like a particular book or a particular person's decisions you end up relying on Faith that those sources are infallible.  This is always going to be dangerous because Faith is not something that can answer questions or change based on new information or circumstances, it is accepted without question and without change.  When the world changes or we learn more we need a moral system that can respond to those changes by looking at the reasoning currently in use and modifying it should there be a logical necessity to do so.  The failure to do so prevents us advancing in our moral understanding and leaves us trapped with any mistakes that people in the past have made.  Certainly there is wisdom in old customs, old documents and tradition but unless there is a way to accuracy determine which parts are wisdom and which parts are foolishness or oppression then we must ignore them and forge onward to create new standards.

It is extremely difficult to change the way we are raised.  If someone is told their whole young life that homosexuality (or skin colour, religious choice, economic station, etc.) is wrong and a sign of evil/weakness/immorality then they are likely to believe it their whole life.  We cannot change everyone's mind, but doing so is not necessary or even advisable.  We have a moral obligation to allow people to think they way they want to think, but we have another moral obligation to prevent them from acting in ways that are wrong.  When someone advocates discriminatory or evil behaviour or laws that cannot be justified by 'maximize happiness for all' and are supported only by quotes from texts or traditions we have a moral imperative to prevent them from prevailing.  Respecting a person's right to think they way they want to is important, and preventing people from imposing injustice on others based on a piece of an ancient book that they themselves do not follow is far more important. 


  1. Are you implying that hunter/gatherers can't be atheists! How dare you!

  2. Okay, I give... where exactly did I say that?