Oh My God, Charlie Darwin

By skepticlawyer

… Or, should I say, Richard Dawkins.

Apparently, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are consulting their lawyers to see whether the Pope can be charged when he visits Britain in September.

Mr Dawkins and Mr Hitchens believe the Pope should face charges for the alleged cover-up of sex abuse in the Catholic Church, The Guardian reports.

The Guardian reports that a letter written by the Pope in 1985, when he was then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, urged that a paedophile priest in the US not be exposed for the “good of the universal church”.

Mr Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, told The Times: “This is a man whose first instinct when his priests are caught with their pants down is to cover up the scandal and damn the young victims to silence.”

Mr Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great, added to the London-based paper: “This man is not above or outside the law. The institutionalised concealment of child rape is a crime under any law and demands not private ceremonies of repentance or church-funded pay-offs, but justice and punishment.”

Several media outlets say the Vatican insists Pope Benedict is free from prosecution because he is a head of state.

This, in simple terms, is a stunt, and it makes me angry because it is a particularly egregious stunt. It irritates me even more because it is an egregious stunt perpetrated by atheists who in other fields are brilliant and persuasive thinkers. This applies with some force to Dawkins, who is probably in line for a Nobel Prize one day for his work on evolutionary biology.

I have always found the willingness of British courts to facilitate the prosecution of heads of state and former heads of state rather stunt-ish, even where the individual in question (Pinochet, Mugabe) was/is a monster of the first water. It’s undignified, and in any case I’ve long suspected that the best treatment for evil leaders is targeted assassination (so three cheers for Israel, just don’t nick my passport while you’re at it).

For what it’s worth (and those of you who know me will know my opinion of international law), I think the Vatican is right, and that the Pope does enjoy sovereign immunity. I note that Geoffrey Robertson (one of the lawyers involved in this bit of tedious one-up-man-ship) refers to the arrangement made between Mussolini and the Catholic Church before the Second World War to deny the Pope sovereign immunity. Perhaps Mr Robertson needs reminding of the principle of ‘general and consistent state practice’ where, pursuant to Article 38 (1) of the Statute of the International Court of Justice, courts have recourse to the behaviour of nation states as evidence for the underlying substratum of international law. The Pope has always been treated as a head of state, and relevant Vatican officials have always enjoyed diplomatic immunity. That the Vatican is not a member of the UN is of no moment; for many years, nor were Switzerland and Indonesia. That did not deprive either country of statehood.

In this case, however, the law is the least of my worries. My real concern is with an issue that I touched on in my ‘Cats That Will Not Be Herded‘ post: to wit, that the claims of atheism are largely epistemological, not moral. That is, atheism is a claim about knowledge, not morality, and — hitherto — it has been impossible to draw links between the epistemological claims atheists make and the moral (or political) claims they make. It is possible (as I pointed out in that post) for atheists to be politically conservative.

This isn’t to say that we should leave moral claims to religious people — far from it. Indeed, I do think it is very difficult, once one’s epistemological claims have been undone (as those of the monotheisms have been) to then build moral claims on a foundation no bigger than the head of a pin. However, that latter point is by-the-by. My concern — when I see stunts like this — is that atheism is morphing into a ‘movement’ with political and moral ‘views’ that must always and everywhere align. Well, let’s just say that this is one cat that will not be herded. I hope other atheists around the place (many of them read this blog) are also horrified at the thought of being drafted into some dreadful exercise in groupthink. Atheists, may I remind Messrs Dawkins and Hitchens, come in all political hues.

If it were not obvious, please do not think I am excusing the Catholic Church on this issue. It is abundantly clear that the organisation generally and the Pope in particular are under enormous institutional pressure, and that at this stage there is no telling what will become of it. The Archbishop of Canterbury has already made some trenchant (perhaps too trenchant) observations about ongoing loss of moral credibility for Christianity generally and Catholicism in particular. His remarks could (and should) be extended to Islam, although perhaps not to Judaism. It is worth exploring why Christianity and Islam are bedevilled by a grab-bag of criminals (paedophiles, terrorists), bigots (queer haters, misogynists) and idiots (creationists) in ways that Judaism is not. I have long thought that if one is to be monotheistic, one should be a Jew… but the Jews have always had the good sense to police entry to their ‘club’. To be a Jew is to take on a heavy burden, and not just the burden of history.

I do have one final point to make, and it concerns Dawkins in particular. I need to frame it carefully, because I am not a biologist and Dawkins is probably the world’s greatest living biologist.

It is Dawkins (in addition to Darwin’s pioneering work) who has revealed the extent to which we are the tools of our genes, and that genes are survival machines of the most powerful sort. For this finding, he has been made — by those who do not understand his work — into a wild-eyed prophet of laissez faire and a supporter of all and every sociobiological insight into human behaviour. This is quite false and most unfair, and involves a pernicious form of intellectual laziness. Here is what Dawkins has actually said on the difference between biology and our ability to manage our biology:

I am not advocating a morality based on evolution. I am saying how things have evolved. I am not saying how we humans morally ought to behave.? My own feeling is that a human society based simply on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live… Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature (The Selfish Gene, p. 2-3).

Genetic causes and environmental causes are in principle no different from each other. Some influences of both types may be hard to reverse; others may be easy to reverse. Some may be usually hard to reverse but easy if the right agent is applied. The important point is that there is no general reason for expecting genetic influences to be any more irrevocable than environmental ones. (The Extended Phenotype, p. 13).

Human beings have a massive cerebral cortex that allows us to engage ‘manual override’ of our biology. It’s one reason why we don’t have a baby every 2 years like we’re programmed to do (‘come in, Charlie Darwin, we hear you’). In the best Humean tradition, therefore, Dawkins is not trying to bridge the ‘is-ought’ gap. He is not saying that because biology drives us in one particular direction, (the is) we have to ‘go with the flow’ (the ought) and organise society accordingly.

He is, however, pointing out that engaging in manual override of our biology may sometimes be very, very difficult. In some cases, our institutional structures may have to acknowledge the immense power of the biological drivers, and sometimes, ground will have to be conceded. It does appear that staffing an entire institution with celibate males stretches the biology too far, and can’t be carried off without massive institution-wide complications. Regular commenter Lorenzo is a medievalist, and he has a pile of posts at his place on how the Catholic priesthood has been disproportionately (although not majority) same-sex attracted since LATE ANTIQUITY, and that people were starting to notice it even then.

He has researched the penalties handed out to nuns in medieval convents for ‘rubbing’, for example (this was usually a fine). The blokes, however, tended to get burnt at the stake (he has some horrible period images). It is one of the few cases where sexism impacts disproportionately on men. The reason, of course, that the priesthood became disproportionately same-sex-attracted was social hostility towards gays and lesbians. They literally had nowhere else to go. They could, however, hide within the Church.

He has done so much writing on this topic that rather than link to specific posts, I’ll wait for him to turn up in the comments and provide links to his most revealing research.

That apart, Dawkins is also capable of nuance on this point. In The God Delusion, he makes a cogent case (based partly on his own experience of being molested by a school teacher) that we as a society are far too hung up about ‘improper sexualisation’, and that we are just going to have to accept that sometimes authority figures and their underlings will bonk each other and — generally — a good time will be had by all. What causes the problem for us is pretending that it won’t happen, or that we can always and everywhere stop it from happening:

Priestly abuse of children is nowadays taken to mean sexual abuse, and I feel obliged, at the outset, to get the whole matter of sexual abuse into proportion and out of the way. Others have noted that we live in a time of hysteria about pedophilia, a mob psychology that calls to mind the Salem witch-hunts of 1692 […]. The mob hysteria over pedophiles has reached epidemic proportions and driven parents to panic. Today’s Just Williams, today’s Huck Finns, today’s Swallows & Amazons are deprived of the freedom to roam that was one of the delights of childhood in earlier times (when the actual, as opposed to perceived, risk of molestation was probably no less). (The God Delusion, p 315-6).

Dawkins goes on to point out that

All three of the boarding schools I attended employed teachers whose affection for small boys overstepped the bounds of propriety. That was indeed reprehensible. Nevertheless if, 50 years on, they had been hounded by vigilantes or lawyers as no better than murderers, I should have felt obliged to come to their defence, even as the victim of one of them (an embarrassing but otherwise harmless experience). (The God Delusion, p 316).

That people can elide the difference between sexual predation and murder is amply evidenced by this brain-explosion from Bob Ellis, where he equates Catholic pedophilia with Islamic terrorism and argues that, ergo, we should bomb the Vatican. Sorry, Bob. One of these things is not like the other. Even the most serious sexual offence (rape) should not be equated with murder.

However, the extent to which the prosecutorial Dawkins of this attempt to go after the Pope is not like Dawkins the biologist author of The God Delusion is evidenced by this observation:

The Roman Catholic Church has borne a heavy share of such retrospective opprobrium. For all sorts of reasons I dislike the Roman Catholic Church. But I dislike unfairness even more, and I can’t help wondering whether this one institution has been unfairly demonised over the issue, especially in Ireland and America. I suppose some additional public resentment flows from the hypocrisy of priests whose professional life is largely devoted to arousing guilt about ‘sin’. Then there is the abuse of trust by a figure in authority, whom the child has been trained from the cradle to revere. Such additional resentments should make us all the more careful not to rush to judgment. We should be aware of the remarkable power of the mind to concoct false memories, especially when abetted by unscrupulous therapists and mercenary lawyers. (The God Delusion, 316)

Dawkins then goes on to argue — very persuasively — that the physical abuse meted out by the Christian Brothers in Irish schools and by nuns in the infamous Magdalene Asylums (much of it borne of a hostility to human sexuality that refuses to engage with biological realities) was worse than the sexual abuse, but that physical abuse attracts no compensation cheques. He has a point.

What is the upshot of all this? Does the fact that, biologically, we are highly sexed, mean we should screw around to our heart’s content? No. Does the fact that, biologically, we are highly sexed, need to be taken into account in institutional design? Yes. The Catholic Church’s troubles stem in large part because they’re trying to reason backwards from an ought to an is. I suspect this is just as impossible as the version Hume originally assayed. Do we all need to get over our issues with TEH GAY? You bet, and if we’re lucky, we can have the debate now, as uncomfortable as it may be. Do Dawkins and Hitchens represent all atheists? No way. In fact — if Dawkins’s arguments in The God Delusion are to be believed — this stunt doesn’t even represent Richard Dawkins. Legally, too, Dawkins and Hitchens don’t represent the victims of the abuse. They are harnessing their dislike of the Church to the legitimate grievances of the victims, and I do hope that the English courts are bold enough to say, ‘bugger off, you two, you don’t have standing to sue’.

I do not pretend for a moment that any of this is easy, but we should be able to do better than take cheap shots and engage in mean sniggering. I have the greatest respect for Dawkins and Hitchens, but what they are doing is cheap and mean. In doing it, they do not speak for this atheist.

One final word: the title of this post comes from a track by a band called The Low Anthem. Their beautiful and haunting song about ‘Charlie Darwin’ as they call him is below. It has a wonderful claymation clip, and some great lines.

22 Comments

  1. Posted April 27, 2010 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    Apologies for appalling spelling. Need coffee. Bye!

    [ADMIN: fixed!]

  2. B Wit
    Posted April 27, 2010 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Skepticlawyer

    Interesting point about the contractual nature of Classical paganism. What seems quite distinctive about Christian dogma is its attempt to create a curious ‘historical theology/theological history’ which blends the emphasis on personal belief with an historical justification of the faith (i.e. the historical example of Jesus as garauntee of future salvation based on the unquestioned unity of the old and new testaments).

    One practical consequence of this, for anyone approaching Christianity from a critical perspective, is the sense of encountering a type of indeterminacy syndrome – i.e. when the epistemological and ontological claims proferred seem to falter one is referred back to the subjective, personal foundation of faith (and vice versa). So one never seems to be offered the possibility of reaching the type of epistemological validation you emphasise.

    Its this type of difficulty that Habermas seems to referring to in his discussion of pre-modern belief systems as ‘distorted’ modes of normative communicative action.

  3. Posted April 27, 2010 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    I should not do long comments when I am tired, there were far too many spelling errors in my comment @136.

    If they are careful, and perhaps lucky, they may succeed in being regarded as moral paragons all their life while living quite differently. And why shouldn’t they? Too whom would they be responsible beyond themselves?

    So, people are not moral in themselves, they are only moral because God holds them to account? What is the claim here: that morality needs an enforcer and only works if it has a perfect enforcer?

    People can be successful hypocrites. That is true in any normative system. A thing does not have to work perfectly to work, or to be worth having, or to be worth aspiring to.

    The trouble with Christian arguments of the form JP is making is that there are Zoroastrian, Jewish and Muslim versions of the same and they do not have the same conclusions. (It is extremely unedifying to have Christian commentators attack the Islamic concept of dhimmitude and then denounce same-sex marriage: denying people equal protection of the law on the basis of categories salient due to religious claims is what dhimmitude is.)

    Besides, our moral dilemma is not our relationship with God. The most common use of ‘God’ in moral discourse is to justify stripping various categories of people of moral protections regardless of whether they have trespassed against anyone else’s moral protections.

    The moral dilemma is our relationships with each other. That was true before Zoroaster, Moses and the Jewish prophets, Jesus and Mohammad. It is true regardless of whether you have ever heard of any of them. It will remain true if they all get forgotten.

    We create the web of morality between us in order that we may live together. It is neither built into the structure of the universe nor mere atomised personal judgments but something our actions and outlook strengthen or weaken from moment to moment.

  4. Posted April 27, 2010 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo, I’ve had a go at tidying @136, so hope it should be all right now :)

  5. JP
    Posted April 27, 2010 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

    SkepticLawyer—in reference to the Euthyphro Dilemma, I think this response is worth consideration: http://creation.com/what-is-good-answering-euthyphro-dilemma.

    The article makes this point: “The Euthyphro Dilemma can be turned around on atheists: Do you approve of an action because it is good, or is it good because you approve of it? If the latter, then your moral standard seems to be subjective and arbitrary, so you complain about God’s alleged arbitrariness. And if the former, then you are back to explaining where this objective moral standard comes from”, which is more or less what I have been trying to say all along.

    You say, “I’d much rather live with the relativism of the harm principle (which is derived from Stoicism and Liberalism) than the absolutism of people who make moral claims on the basis of their epistemology”, which I am sure you would, but my question is, why should anyone care what your preference is?

  6. Posted April 27, 2010 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

    JP, to which my response is identical: why should anyone care what your preference is either? As Lorenzo has patiently and very carefully explained (so much so that I think you’re ignoring him), God doesn’t get you anywhere; religion isn’t a source of ‘objective’ morality, because it depends on an epistemological claim. In fact, you finish up in a recursive loop, as B Wit points out.

    And since I think Hayek’s explanation of emergent morality in terms of ‘spontaneous order’ is very powerful, I’ll link to a nice potted explanation here (written by one of my academic mentors, no less).

    Useful academic references for the concept are available here.

  7. JP
    Posted April 28, 2010 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    B Wit (@141)and Legal Eagle (@142) – B Wit, you asked: “Surely if God created the world and made humans in his own image he loves all of them and would want them all to have the opportunity for salvation?” In answer to your question, what you suggest is precisely what the Bible teaches. “God our Savior wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (I Timothy 2: 3-4) and “The Lord is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (II Peter 3:9)

    The disciple Peter thought that God’s plan was more or less only for the Jews until he met the Roman centurion Cornelius and then he said, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” (Acts 10: 34-35)

    I do not believe however that this means that universalism is true – that every person, whatever their beliefs or attitude, will be accepted by God. God, I believe, gives a general revelation to all people and that needs to be responded to positively. Hebrews 11:6 says: “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” The rest of that chapter then goes on to list a string of people – Noah, Abraham, Moses, Rahab – who never knew the name of Jesus yet who, because of their faith arising from the revelation they did have, were accepted by God.

    In the end, I don’t believe that God wants to condemn anyone, but, given that God has given us a free will, anyone is free to reject God if they so desire.

    So, Legal Eagle, I don’t think it is simply that moral behavior is all that matters – we are also required to have faith in God. If we know the Christian message and choose to reject it then it is not a case of God turning his back on us but us saying no to God.

  8. JP
    Posted April 28, 2010 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

    Adrien @ 146 – I hope from what I have already written above that it is clear that I do not accept that those who merely “go through the motions” of Christian belief are Christians at all.

  9. JP
    Posted April 28, 2010 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo – you give the impression that you believe that people are morally responsible to someone beyond themselves. I just don’t understand how an atheist can justify that claim. You say the moral dilemma is our relationship with each other. But nobody owes anything to anyone: no one has to do good to do another or refrain from acting badly to another. For sure from a pragmatic point of view it may make life more comfortable and less dangerous to act in certain ways toward others but that is not morality.

    You say: “So, people are not moral in themselves, they are only moral because God holds them to account? What is the claim here: that morality needs an enforcer and only works if it has a perfect enforcer?”

    I have repeatedly stated that I recognize that people can create a morality for themselves so in that sense I accept that it can be said people are moral in themselves. What I continually dispute is that a human-generated morality can be generated that is not subjective and relative.

    One person or group of persons can espouse a moral view – my question is, why should anyone take any notice of their view if it does not suit them to do so?

  10. JP
    Posted April 28, 2010 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    Legal Eagle – you say: “it doesn’t matter to me where people get their morality from as long as they treat others decently and respectfully”. I think that takes us to the heart of the issue. What do we do when people disagree about what is right and wrong? You think it is right that people treat others decently and respectfully. Other people though are only concerned about looking out for themselves and perhaps their loved ones and they don’t care about treating anyone else decently and respectfully. And they think that is the right attitude to have, at least for themselves.

    If you want to live by the golden rule, then good luck to you, but just don’t expect them to do so. Rather, if life is made easier for them by stealing your car, then why shouldn’t they?

    You can of course say they are immoral to steal your car and they can say they couldn’t care less what you think. Without any objective standard, what makes your moral views more worthy than theirs?

    I would agree with you that Christians should not make judgements about your standing before God. I think it is reasonable and responsible for Christians to explain to people that they believe that they need to repent and seek God’s forgiveness, but to categorically say that they know someone is definitely rejected by God is something that I don’t think can or needs to be said.

    You say that God seems to show favouritism in terms of his revelation to people. That may seem to be the case but the Bible certainly makes the claim that God does not treat people differently, eg. Romans 2:11 : “For God does not show favouritism”, and Acts 10:34: “I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right”.

    If we accept that the miracles recorded in the NT are genuine, as I do, we could feel that if we were to have seen such incredible things then we would surely have believed and so it is not fair that they got to see those things and we don’t. Yet most of the people in Jesus day did not believe even though they saw the miracles first hand. Judas, one of his closest companions, chose to betray him.

    If God is a God of love and justice then there is no reason to think that some people are actually more privileged than others. Each of us apparently is able to make an equally free decision as to whether we accept or reject God’s love.

  11. Posted April 29, 2010 at 5:56 am | Permalink

    The Bible makes all sorts of claims, JP, very few of which can be sustained by recourse to actual historical evidence, particularly if one accepts the Biblical accounts of favouritism (Paul on the way to Damascus, say). One of these things is not like the other; it’s that simple.

    I am not one of those classicists and empiricists who demands further evidence for the life of Jesus: to apply the extreme skeptical position to the life of Jesus would simultaneously reduce the non-elite population of the Roman Empire in the 1st Century AD to around 100,000, mainly soldiers and their women, for whom there are ample funerary records.

    That people can be disingenuous in their rhetorical claims, however, is undoubted. As much as Paul makes claims about not showing favouritism, the evidence — if one accepts Biblical accounts — is against him.

    You seem to fear relativism. A few points:

    1. It is possible to have universal morality without it being objective morality; the first only asks that it be better than the available competitors; the second asks that it always and everywhere be true.

    2. Relativism does not imply capriciousness; it may, however, imply spontaneous order.

    3. There are large questions of morality where — by non-theistic standards — Christians, Muslims and Jews appear to be wrong, while the pagans that preceeded them appear to be right. These include such things as abortion, unilateral no-fault divorce, women’s property rights and gay rights. Coverture marriage did not exist in pagan Rome or among ancient and medieval Jews; Christians had to impose it from without.

    4. Telling men in particular that lusting after a woman with one’s eyes was as bad as committing adultery with her was a clear case of ‘You Fail Biology Forever‘. Remedial reading of Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate may well be necessary. [Caution, TV Tropes link].

    5. Finally, a Hayek quote for you:

    Although we must endeavour to make society good in the sense that we shall like to live in it, we cannot make it good in the sense that it will behave morally.

  12. Posted April 29, 2010 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    SL: Ta. it reads much better now.

    JP

    a human-generated morality can be generated that is not subjective and relative.

    ‘Subjective’ and ‘relative’ in what sense?

    Moral judgements are not atomised personal judgements because lots of people share various moral precepts and agree that people should act on them. You keep reducing moral judgments to atomised individual views and I keep pointing out that morality is a system of general norms. The thing about morality that makes it different from law is that it has no specific mechanism of origin and enforcement.

    It is true that, like any set of norms, people can fail or refuse to abide by moral precepts. The only enforcing mechanisms are people’s own moral sense, their concern for how others might think of them and behave towards them. That is why I say moralityy is “web like”. But if enough people did not have a capacity for a moral sense, then morality would not even get off the ground.

    my question is, why should anyone take any notice of their view if it does not suit them to do so?

    Do you mean as a practical issue or as a moral issue? Any set of norms has the authority it needs to function, or it fails to function. When people are making a moral judgement, they are implicitly or explicitly proposing or invoking a general standard of behaviour, as we all understand: that is why we have moral arguments and moral discourse and understand that “I hate tinned asparagus” is not a moral judgement.

    Saying “it is just your opinion” is otiose. The origin point of morality is this generalised “conversation” about how we should act appealing to our sense that there are things which are right and things which are wrong.

    Citing the Bible gets us no further than does citing the Quran or the Talmud or the Vendidad or the Upanishads or whatever. They only have moral force because people accept them. And not everyone does–either because they have never heard or them, or they don’t know what is in them, or they do not agree they have authority, or whatever.

    Morality and moral behaviour did not spread out from Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, Moses, Zoroaster, etc. Certain conceptions of moral behaviour did, but not moral behaviour in general. The writings of what they said are contributions (of varying quality) to the general moral conversation, but they are (despite the claims of their adherents) not some inherently different form of contribution.

    The notion that morality is some profoundly metaphysically different thing than other norms is false. You remind me of the C18th Muslim commentator who found the spectacle of the British Parliament making laws utterly weird. God had provided humans with all the laws they needed with Shar’ia: universal precepts built into the structure of the universe. Man-made law was just a poor and pathetic imitation of the “real thing”.

    No, actually, British law was as much law as anything in Shar’ia. Indeed, I will back common law over Shar’ia any time. On moral, epistemological, metaphysical and consequentialist grounds.

  13. Posted April 30, 2010 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    You can of course say they are immoral to steal your car and they can say they couldn’t care less what you think. Without any objective standard, what makes your moral views more worthy than theirs?

    The law? Don’t need God to make laws. Asians have laws.

    Thing is believers and non-believers will never agree on these things. But what, I think we can agree on, is that reason is necessary for a temperant polity. I prefer to agree to disagree on those things where that’s inevitable and also agree that extremist hostility from either side is undesirable.

    Yeah?

  14. John H.
    Posted April 30, 2010 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    I prefer to agree to disagree on those things where that’s inevitable and also agree that extremist hostility from either side is undesirable.

    Yeah?

    I’ll buy that. Isn’t the essential issue here that peoples’ beliefs are primarily their concern and our concern is that their behavior do not impinge on our lives?

    I have no time for religion, I even repudiate a so-called “scientific worldview” and scientific cosmology as being essentially religious ideas.

    It is far more important that we get along together rather than agreeing on what it is all about.

    Regarding the basis of moral positions, I love this little quote:

    Dr. Strangelove’s Game: A Brief History of Economic Genius
    Paul Strathern

    157

    Saint-Simon (French) the father of socialism. “We behave in a civilised fashion because we have more to lose by not doing so, rather than because we are morally superior human beings.”

    224

  15. JP
    Posted April 30, 2010 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

    Legal Eagle – one last go! You say a person can be principled and moral without God. Again, I will say yes that a person can make up principles and morals, and it may happen that you like the principles and morals that some, or many, may make up.

    The problem is, what about those who make up moral principles you don’t like? You have to address that question. You assume that your moral principles are valid, but the person who has moral principles that you don’t like also assumes theirs are valid – you seem to have no basis for saying that one is better or more right than the other. You have to be able to answer that question – just hoping it goes away does not work.

    John H – You say: “It is far more important that we get along together rather than agreeing on what it is all about.” The problem is that people obviously often don’t get along together – even you probably do things others don’t like. The fact is that some people just don’t care about getting along with others – you have to be able say why they should be moral. Is the best you can say to that, you think they ought to be nicer? Why should they care about what you think? Why should they not hurt you if they want?

    The quote from Saint-Simon reduces morality to just pragmatism and that then is not morality at all.

    Adrien – your last comment, as well some of the comments by other posters, seems to be saying that law and morality are the same. But that is clearly not the case. There are many things that many people regard as being immoral but there are no laws about eg, adultery, lying, greed, selfishness, and there are things which are illegal that many people regard as being morally acceptable, eg recreational drug use. To paraphrase, I think it was Oliver Wendell Holmes: the courts are not about justice but about law. And for many people justice is a key element of morality.

    Lorenzo – you say: “When people are making a moral judgement, they are implicitly or explicitly proposing or invoking a general standard of behaviour, as we all understand”. Again you seem to be saying that whatever most people in a society happen to agree to, that is what becomes morally right. So slavery was “right” in Alabama in 1850; female genital mutilation is “right” today in Ethiopia. Right?

    You also say: “The origin point of morality is this generalised “conversation” about how we should act appealing to our sense that there are things which are right and things which are wrong.” But how is this “conversation” not just a sharing of each individual’s opinion? Any social morality is just a collection of individual opinions. It doesn’t ever become more than that just because a lot of people may agree with each other.

    SkepticLawyer- you say: “the first only asks that it be better than the available competitors”, so of course I have to ask, how can you know one is “better” than the other?

    You say: “There are large questions of morality where — by non-theistic standards — Christians, Muslims and Jews appear to be wrong” – what makes the non-theistic standards right and the theistic standards wrong?

    As far as the Hayek quote goes, how could you have the former without the latter also?

  16. Posted May 2, 2010 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    JP

    Again you seem to be saying that whatever most people in a society happen to agree to, that is what becomes morally right. So slavery was “right” in Alabama in 1850; female genital mutilation is “right” today in Ethiopia. Right?

    No, what I was saying is that is the current sense of what people generally think is morally right. It clearly changes over time. As it does in religious traditions too, of course. In Christian tradition, Christ’s life and death is held to have changed basic moral parameters. Even without that large example, it is no longer felt to be a moral/religious duty to burn people alive for having sex, for example.

    We look back from the vantage point of the general sense of what is right and wrong having evolved over time. We cannot “take that away” and say “oh, well it was morally right back then”. It is true that some folk believed it was morally OK, or did not question its morality, etc but that does not make it, given our current moral understanding, morally right.

    “The origin point of morality is this generalised “conversation” about how we should act appealing to our sense that there are things which are right and things which are wrong.” But how is this “conversation” not just a sharing of each individual’s opinion? Any social morality is just a collection of individual opinions. It doesn’t ever become more than that just because a lot of people may agree with each other.

    Is the law of the land “just people’s opinions?”. Are the rules of chess “just people’s opinions”? Rules are not “just people’s opinions”. They are operating rules because people adopt them: not the same thing. Morality is a form of social legislation, one that arises out of people acting on, thinking about and speaking about what is right and what is wrong. But without a sense that there are things which are right and things which are wrong, there is no morality. Personal opinion is not enough: it does not get you there.

    Some people claim that their sense of right and wrong comes from God, or is grounded in how the universe is, or whatever but given they also evolve they are no more better “grounded” morality than Shar’ia is “better” law than British common law for allegedly coming from God.

  17. Posted May 2, 2010 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    JP –

    You say a person can be principled and moral without God. Again, I will say yes that a person can make up principles and morals, and it may happen that you like the principles and morals that some, or many, may make up.

    At the heart of this is that you find it hard to accept that a moral system that is explicitly of human manufacture, acknowledged as such by creators and adherants, is inherently shakey – sans some cosmic authority. This is true. But that does not mean that it cannot be strong, that it has no tradition and that it is the product of the purely fanciful.

    On this side of the line thru this thread stand enthusiasts for Stoicism. This, may I remind you, is older than Christianity. That the ‘canon’ of this creed was written (and still is) by ordinary mortals is, for me, a superior position morally. More courageous.

    That the law is not morality is well established and understood. That the one has nothing to do with the other is absurd.

    The problem is, what about those who make up moral principles you don’t like? You have to address that question

    No. You don’t.

    You simply disassociate from people whose morals you don’t like. If this ‘immorality’ impinges on the body politic or other individuals, you punish.

    If there is a God and one is immoral in a non-legal way leave it to Him to punish. Didn’t Jesus say that somewhere?

    Well, he can be made to say it. :)

  18. John H.
    Posted May 4, 2010 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Chimps confront death in human-like ways

    http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2010/04/27/2883520.htm

  19. David Harrison
    Posted May 14, 2010 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    I wonder how the morality of JP explains the murder of Thomas Aikenhead (baptised 28 March 1676 – 8 January 1697). The charge was blasphemy, it was a first offense and the death penalty was to be applied only on a third offense. In spite of his recantation and pleas for mercy the Church of Scotland General Assembly urged for “vigorous execution”. To make it worse it is said that the preachers attended his hanging and prayed for his immortal soul, surely more blasphemous than anything he said. What happened to “thou shalt not kill”?
    When watching Hitchens debating D’souza or Boteach (and similar events, which are really advertising their own books) and the subject of the various inquisitions comes up the answer is always “yes, but Stalin killed more”. This always reminds me of the schoolyard, “You’re a ‘whatever'”; “Yeah, well you’re a bigger one”. Surely even one killing for the merciful and benevolent creator is one too many.
    The overriding commandment is “Lest ye perish”. Some morality?
    SL in 36 I think you are confusing Smith with Mandeville.

2 Trackbacks

  1. By skepticlawyer » Mind Your Head on May 2, 2010 at 4:16 am

    […] the very lengthy ‘charge the Pope‘ thread, there was some discussion in the comments of the moral content of different […]

  2. By Skepticlawyer » The Notpology on February 23, 2012 at 2:37 am

    […] not always agree with Dawkins’ appraoch and I thought his ‘arrest the pope’ idea a remarkably silly one, but in this case he has been grossly smeared. I expect this sort of pious apologism from lefties […]

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

*
*