Philosophical open thread

Randy Kirk dropped by Bronze Dog‘s place recently, inviting the microcosm of the skeptical blogging community that hangs out there to participate in a “balanced” debate between believers and nonbelievers on his site, The God vs No God Debate (the editor in me wants to attach a “[sic]” to that for a number of pedantic reasons, but I’ll resist the temptation for now). Now, anyone who knows me also knows how much I love such discussions. In fact, it’s kind of a character flaw; I’ll debate trolls and woosters long after everyone else has bowed out. In some cases (like a recent message board discussion on the supposed 9/11 conspiracy) it’s because the beliefs in question are fallacious, ridiculous, specious, and potentially dangerous, and should be corrected. In other cases (as with most trolls, including my dear friend and frequent punching bag Weapon) it’s because I have fun doing it.

To use an analogy that Akusai and Bronze Dog should appreciate, it’s like when I was playing Marvel: Ultimate Alliance over break, and I’d take the Thing or Luke Cage into a crowd of A.I.M.* soldiers or other thugs. They pose no real threat to my health, and I’m way above their strength class (“able to press 85 tons”) so I can take them out very easily, but it gives me a chance to try out new moves, hone my reactions and fighting skills, and ultimately to level up and become better, so I can take out the real dangerous targets with more ease (I realize this is true for just about every RPG, but somehow taking out Doombots never gets old and tedious in the way that taking out bugs and Bombs does). In the same way, I sharpen my rhetorical skills on the easy targets so I can expand my repertoire of attacks, defenses, and knowledge, so I can find the deficiencies in my own knowledge, and so that when I’m talking with someone who actually has some wit and valid arguments, I’m better able to deal with them.

There are, of course, things that can deaden my debate-love. And when I visited The God vs No God Debate, I saw several. I’m not going to assume without evidence that there’s no possibility of a fair and open debate on such a site, but when the owner also runs blogs dedicated favorably to fundamentalist doomsayer Tim LaHaye and bigoted asshole James Dobson, it starts looking rather unlikely. I felt further trepidation when I saw posts entitled “Proof of GOD,” which offered a false dilemma (an interesting and fairly original one, but a false dilemma nonetheless) as its titular evidence, and “Is Skepticism Good Science?” a question which, to me, seems blatantly obvious. The latter post goes on to suggest that scientists on the whole are more concerned with finding flaws in religion than in their “own dogma,” and that “common sense” and “self-evident truth” are scientifically valid sources of knowledge. I wish it were true, but once you’ve accepted that matter is made up of tiny invisible particles, that time is relative, and that an electron can move from one level to another without having ever existed in-between, “common sense” and “self-evident truth” seem a little like oxymorons.

That being said, I’ve decided to address (if not necessarily answer) the question that Bronze Dog’s readers were invited to, and I welcome others to add to the discussion in the comments. I recognize that I seem no more fair or balanced than Mr. Kirk, so I’m not going to pretend to be. But I figure that opening up the discussion on a nontheistic skeptical blog, as well as on Mr. Kirk’s more evangelical-leaning site, ought to balance things out a bit.

Let’s jump right into it. First, the question as posed on The Bronze Blog (because it does differ significantly from that on Kirk’s website; this version is less clearly loaded with ideology):

If you were absolutely certain that by sacrificing your 2 year-olds life that 10 other two years old who would otherwise die would live, would you do it? 100? 1000? 1,000,000.

This is really asking three questions:

  1. Is a sin of omission comparable in moral wrongness to a sin of commission?
  2. Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?
  3. Do the ends justify the means?

While I’d like to say that there are easy answers to all those questions, the construction of the question makes such moral certainty impossible. See, it’s the “two-year-old” that causes the moral quandary; if the question were about “infants,” it would be a little different. Infants are entirely dependent on their parents, and lack the mental capacity for just about everything. They must have nearly all of their choices made for them, and life-or-death choices are still just choices. Toddlers, on the other hand, are capable of making some choices of their own. They have a measure of autonomy, and can be reasonably considered sentient individuals.

So it becomes a question of “who has the right to sacrifice an individual’s life.” And the simple answer there is “that individual, provided they retain the ability to make choices.” The problem, then, is that a two-year-old lacks the intellectual capacity to understand death and altruism in any meaningful way. You could leave the choice up to them, but they wouldn’t understand what the choice meant. You could make the choice for them, but then you’re depriving them of choice, which is pretty far into morally unacceptable territory.

I suppose this would be a good point to establish the basic moral rules. Society requires two, without which it cannot function. These are not based on religion (although every religious tradition has picked up on them), but on the necessities of society. Oh, and we define society here as “any group of two or more human beings living in close proximity and interacting with one another.”

  1. It is morally wrong to kill another person: For people to interact with each other, each must be reasonably certain that the other will not try to kill them.
  2. It is morally wrong to lie: For people to interact, they must be able to communicate. Lying undermines communication; if you cannot reasonably assume that a person is telling you the truth, then you cannot communicate with them effectively.

Of course, there are arguments to be made as to the universality of these rules and the exceptions to them, but they are true and necessary in all but special cases. The first rule could be generalized out to “it is wrong to deprive another person of their personal freedoms,” but that would require further exceptions. Keep it in mind, however, and keep in mind the basic personal freedoms: choice, thought, and action (all should be allowed freely up to the point where they begin impinging on the same freedoms of others).

Okay, so, let’s tackle the big questions.
1: Is the sin of omission morally comparable to the sin of commission?
By “sin” here, I mean “doing something morally unacceptable,” not “doing something contrary to God’s law.” It simplifies the sentence structure, even if it requires a slightly different interpretation of the word’s meaning. Anyway, put more philosophically: if it is morally wrong to do X, is it equally wrong to allow X to happen if it is directly within your power to stop X? Contrary to “Batman Begins,” I’d say that it may not be equally wrong, but it is still wrong. If you know the Heimlich and someone next to you is choking, it would be wrong not to try and help. You may not be throttling them with your bare hands, but the end result is the same. The key word here is “directly;” X has to be something I can prevent alone and immediately. I can’t be blamed for not performing the Heimlich on a hundred choking people all at once, or for not doing it to a person 600 miles away.

2: Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?
I don’t think this can be answered in general; it has to be a case-by-case basis. What are the needs involved? What does this require? This comes back to the matter of personal freedoms; the personal freedom of one individual do not and cannot trump the freedom of another (with exceptions). I think the only way this can be decided with absolute certainty is if we leave the decision up to the few (with exceptions).

3: Do the ends justify the means?
I’m going to have to go with “no” on this one. I guess that was easier than I thought.

So, if presented with Kirk’s dilemma, is there a ‘right’ choice? I think it ends up being the lesser of two evils: do you commit a moral wrong and kill an individual, or do you commit a moral wrong and allow several individuals to die? Which is the lesser evil? Do you kill your two-year-old?

I see three different answers to this, and only one of them is morally satisfying. There’s the pragmatic, numerical, Wrath of Khan answer: Yes, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. And this would be fine if the two-year-old were making the choice, and if the child understood that choice. Unfortunately, neither of these are true, and you are forced to commit a moral wrong. There’s the pacifistic answer: No, it is wrong to kill, but the problem there is that in avoiding a moral wrong, you commit several lesser-but-similar wrongs. Do those add up to equal or surpass the wrongness of killing an individual? And there’s the superhero answer: There’s always another way. Unfortunately, this isn’t usually allowed in philosophical debates.

So, to answer this version of the question, I’d say it’s a matter of determining which is the lesser evil, and picking it. When we get to the really high numbers, I think the only logical choice would be to sacrifice the one for the good of the million.

Now, as to the post version of the question. This iteration is more clearly loaded with the trappings of Christian dogma, and so I’ll be getting a bit Biblical in response. Thankfully, it’s also easier to answer.

Now for a bit harder set of comparisons. What if someone walked in my house and threaten my children, and said that his whole family was dedicated to trying to kill my family? I think I would be justified in taking him out, and maybe his whole family.

I think not. The problem with the doctrine of pre-emption is that it is a very, very slippery slope. Let’s say your neighbor just has an odd sense of humor; you’ve gone and killed his whole family over a joke. If it is morally okay to kill just because of a perceived threat, then every paranoid kook has license to kill whoever looks at him or her cockeyed. If we accepted this, then we would find Macbeth heroic when he had Macduff’s whole family slaughtered. No, what you are justified to do in this situation is appeal to the authorities and to the protective system which exists to deal with these issues.

This is where one of the exceptions to the personal freedom infringement comes in. As a society, we have all agreed on certain precepts (laws) which limit our freedoms in certain ways in order to keep order. We have also agreed as a society that in some cases, the freedoms of individuals can be infringed upon as punishment and as a way of keeping them from infringing upon the freedoms of others. In other words, we accept that it is wrong for an individual to take another individual’s freedoms away (vigilantism), but we also agree that society as a whole can take an individual’s freedom away (law enforcement, imprisonment). There are things that we will accept as morally right when done by the aggregate society, which would be wrong if done by individuals within the society.

Furthermore, Biblical law would consider this anathema; the concept of “an eye for an eye” means that the punishment should be in proportion to the crime. If someone takes a life, their life is forfeit. However, proclaiming something and doing it are not the same, legally or morally. There’s nothing stopping you from replying “and my family will kill yours,” but there is something stopping you from attacking first; it would be just as wrong.

What if I had to allow one of my children to die so that the rest could live? I know for a fact that all will die or one will die? Get harder.

Sophie’s choice? PZ got recently accused of supporting infanticide for discussing just this possibility. If there is certain doom for one or certain doom for all, especially in a family situation, I doubt that the “one” would object to the sacrifice. If the choice must be made for the “one” for some reason, then it’s difficult emotionally, but not logically.

What if my child was 18 and he was merely going to be put in a position where he might die in order to provide a better life for the community?

Assuming that this 18-year-old is capable of making his/her own decisions, then it’s certainly not up to the parent. When a child has autonomy and the ability to understand the nature of the sacrifice, then it’s no longer up to the parent to make the choice. You cannot sacrifice something that does not belong to you, such as someone else’s life.

What if I felt that I needed to make a rule in my house that I would beat a child within an inch of his life if he raped another of my children? We will assume there is no other authority to intervene.

I’m not even sure what this means.

There’s some discussion above the questions about how God must make similar decisions regarding sacrifice and rule-making. The problem with this analogy is God himself. If we’re to believe in an omnipotent deity, one who has demonstrated the ability to raise the dead, then these questions are moot. There should be no situation in which God is forced to kill one person for the good of others. I understand that the implication is Jesus: God sacrificed his Son so that everyone else would have eternal life (the interpretation of which is different from church to church). The myriad problems with this are that Jesus was alive again after 3 days (give or take), so the sacrifice of life was temporary; Jesus ascended into Heaven to live with God (so God’s sacrifice actually brings Jesus closer to him); and the one that’s really hard to argue with: God’s sacrifice was made to change rules that he made himself. And, since he’s omnipotent, we have no reason whatsoever to believe that he could not have changed the rules in another way. This is not comparable to killing a child to save a community; even if the parent buys into the Christian afterlife, there is no guarantee that they will be reunited with the child (whether through resurrection or meeting in the afterlife), and the parent is unlikely to be the cause of the ailment which would kill the community. The analogy is flawed, and the only thing it may tell us about God is that he works in unnecessarily complicated ways, and doesn’t really understand the nature of sacrifice.

That’s all I have for now; I’ll probably end up tackling more of this site in the near future. Akusai has Christian Answers, I wouldn’t mind “God vs No God.”

*Advanced Idea Mechanics

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4 Responses to Philosophical open thread

  1. Randy Kirk says:

    Because my Bible study starts in an hour, I don’t have time to respond to the meat of your post. Allow me, at this time to merely make a couple of observations.1. I make no pretense of being personally without bias. My bias is clear throughout the blog.2. I am actively soliciting the comments and even original posts of atheists, agnostics and others who wish to opine.3. As of this point, I have never edited or removed a post. Not even a wierdo who likes to poke fun and move on.4. Your writing is great fun, and I hope you will join the action. I also hope you will be ok with me grabbing a few of your better paragraphs from time-to-time.5. You might want to see if you can keep your comments shorter than Bernardo over at godvsnogod. You seem to have the disease (I share it also)6. Why don’t you like the title?7. Don’t hesitate to give me your hardest criticism if you feel I am not being fair. 8. I will be adding your blog to the blogroll. Hope you’ll add mine.

  2. Doubting Tom says:

    1. I make no pretense of being personally without bias. My bias is clear throughout the blog.It certainly is. However, I’d say that advertising it as “balanced debate” on another site is a misrepresentation. Contrary to the Fox News definition of the word, “balanced” does not mean “clearly skewed toward one side.” When the questions are stacked toward a theistic perspective, it’s difficult to have any kind of balance. 2. I am actively soliciting the comments and even original posts of atheists, agnostics and others who wish to opine.3. As of this point, I have never edited or removed a post. Not even a wierdo who likes to poke fun and move on.Then you’re a bit more fair than my initial impression would lead me to believe. Like I said, I wouldn’t assume without evidence that there’s no possibility of fair discussion on your site, but without some moderating factor, it seems that the questions will always slant towards theism.4. Your writing is great fun, and I hope you will join the action. I also hope you will be ok with me grabbing a few of your better paragraphs from time-to-time.No problem, so long as I get credit. I’ll tend to keep my comments over here, since I need some impetus to post on this blog, and since my comments tend to run long. 5. You might want to see if you can keep your comments shorter than Bernardo over at godvsnogod. You seem to have the disease (I share it also)And that’s why I’m commenting here rather than over there. I could have gone back and edited this post, but I liked the stream of consciousness aspect to it, and I just don’t have the time right now to trim everything down. Plus, when I write out philosophical proofs, I usually feel the need to overexplain every aspect of it, so it doesn’t look like I’m making false assumptions. Since I’ve laid out the two basic laws of society in this post, I won’t have to do it again, and that’ll cut down on length.6. Why don’t you like the title?When you abbreviate “versus,” you have to include a period: i.e., “vs.” or “v.” It’s a minor error, but it’s one of those things that, as an anal-retentive editor, I’d want to mark with a red pen. And that’s bad for my monitor.7. Don’t hesitate to give me your hardest criticism if you feel I am not being fair. Oh, I wouldn’t hesitate in the least. Wait ’til I get to “Proof of GOD.”8. I will be adding your blog to the blogroll. Hope you’ll add mine.Seems only fair.

  3. Randy Kirk says:

    The posts that I write will tend to favor Christianity or be pro God exists. The first several posts included Bernardo’s responses in the body of the post. The fairness I would be happy to hear about from you would be if the entire site seemed unfair. You will get credit for any post you present.I know all the reasons for being being longwinded, but I’m trying in this realm to be less so.

  4. Anonymous says:

    “I felt further trepidation when I saw posts entitled “Proof of GOD,””Noooo! Those who claim to prove God claim to destroy faith. A person who can’t believe in God without proof is the real doubting Thomas. Faith means having a conviction that something is true without proof. Like your conviction that “it is wrong to deprive another person of their personal freedoms.” Can you prove to folks who want to legislate morality that freedom is a basic good that should not bre trampled on? I agree with you that it is, but I can no more prove that than I can prove to you that God exists.”Is the sin of omission morally comparable to the sin of commission?” I don’t mean to sound cynical of human nature, but I think one reason people feel better about committing sins of omission is that they are less likely to get caught and/or called to task on it. So I think you need to give more details: Will anyone know that I killed that one person? Will anyone know that I failed to save N people? Will I be sent to jail? Ostracized? Taken revenge upon? I wish it weren’t true, but many people are motivated only by how it will effect them. “…once you’ve accepted that matter is made up of tiny invisible particles, that time is relative, and that an electron can move from one level to another without having ever existed in-between, “common sense” and “self-evident truth” seem a little like oxymorons.”Are you trying to tell me that relativity and quantum mechanics aren’t common sense??? (I walk through walls all the time :-)-CJV

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