How Dare You?!

This is kind of a follow-up to my post on friendship, and is likely to hit some of the same notes and indict some of the same people.

I’ve noticed recently, though I’m sure the trend has been around for some time, this tendency in skeptic/atheist circles to suggest, explicitly or implicitly, that a person has done so much for the atheist/skeptic community that it is somehow out of line to criticize them. Here’s an example I saw today, in PZ’s post about Sam Harris:

The Harris bashing going on here is just ridiculous. The man is a hero of the skepticism movement. All you people rushing to judgement should be embarrassed.

Hes admitted countless times he phrased his ideas poorly on the profiling issue (even publicly apologized on TV).

PZ, you need to take note on how well Harris defends himself against this character assassination you’ve exacerbated once again. Compare that with how you usually respond to criticism.

Remember that next time you’re getting all upset over a comedian’s joke and crying all over your keyboard and empty donut cases.

I know that I’ve seen this same kind of sentiment expressed about DJ Grothe of late (there’s one buried in this comment), and I’m pretty sure it came up a bunch about Dawkins in the whole “Dear Muslima” flap.

To put it bluntly, this kind of thinking is wrong-headed, fallacious, dangerous, and dare I say it, religious.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t have role models. That would be absurd. There are always people who are better than us or more informed than us at certain things. It’s fine to look up to people; the problem comes when you begin thinking those people are somehow above you.

A further problem comes if they begin thinking the same.

Must we, scientific skeptics and rational atheists, keep learning this lesson? This is the lesson of Linus Pauling, the lesson of Ayn Rand, the lesson of Edgar Mitchell, the lesson of Bill Maher, and so on. Being brilliant, well-informed, or just right about one area or subject does not make one brilliant, well-informed, or right about everything. Expertise does not transfer.

We as skeptics and atheists spend a lot of our time arguing with people because they’re wrong about something. We argue with strangers, we argue with anonymous idiots, we argue with professional pseudoscientists and preachers who hate us, we even argue with acquaintances and coworkers.

Why would we avoid arguing with the people we care about?

Granted, James Randi and Richard Dawkins and the like are basically strangers to me. The same is true for most people and the famous role models they look up to. We feel a kinship with these people because they’ve said or written or done things that resonate with us, that we wish to live up to or emulate. That forges an emotional connection, even if it’s one-way, which boils down to (at the very least) the point that we care what they have to say. We value their thoughts and opinions enough to spend our money buying books filled with just that, or spend our time watching their videos or reading their words online.

And so when they, our heroes, say or do something that is clearly wrong, I think we have a responsibility to speak up about it. In part, it’s because there’s a cognitive dissonance in saying “I value what you have to say” and “what you have to say with regard to X is wrong/reprehensible.” In part, it’s because we recognize that there are other people who value what they have to say, but may not be informed enough to see that, on this topic, they’re dead wrong. In part, it’s because we hope that our heroes are reasonable and, when presented with evidence that contradicts their position, would change it, making them even more admirable for following the evidence. In part, it’s because we just don’t like people being wrong. In part, I think we realize that leaving the wrongness unchallenged could eventually lead to worse problems (like the ubiquity of vitamin megadosing or libertarians). And in part, I think, it’s our responsibility.

That responsibility has different degrees of strength. If it’s, say, an author you like who has said something stupid, then your purchase of his book, your recommending it to your friends, etc., means that you have contributed to his popularity. But if it’s, say, someone who is often chosen by the media to speak for a group that you’re part of, then they’re sometimes (de facto) speaking on your behalf. And you don’t want the general public to think that this thing they’re wrong about is generally representative of the group’s beliefs.

Because, one way or another, their wrongness makes you look wrong. You’re wrong by proxy.

And so we call out our heroes when they’re wrong because we care about them and their opinions, because we want to give them the opportunity to realize their mistake and correct it, and because we want to show clearly that we don’t share their wrongness. Phil Plait called out Carl Sagan in his first book, because Sagan was wrong about Velikovski. Phil was also involved in correcting Randi when Randi spouted off about climate change. PZ called out Sam Harris about his unfounded views regarding racial profiling, and promoted the opinions of actual experts in response. Many spoke up when anti-medicine Bill Maher was nominated for a science award. And so on and so forth. Maybe if more people had spoken more loudly and forcefully at Linus Pauling, it wouldn’t be a generally-accepted belief that Vitamin C cures colds.

What we don’t do, what we shouldn’t do, what we must not do, is say “well, these people have done so much good that we can overlook this little bit of bad.” We don’t accept that from religious believers about the role of religion in history. We don’t accept that from the Catholic Church regarding its predator priests. We don’t accept that from science, dammit. We don’t say “well, these guys have published a bunch of good papers before, let’s just let this paper slide without peer review.” We don’t say “gee, Dr. Pauling’s been right about so many things, what’s the harm in just assuming he’s right about vitamin megadosing?” We don’t say “NASA’s got a pretty good track record, so we’re just going to overlook this error in the rover program. We wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.”

No, dammit, we’re skeptics, we’re scientists and science enthusiasts. We pride ourselves on seeking the truth and fighting ignorance. When prominent scientists and skeptics go wrong, they’re the ones we should argue with most strongly, most fervently–because either they, prizing truth and knowledge as we do, will change their position, or we–prizing truth and knowledge–will realize that it was our own that was in error.

Or they’ll go on believing and spouting wrong things. And then we’re free to question whether they really are committed to truth and knowledge, or if they are committed to their own sense of infallible rightness. That’s a bitter pill to swallow, to realize that even your heroes (maybe even especially your heroes) can be blinded by ego, but it’s a necessary lesson to learn. It’s necessary because no one is perfectly right or perfectly insightful or perfectly skeptical or perfectly reasonable. Pobody’s nerfect, as the hat says. And sometimes we become complacent in accepting a person’s thoughts or ideas as pure unvarnished truth, and need to be shaken out of it with a glimpse of their clay feet.

Being a luminary, being a role model, being a tireless advocate, being a hero, shouldn’t shield a person from criticism. It may mean that we give them a little more benefit of the doubt to explain or clarify, but even that isn’t inexhaustible.

What it does (and should) grant them is a group of people who care what they have to say enough to explain to them why they’re wrong.

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The Bible is Not an Objective Moral Standard

Why yes, this is my go-to image for discussions of morality. Why do you ask?Reading posts by Rhology have made me realize some of the problems involved in talking to people who believe their morals come from the Bible. There are several common refrains involved when arguing about this–“atheists have no basis for morality,” “without an objective morality/absolute moral code, you can’t judge other people’s morals,” “everyone has inborn morals from God, even if they don’t believe in him”–all of which are bound to pop up in any argument about secular morals. These all generally lead back to the point that God (and/or/through the Bible) provides a perfect and objective moral standard, without any of the problems that come from trying to define and justify a moral system in the absence of a deity. This idea is simply false: the Bible is emphatically not an objective moral standard; in fact, it fails in each of those points.

We’ll tackle “standard” first, since it’s the easiest. What moral standard does the Bible provide? Do we take our morals only from the explicit commandments, or should we learn by example from the various heroes and virtuous people?

If we are to learn only from the explicit commandments, then we run into a problem right away: there are an awful lot of apparent moral quandaries that never get discussed in the Bible. Are there moral implications of genetic engineering? Cybernetics? Overpopulation? Pollution? Birth control? Phone sex? Organ transplants? Euthanasia? Where the Bible touches on these issues, it does so only in the most broad, vague, and tangential fashions; there are no specific instructions on whether or not children should be given mood-altering drugs, no specific answers to questions about the introduction of novel organisms into foreign ecosystems. Are we to assume that the only moral issues are the ones that the Bible discusses directly? Is the choice to vaccinate your child morally neutral and equivalent to the choice to leave them unvaccinated? These are serious questions of real-life issues, on which the Bible is silent, preferring instead to tell us how best to combine goats and milk (Ex. 34:26) and the taxonomy of eunuchs (Mt. 19:12). Is there really no morally preferable choice in any of those situations?

So, perhaps we are meant to also learn from example. If that’s the case, then what lessons should we take away from the heroes’ stories? Take Jephthah, for instance. He makes a deal with God that if God helps him win in battle against the Ammonites, then he’ll sacrifice the first thing that comes through his doorway when he returns home. Naturally, after the successful battle, his daughter comes out to greet him. There’s no Abraham/Isaac cop-out in this story: Jephthah follows through with his promise to God. So do we read this story as a cautionary tale about the price of testing God, or do we read it as a positive example of what the faithful should be willing to do in the name of the Lord? There’s enough material outside the story to support both interpretations; which moral should we be receiving?

We could find similar quandaries with any number of Biblical characters–Joseph, Elisha, Solomon, Samson, etc.–maybe we shouldn’t be learning from all of their examples. So which characters should we be learning from? I suspect that Christians would say we ought not be following in the footsteps of Thomas, refusing to believe in the extraordinary until extraordinary evidence is provided to support the claims (despite the corroborating commandment of 1 Thessalonians 5:21). There are a litany of characters who are willing–even eager–to sacrifice their children based on God’s say-so, from Lot to Abraham to Jephthah to Yahweh, which suggests to me that according to Biblical morals, there’s nothing wrong with what Deanna Laney or Andrea Yates Dena Schlosser did*. Or perhaps we shouldn’t be learning from those particular examples. And what about the big guy himself? Should we be taking lesssons from God’s actions, or is he a “do as I say, not as I do” sort of father figure? After all, God does some pretty nasty stuff over the course of the Bible, commanding and committing genocide and inflicting plagues and so forth. Even the “do as I say” bit is difficult, given all the places where God issues direct commands that conflict with earlier laws and commandments (such as the various exhortations to kill women and children, contradicting the whole “thou shalt not murder” bit). Do you do as he said before, or as he’s saying now–what was written in stone, or what was given in a vision? This would be a lot easier if each of the real commandments started with “Simon Says.”

Hitting on that point of contradictory commandments, we see quite a few such things throughout the Bible. There are places where some moral imperatives issued by the book contradict others, there are places where heroes’ explicit flaunting of those imperatives is cast in a positive light, and then there are places where God issues edicts that directly conflict with previously-issued laws and edicts. How can we call this set of morals a “standard” if it is internally inconsistent, and if God can change it on a whim? Or is the only standard “what God says goes”? If it’s the latter point, then how do we determine what God’s message is, given contradictory passages in the Bible and stories with ambiguous moral teachings? How do we distinguish between actual commands from God and paranoid delusions? After all, Dena Schlosser believed that God had told her to cut off her daughter’s arms, which isn’t exactly out of character for the God of the Bible (Mark 9:43, for instance); can we say with any degree of certainty whether or not she was actually receiving instructions from Yahweh?

This segues nicely into the issue of objectivity**. In short, there isn’t any. In long, we have to make some distinctions here. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that there is an omnipotent universe-creating God who has some idea of morality in his big giant head, and cares whether or not we follow it. To this end, he communicates with some Middle Eastern nomads through bushes and tablets, plays some role in their writing of a bunch of books full of teachings and laws, then later comes down himself to tell stories and make pronouncements which also eventually get written down. At this point, we could conceivably have three distinct moral codes: What-God-Thinks, What-God-Said, and What-Got-Recorded. In any human communication, these three things would be different–perhaps only subtly, but certainly different. What one thinks might be more nuanced and detailed than what one says, which may lose some inflection or connotation in the transition to writing (or may gain additional ones through the addition of punctuation and other conventions), not to mention that the writers are filtering what-one-says through their own perceptions. But, for the sake of simplicity, we’ll assume that God is super-awesome and communicated everything pertinent about his thoughts on morality to his various followers, who recorded these thoughts accurately–to make things simple (too late), we’ll assume that the Bible (as it was written) accurately and completely represents God’s moral codes, that What-God-Thinks and What-Got-Recorded are the same.

That’s all well and good, but it’s certainly not the end of the story. Even assuming that God is perfect and infallible and a fantastic communicator, and assuming that his secretaries were all very thorough and accurate, the morals aren’t doing much good until they’re read. The process of reading is where any lingering objectivity goes right out the window. I’ll refer you to my post on communication for the lengthy discussion. Suffice it to say, each person who reads the Bible is going to read it in the particular context of their own knowledge, culture, and experiences. These contextual differences are going to have profound impacts on the message that the person receives***.

Take, for example, Exodus 20:13: “Thou shalt not murder.” On the face of it, that’s pretty straightforward. “Murder” is a more specific term than, say, “kill” (which some translations use instead); “murder” implies some degree of intent, ruling out accidental deaths, and is usually reserved for humans, ruling out killing animals and plants and the like. It would seem that the Sixth Commandment is pretty cut-and-dry.

It’s not. It doesn’t take more than a brief application of common sense to realize that, either. Even legally, “murder” is a broad term, and the difference between it and manslaughter is often a matter of prosecutorial discretion.

Consider this: is it murder to kill someone who is trying to kill you? Legally, it isn’t; it’s self-defense. What if you’re killing someone who is trying to kill someone else, some innocent? If you could demonstrate that that person was a clear and present danger, then it’d be a pretty clear case of justifiable homicide. Is it murder to kill someone who is not attacking you, but has threatened or promised to kill you? Is there such a thing as pre-emptive self-defense? What if you think they’ve threatened you, or you just feel threatened by them? Is there a hard-and-fast line where it isn’t self-defense anymore? What if someone’s mere existence threatens your life–if you’re trapped on a raft or in the wilderness with another person, with only enough resources for one of you to survive, is it murder to kill the other person? Is it murder to continue living, ensuring that person’s death?

This is, of course, ignoring other pertinent questions–is it murder to kill an enemy in war? What about the unborn? Is abortion murder? Is it murder to dispose of unused frozen zygotes from in vitro fertilization? Is execution murder? Is it murder if you don’t act to prevent someone’s death when it’s in your power to do so? If someone who is already facing imminent-but-painful death begs you for a quick and painless one that you are able to provide, would it be murder to kill them? Would it be wrong? I guarantee, for nearly all of these questions, that one can easily find Bible-believing Christians on every conceivable side.

Some of this may seem like splitting hairs, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about moral philosophy, it’s that it exists specifically to split those hairs. The whole point of moral philosophy is to provide answers–or at least reasoned arguments–regarding these tough hair-splitting moral questions. We don’t generally have much problem reasoning out the right thing to do in the obvious situations; it’s the ones that walk the lines, the no-win scenarios, and whatnot that cause moral anxiety.

Can the Bible be an objective moral standard if it doesn’t provide specific guidance on these questions? If it doesn’t provide a specific, detailed definition of murder (for instance), then how are we to determine what we shalt not do in these difficult situations? We started by assuming that God included his morals, completely and perfectly, in the Bible, but can any moral system be considered complete or perfect under any reasonable definition of either term if it leaves so much open to subjective interpretation?

It ends up being like the disagreement between Creationists regarding where to draw the line between “fully ape” and “fully human” when presented with the progression of transitional hominids. When a worldview that only admits binary options is presented with a continuum, dividing that spectrum up into those two absolute options is a subjective and arbitrary process. If the Bible had said “So God created man in his own image, which was upright and somewhat hairy and with a prominent sloping brow, and…,” those Creationists might have had more agreement. Similarly, if the Bible said “Thou shalt not murder, which includes but is not limited to…,” these questions might be answered more objectively within Biblical morality.

Or, rather than presenting us with the broad, general rules and expecting us to deduce the specifics, the more useful moral standard would provide us with a litany of specific situations and allow us to induce the generalizations. Sure, it would make the Bible exponentially longer, but after three hundred pages of various specific killing scenarios, it’d be pretty easy to reason “wow, God doesn’t much seem to like murder.” Instead, we have the general statement, which leaves us wondering “gee, what does God think about euthanasia?” and the like.

And this is where the Bible fails on the “moral” point. Even disregarding the bits of the Bible that no sane person would call “moral,” the Bible fails as a moral guide because it provides no clear guidance on any of these moral issues. Even if the Bible is a full and accurate description of God’s moral sense, it is not a complete guide to the morals that a human would need. We face moral issues that are apparently beneath God’s notice, and in these cases we must make our own decisions, we must determine the moral options for ourselves. And the fact that we are able to do this on an individual level (e.g., euthanasia) and on a social one (e.g., self-defense and justifiable homicide legal exceptions) completely invalidates the supposed need for an objective moral standard. The Christian’s claim that morality requires the Bible falls apart once one realizes that we routinely face moral quandaries for which the Bible offers no clear answer. The moral decisions we are required to make on our own are far more varied, nuanced, and difficult than the morals that are prescribed in the Bible; if we can make moral decisions in the vast gray areas and unpleasant scenarios of the real world, then I can’t see how the broad generalizations like “thou shalt not murder” would present any sort of problem. As I mentioned above, it would be much easier to induce the general rules from the specific situations than to deduce the moral options in specific situations from a general rule. The morals provided by the Bible are the simplest building blocks, the things we can all agree on and end up at independently (and, incidentally, things that most cultures have done independently), based on the much more complex situations we run across in the real world.

Where in the Bible we are meant to find morals is unclear; the stories are ambiguous, the commandments are overly general and often irrelevant, and there is little (if any) consistency. Most of the moral-making is ultimately left up to subjective interpretation, and the application of those morals is a matter for personal and social determination. The Bible does not provide the objective moral standard which so many of its adherents proclaim, and the notion that it is a necessary component for humans to have morals is self-refuting as a result. Moral philosophy, cultural anthropology, sociology, and biology have given us insights into how we make morals on the levels of the individual and as a society, and how moral codes and consciences developed in social animals. They have provided us with a way to develop our own systems of values, which then provide a way of distinguishing right from wrong in those situations where the division is indistinct. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they have allowed us the freedom to do what people do (and indeed must do, regardless of their religious convictions) already–examine and evaluate their own values and come to their own conclusions–without the threat of damnation hanging over them should they make the wrong choice. Morals come not from above, but from within; they are a result of our individual instincts and our interactions with one another. Consequently, we are held responsible, made to account for our moral decisions, by ourselves and each other, not some external arbiter. The only “objective moral standard” is the one we set ourselves.


*Some theists would likely say that these people were not actually receiving instructions from God, even though they believed they were. I’d like to know how they make that distinction. After all, can’t the same be said for Jephthah or Abraham? If you accept those stories, then you certainly can’t claim that it’s not within God’s character to demand a parent to sacrifice his or her child–Abraham certainly believed that this was something that God would command, and the Jephthah story confirms Abraham’s conviction. On what grounds can we claim with any kind of certainty that Abraham and Jephthah were actually receiving instructions from God to violate the “thou shalt not murder” commandment, while Dena Schlosser and Andrea Yates were schizophrenic or otherwise mentally ill?

**There’s a further issue here with the definition of “objective,” which could probably warrant its own post. Generally, things that are “objective” are the things that can be verified through application of fact or reason. “Chocolate is brown” is an objective fact (admittedly with some definition-associated wiggle room), subject to verification or falsification; “chocolate is delicious” is a subjective opinion, which is not subject to proof or disproof. What, precisely, makes God’s opinion on morals objective? Why would his opinion be any less subjective than anyone else’s? Yes, God is more powerful, but what application of power can make subjective opinion into objective fact? God’s opinions are not subject to verification or falsification; they are as inaccessible to us as anyone else’s opinions. We can know them only by being told directly, by the subject, what the opinions are–and that runs us again into the problem of communication and interpretation.

Yeah, this is definitely fodder for another post.

***I’ve omitted here another pertinent issue: the matter of translation and copying. Long before anyone reading it today can get a chance to interpret the Bible, it has already been filtered through multiple interpreters. We know from the historical record that the Bible has been subject to multiple alterations (intentional and unintentional) through the copying process, many of which were due to various dogmas and ideologies of centuries past. The translators are working from copies that are many generations removed from any originals, and which have built into them many of the copying errors and alterations from the past. Those translators must then make their own interpretations when choosing the best words in one language to convey ideas expressed in another. There is rarely (if ever) a 1=1 correspondence between languages, especially ones as distantly related as modern English and ancient Greek. Each idea in the original could be phrased any number of ways in the translation, and each translated version will be different depending on what the translator decided to emphasize–was her intent to preserve the closest literal meaning of the text, or to convey the poetry, or to try to present the concepts as clearly as possible with less regard to the particular language, or did she have another motive for her choices? For an example of how much impact this kind of interpretive choice has on a text, try opening up up any two versions of “The Iliad.”

More on Rhology

You may recall that I once had an exchange with Rhology, the resident brick wall down at the Atheist Experience blog, some time ago. Apparently, he responded, if you can call “posting while ignoring the vast majority of what I said” a response. Naturally, I responded to his blatantly dishonest, cherry-picking, quote-mining, strawman-building façade of a response in the comments there, but I figured I’d reproduce it here, since it’s epic in length. To his credit, at least Rhology apologized for not directing me to the response. Clicky-click below the fold.
Sorry to come into this so late. I blame Rhology’s lack of netiquette.

But what is his argument that being killed does not depend on one’s worthiness? I don’t grant that at all.

The matter was not “worthy of being killed” but “worthy of death.” “Death” has nothing to do with worthiness; every living thing dies, regardless of any judgment of virtue. As I said in the original thread: “I see a major difference between ‘you deserve death’ and ‘you deserve to be killed.’ The latter has some meaning; it implies that the target should encounter death before they otherwise would, which is indeed a punishment (at least, by my reckoning). If that’s what Rhology meant, then that has some practical meaning. I’d like to know what his criteria are for determining who deserves to be killed, and how he arrived at that conclusion, and chances are I would disagree.”

Incidentally, rather than offering any such criteria or your reasoning behind such a statement, you decided to play armchair psychologist and pretend you had any understanding whatsoever of morals that aren’t derived from an arbitrarily chosen ancient book.

This bleeds over into the “worthy of death” vs “worthy of being killed” thing. Apparently, it’s by Tom Foss’ arbitrary fiat that these two statements are of different quality. But why should anyone be more consistent with Tom’s method than he himself is being?

It’s not “arbitrary fiat.” One statement is meaningful, the other one is not. Death occurs to the “worthy” and “unworthy” alike (no matter what your standards for worthiness are). Whether or not one meets an arbitrary standard of virtue has no bearing on whether or not that person will die. Saying “you are worthy of death” is nonsensical.

Saying “you are worthy of being killed” has some meaning, as I said above. It implies a punishment rather than an inevitability. Again, you’ve offered no standards to judge anyone’s worthiness of being killed, nor have you offered any reasoning behind that statement. It’s you who’ve made the “arbitrary fiat.”

Apparently, the basis for Tom’s morality is society – it all starts there.

Starts there? No, though that’s close to the start. The start is the set of facts that require society to exist: namely, our desire for survival, our natural empathy for one another, and our mutual interdependence.

Simple humanism, really.

Um, no, not really. Simple reality.

Ah, the dangers of making man the focus!

Ah, the dangers of making an ancient book the focus! These days, “man” rarely advocates slavery or stoning unruly children.

And what can this say to someone who doesn’t like society? Who doesn’t think there should BE a society? Call them a sociopath, throw them in jail, whatever – that’s just might makes right, the imposition of morality by force, the shoving of his moralistic views down another’s throat.

I (and my commenters) already addressed this point. It didn’t stand then, it doesn’t stand now, and repeating it shows that you’ve run out of actual points.

What is his argument for this assertion?

What “assertion”?

Feeding someone is not merely allowing eating to take place; feeding someone necessarily implies that the feeding would not have otherwise taken place at that moment.
So what?

So what? You just refuted your point: “putting someone to death is simply enabling a natural process to take place. It’s the same as giving someone a carrot to eat.” Half of that is accurate (to a degree)–killing someone is the same as giving them a carrot to eat, in that it’s making an inevitable thing happen immediately (assuming that the person would inevitably have eaten the carrot). The half that’s wrong is that it’s “enabling a natural process to take place.” It’s not; it’s forcing a natural process to take place immediately rather than inevitably. Here in the real world, there’s this thing called “time,” and it has significance with regard to these natural processes.

1) There’s no necessity that society exist.
There is if the species is to continue.

Let me restate my #1 then.
1) There’s no necessity that the human species exist.

Agreed. There is no necessity that the human species exist; we, as humans, however, would generally prefer existence to nonexistence. The necessity of society comes out of our desire to continue living.

Well, who would argue that?
The question is: Society exists. What are our moral obligations?
Where is the prescription?

The prescription is this: given the facts that society exists, that we live in it, and that we generally benefit from it, our moral obligations are determined by the principles that ensure the continued existence of society, and thus assist our continued survival and benefit.

If someone wants to be free of those moral prescriptions, they’re free to leave the society, so long as they’re willing to give up those benefits.

Again, all this was generally covered in the post you’re supposedly responding to.

Humans could take the approach from other animals, like eagles and lions – raise the young for a bit and then send them out on their own.

Do you have any idea what you’re talking about at all? Lions live in prides, in social groups where the individuals mutually benefit from the collective protections and resources of their society. Eagles migrate in groups (again, providing mutually protection), and some species mate for life. Neither of your examples “send [the young] out on their own,” cut off from any and all of the resources and protections of the society–after all, they’re social animals.

Let’s say that humans did just that: raise the young until they’re adults, then send them out. Where would we send them? Someplace that doesn’t have the various benefits and protections of the human society, but still allows them to find a mate when they need to? Where, exactly, would that be? The two locales are more or less mutually exclusive; there were no hot babes at Walden Pond.

Again I have to bring up the So What? On your view, humans could have evolved so that we live together in societies or live apart as individuals, either way. What does that say about morality, about telling us what we OUGHT to do, what we OUGHT to value, how we OUGHT to think, what we OUGHT to hold dear?

No, in my view, humans couldn’t have evolved otherwise–not and still be recognizable as humans. We come from a long lineage of animals with increasingly complex societies. We don’t have the necessary traits to survive as a purely individualistic species.

However, that’s beside the point: if things had happened differently, then our moral sense might be different. Things happened according to one set of circumstances, and those circumstances dictate our morality. Society exists, we benefit from it. In order to continue receiving those benefits, we need to act in a manner consistent with the continued existence of society. If we act in a manner against the continued existence of society, then society will remove our access to those benefits.

In other words, if we want to continue to survive and benefit from the comforts of society, then we ought to act in accordance with society’s rules. If we don’t want to act in accordance with society’s rules, then we ought to leave. We can’t have our benefits and shirk the rules too.

You’re confusing categories – IS and OUGHT.

I’m not confusing anything. I’m explaining that “ought” comes from “is.” Our morals depend on the facts of our existence.

I’m not questioning THAT societies have general scruples. I’m questioning the prescriptive power of said scruples.

Ah, right. Pressure from other individuals, threat of punishment (and execution of such threats), social norms, and individual conscience have no power to affect individuals’ behavior. And none of those things have any basis in the values of society.

The simple fact that most people hold that, say, it is morally right to shove Jews into ovens doesn’t mean that I should believe that such is right. But apparently Tom thinks that if the society believes that to be true, it’s true.

You’re confusing “things I didn’t say” with “arguments against my position.” Allow me to repeat, from the post you’re responding to: “On a personal level, Rhology, I would say that these ‘astray’ societies were obviously doing morally wrong things, since I, and the society of which I am a part, consider oppression, murder, pogroms, and so on to be morally reprehensible.

But what about those societies at the time? Certainly in 1945 we could have judged Nazi Germany to be in the wrong; their actions were–again–contrary to the moral values that we hold in the US. Moreover, they were contrary to the foundational values that are necessary for society: killing bad. Applying the same metric we used for the mountain men, we can imagine that a society where folks went around killing anyone they didn’t like would fall apart pretty quickly. So maybe they wanted to get together and make an arbitrary guideline about when an exception would be warranted–and they did, making an arbitrary exception to the “no killing” rule that applied to anyone who wasn’t Aryan. And we, and others, were able to judge that arbitrary decision to be morally incorrect, based on our own values and some pretty basic applications of reason and logic.

I’m curious, though, how much the actions of Nazi Germany actually fell in line with the moral consensus. Just because a government does something or codifies a law doesn’t mean that those actions or codes are in line with the moral consensus of the people.”

The decision to kill Jews wasn’t the result of moral consensus, but of arbitrary fiat (yes, this is a clear oversimplification). It was contrary to the moral necessities of society and inconsistent with the general values of the society.

If it evolved that way, that’s the moral right. Thus the danger of basing one’s morality on humanity.

Where on Earth did anyone say that? Your straw man is getting threadbare.

If humanity had evolved and flourished with that behavior as its model, would Tom now be arguing that such behavior fits very well within his moral framework?

“If things were radically different, would Tom be arguing for something radically different?” Yes, Rhology, when the facts change, I change my position. What do you do?

For instance, I think it’s safe to say that the prevailing value in my country would be that it’s morally wrong to kill and eat dogs. I agree: I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to eat my dog. In a different set of circumstances, however–say, in a region where food was less plentiful and dogs weren’t generally given the same kind of prestigious place that they are in our families, I might argue that eating dogs would be necessary for survival. In a society where dogs were common hunting partners, necessary to procure food for the whole community, I might argue that killing dogs–which would likely result in the community going without food–should be a heavily punishable crime. Different social circumstances may require different moral judgments.

If not, why should anyone respect a system that can only support such inconsistent and arbitrary appeals?

As opposed to what? A system based on what an arbitrarily chosen deity supposedly said? A system which says “thou shalt not murder” but also repeatedly encourages people to slaughter women and children? Yes, inconsistency and arbitrariness are a real problem for at least one of these moral systems.

1) Neither are women property in the Bible. Ignorant statements like this don’t help anyone.

Ah, okay, I’ll just ignore the places where wives are listed alongside servants and livestock as belongings, or where women are purchased. Instead, let’s go with something we can both agree on: unlike in the Bible, the industrialized west doesn’t generally consider women to be inferior and subordinate to men. Surely you wouldn’t be ridiculous enough to call that an “ignorant statement.”

2) One wonders whether Tom realises the nature of biblical, Old Testament slavery, which is more properly termed ‘indentured servitude’, with all sorts of legal rights and protections.

Semantics. I don’t give a fig about legal rights and protections (protections like ‘if you beat your slave to death, you’ll be punished, unless the slave lives for a day or two after the beating, because after all, it’s your money‘). Owning people is wrong, full stop. Any book which says otherwise is an inferior source of morality.

Tom also shows unfamiliarity with the ‘stoning children to death’ thing in the OT, tipping his hand that he’s probably reciting Hitchensian or ironchariots talking points or something.

I’ve not read any Hitchens, so it can’t be that.

It was not young children who were subject to this penalty, but rather grown children.

And this is better…how?

Tom might be well-served to read the entire passage in question

What, this passage?

“If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother, and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his hometown. “They shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey us, he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ “Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel will hear {of it} and fear.”

So according to your Bible, disobedience, stubbornness, rebelliousness, gluttony, and alcoholism are crimes worthy of the death penalty? And you think this is somehow better than what I was saying? You’ve made my point for me, Rhology: any book that advocates public execution as a punishment for laziness and rebellion is morally reprehensible.

And of course, he shows his gross inconsistency right here. Apparently, for Tom, societal evolution determines morality except when it makes Tom uncomfortable and militates against his own morality. In that case, suddenly, it’s NOT OK.
Inconsistency is the sign of a failed argument.

I don’t even know where to begin; that’s not even a straw man, because that would imply that it bears some resemblance to my arguments. Nothing in what you just said represents anything I’ve said at all. If that’s how carefully you read posts you’re responding to, then I wonder how carefully you could possibly be reading your favorite holy book. Maybe that’s why you think “stoning my adult son because he’s a bum” is somehow superior to “stoning my son because he’s unruly.”

Of course, that you pull the word “adult” out of there, in a passage which never specifies the age of the child in question, is pretty much a testament to your careless reading. And if inconsistency is the sign of a failed argument, then what must we think of a moral system which says that gluttony and drunkenness are punishable by death, but also that punishments should be proportional to the crime?

If you actually care what I think about morality, try reading what I’ve already written. I don’t see any need to repeat myself yet again.

But society is not unanimous about anything. Thus, I introduced the question of %. Apparently Tom is more interested in making naked assertions that sound good at first and then back off of them when challenged.

Where am I backing off? Try reading the next line, where I elaborate: “It’s [the moral consensus is] represented in the ongoing conversations about rights, the progression of laws, and the overall changing social attitude.” I ought to probably include socail mores in that list, though I would imagine they fall under “social attitude.” Explicitly, the social consensus is represented in the law, though that’s not always an accurate depiction of social values (see, for instance, Prohibition). Less explicitly, there are things that, morally, a given society takes for granted, and things that we discuss and debate. On and off within the past few decades, it’s been a generally-accepted premise that the use of drugs is a very bad thing. More recently, the discussion of legalizing marijuana has gained some traction, and the drug doesn’t have the same stigma it did, say, fifty years ago. A few decades ago, homosexuality was generally assumed to be morally wrong; today, the social conversation is far, far more divided, and the consensus is shifting toward the contrary position.

You want a percentage? Take a damn poll. That’ll give you some idea, depending on how you ask the questions, and the size and composition of your sample group. Otherwise, you can just pay attention: what kinds of moral issues are being debated in the society? What kinds of laws are being drafted, voted on, or challenged? What kinds of people, issues, and relationships are portrayed in the media? The consensus, rough and changing as it is, builds out of those things.

I made no guess or hypothesis one way or the other. I was waiting for him to explain it to everyone, and I’m disappointed.

I’m disappointed by your quote-mining, Rho. You want to know what I think? Then don’t cherry-pick bits of my post and ignore the parts that answer your questions.

1) They’re still part of society, though.

They’re part of a society, not necessarily the parent society. Assuming, of course, that we’re talking about a “they” and not a “single kook going completely off the grid.”

Perhaps that’s what you’re not quite getting: societies come in different levels and flavors. There’s a global society, which is becoming increasingly homogeneous with regard to morals, but which only really agrees on the broad and basic points. There are large societies, like nations, which agree on more points and are more homogeneous still. Within those, we may define sub-societies–regions like “the north” and “the south,” or individual states; we may talk about “city values” and “country values,” describing different sub-societies that aren’t necessarily connected by common location. These groups will agree on still more moral points.

And then there are tight-knit mini-societies like the YFZ compound or Amish communities or hippie communes. These little societies fall along a spectrum of how much they depend on, participate in, and benefit from the larger society around them, and this largely determines how closely they have to follow the rules of the parent society. The Amish, for instance, are exempted from some taxes, child labor laws, and education laws, for various reasons owing to their general separation from the outside society. On the other hand, they can vote, they use the public roadways, and they receive protection from the U.S., so they’re required to pay some taxes, put safety reflectors on their carriages, and so forth.

So, with the crazed mountain men, they may secede and form their own society; they might still be considered part of some version of the parent society (certainly they’d be included in the global society), but they wouldn’t necessarily be part of the society they’re rebelling against. If they band together and form their own independent group, they can form their own rules and live however they want.

2) This speaks not at all to the question of whether it’s morally OK to secede.

Who was asking that question? What moral arguments are there against secession?

3) One wonders at what point someone ceases to be part of “society”. I’ll venture a guess – it’s whenever their presence IN society stops discomfiting Tom’s argument.

Um, how about “when they’re alone and no longer benefiting from or contributing to a larger group.” You know, like I said.

And one of these small secluded societies might conceivably come to believe that it is a moral obligation to seek out and murder all humanists who have first names that begin with “T”. And Tom Foss would presumably call them immoral to do so. But why?

1) When did I call myself a humanist?
2) I would consider it immoral to do so, because my values, and the values necessary for any society to exist would consider murder to be immoral. Apparently you missed that basic point. So I’d wonder what arguments they have for that exception to their rule, and I suspect that it’d be totally arbitrary. As I’ve said a couple of times, the totally arbitrary exceptions to and demarcations of various moral codes are the places where debate and discussion most readily occur.

But they can consider that their moral obligation all they want, and that’s their right–up until they invade some society where the morals disagree. When values clash, it’s sometimes violent.

Well and good, but is it OK to rape children?
I don’t care whether anyone BELIEVES it’s OK to rape children. I want to know WHETHER it is OK.

Considering that it generally goes against the values necessary for individuals and society to continue existing, that it fails the “what if everyone did it” test, and that it represents an arbitrary exception to their existing morality (I imagine Warren Jeffs wouldn’t find it morally correct to rape elderly men, so rape can’t always be permissible in their society), I think we can safely say that raping children is wrong. Heck, I can go so far as to say that it ought to be commanded. Strange that no particular deities have thought to include “thou shalt not rape” on their verboten lists. You’d think that’d be more important than taking names in vain or taking days off of work.

Not at all. As we’ve seen, these ‘absolutes’ are arbitrary and inconsistent. Tom has failed.

Darn those arbitrary fiats again, Rhology.

God-defined moral absolutes, however, are absolute and right by definition, AND they are backed up by disciplinary and punitive authority and force.

Which God? Which moral absolutes? I’m sorry, if you think “publicly execute drunkards” is “right by definition,” then you’re as morally reprehensible as your arbitrarily-chosen genocide-ordering, baby-murdering deity.

Even this, his “most basic” of precepts, is hopelessly misaligned. Apparently it is now immoral to kill a guy who is holding a knife to my wife’s throat after breaking in to my bedroom and trying to kill me.
Or to shoot a terrorist who is about to blow up a schoolbus with a bomb belt.

Yes, that’s absolutely what I said right there, totally, and not a blatant misrepresentation of what I’ve said up to that point. Yes, it is immoral to kill the guy who is holding the knife to your wife’s throat–if society is to continue existing, if we all want to survive, then we can’t go around killing one another willy-nilly. It is, of course, morally correct to save your wife’s life–if society is to continue existing, if we all want to survive, then we should go around making sure that each other survives, particularly the people with whom we’re going to mate. So we have a situation where we must choose–horrors–the lesser of two evils! And given the moral imperative to save one another’s lives, and the likelihood that a knife-wielding murderer will probably go on to murder again, the more moral act should be quite clear.

Of course, if you can stop the attacker without killing him, thus allowing the system we have for enforcing our morals to do its work, then you’ve skirted the immorality issue almost entirely

See, once again, the circumstances determine the moral judgments. It would be morally wrong to hold someone captive against their will, keeping them confined to a single room for most of the day and refusing them human contact. If, however, that person is a convicted serial killer, then we must weigh the immorality of holding people captive against the immorality of allowing serial killers to roam free and transgress against the basic morals that hold society together. And so, since they’ve acted against society’s interests, we remove their access to the benefits of society, as the more morally correct action.

Real-world morals don’t provide blanket black-and-white, always-right/always-wrong judgments. They provide guidelines to make moral decisions based on individual circumstances. Actions which would be morally reprehensible in most situations (taking a life, for instance) may be morally required in a certain set of circumstances (like the ones you’ve outlined above).

Tom must not watch the news. Is it really possible for someone in the modern age, who uses the Internet, to be this hopelessly naive? I guess so.

What the hell does this even mean? Do you really think that you can’t reasonably trust most people not to kill you when you turn your back? Really? Because you must not live in any place that resembles the actual world. Surprisingly enough, “man doesn’t kill woman on subway” doesn’t often make the 9 o’clock news cycle, despite it being what happens in the vast majority of instances. Is it really possible for someone to interact with other human beings and be this hopelessly cynical? I guess so.

Tom apparently does not realise that morality exists not only to tell us what we ought to do, but to tell apart good from bad and correct action and desire from incorrect action and desire. It serves to protect us against bad people. If everyone were perfect, there’s really no need for law, nor law enforcement.

What exactly do you mean by “morality” here? Because I have the feeling that we’re defining the terms in somewhat different ways.

What are “correct and incorrect desires”? Are you talking thoughtcrime? I guess I don’t realize that morality exists to shield us from things that aren’t threats in any way.

And how do you define “bad people”?

And, finally, where am I suggesting that people are “perfect”? Have I said anything of the sort? Because I certainly don’t see it, nor do I think so.

It seems like you think all morality needs to come from outside, like people couldn’t figure out “killing bad” on their own.

Everyone knows deep down that God’s Law exists and condemns them as sinners (Romans 2:14-16).

Ah, here we are, with the baseless statements. Well, I’ll grant that your religious laws exist (all 613 or so), but I haven’t seen any evidence that your God exists, or any reason to follow his laws as opposed to the laws of any of the other myriad deities. Seems like choosing any particular god to follow is pretty arbitrary, as are what your God considers “sins.” I mean, I find it morally reprehensible to punish children for what their parents and ancestors did in the past, but apparently that’s just a-okay with Yahweh.

We’ll simply ignore the fact that your statement here is incorrect: no, not everyone knows, deep down or otherwise, that your god’s law exists or that he thinks we’re all really naughty.

This is one of the reasons why Tom, while embracing a humanist morality at one level, also tries to bind others’ consciences to moral judgments as if they SHOULD follow them.

No, it isn’t. First, you say “humanist morality” like you know what it means, when you clearly don’t (heck, I’m not even sure it’s a meaningful phrase). Second, you’ve just completely ignored anything I’ve said and returned to your original arugment (that we have no justification for telling others how to behave). I’ve explained the basis of morality, using the basic facts of human existence and of how moral codes change over time. Your model of “morality as defined in an arbitrary ancient book” doesn’t provide any explanation as to why we can look at slavery and murdering drunkards and committing genocide and say “hey, those things are wrong” today, when your book still endorses them. Your model of morality doesn’t explain why God thought it was so important to tell us how goats and goat milk should be combined when cooking, but neglected to mention anything about, say, cloning or equality or pollution or any of the other moral issues that we’re facing today. Why is it that the morals outlined in your book aren’t any different from the morals practiced by Bronze Age nomads and first-century religious fanatics?

Finally, without evidence that your God exists, you have no justification for binding others’ consciences to moral judgments as if they SHOULD follow them. Why should I follow Jehovah over Allah or Zeus or Odin? What reason do I have to think that any of their contradictory sets of laws apply to me, or that their various condemnations of me hold any weight? I have proof that society exists, and I have proof that society can punish me, and I have proof that societies possess different moral codes, and I know that I like living, want to continue living, and like receiving benefits from the society. Why should I follow any arbitrary deity when I can derive morals from the things I know exist?

Once again, we have to ask: When and where did “society” get together and establish this moral agreement? Where would “society” do so in the future?
Tom has not answered this question. He tells us that it’s in evolution, in development.

I guess your “perfect moral code” doesn’t cover bearing false witness, Rhology, since I answered precisely that in the passage you mined for that quote. You were being obtuse before, now you’re just being blatantly dishonest.

Let the reader judge whether presuming that Tom would think that the Nazi genocide was a bad thing was a mean and nasty thing for me to do. Tom seems a little prickly on this topic. Will we be frightened by what we’ll find about his thoughts?

Yes, let the reader of what I said judge that. I’ll just link it again; this post is long enough without repeating myself.

Well well, I was right.
And I love it – “on a personal level”.

That’s right. My first statement was “on a personal level. And after that, I explained it on an impersonal, objective level. But you chose to ignore that, because it was inconvenient for your screed.

Fine then. On a personal level, I would say that hunting down and murdering all humanists whose first names begin with the letter “T” is obviously morally RIGHT, since I, and the society (which my society and I have defined) of which I am a part, consider their existence morally reprehensible. We’re right back at the beginning – I have decided that he is worthy of death.

Yes, you’re back at the beginning: speaking nonsense.

Don’t wriggle out of this. Answer the question.

I’m not wriggling out of anything. I’ve answered your questions, you chose to ignore the answers.

Taking the easy way out is no way to make quality, substantial arguments.

You owe me a new irony meter.

So these decisions are “made” during an unobservable and unexaminable period of time by an amorphous, undefined group in an undefined area on undefined questions. Pardon me if I’m not bowled over in wonder at the fecundity of societal moral reasoning.

Right, as opposed to decisions made during an unobservable and unexaminable period of time by an invisible, undefined God working through an amorphous, undefined group of writers in an undefined area on undefined questions. Your method is so much more reasonable.

The point to all this is to demonstrate the vacuity, the void, of the alternatives to the Christian worldview, where the living God is the source of morality.

Really? Because to me you’ve demonstrated the vacuousness, the cynicism, the intellectual dishonesty, and the density of those promoting the Christian worldview, who have to ignore inconvenient points, blatantly misrepresent opposing positions, and flat-out lie in order to support their claims that their perfect God laid out a perfect source of morality, which is totally consistent (despite commanding proportional punishment alongside stoning drunkards) and right by definition (despite forcing rape victims to marry their attackers, for instance) and in no need of reinterpretation or progress.

The distinction is more than obvious, and given Tom and Anon’s terrible confusion and inconsistency, thank God for it!

What’s more than obvious, Rhology, is your inability to engage in any kind of honest discussion. You’re certainly a credit to your religion.

Morality and such

The Atheist Experience posted about morality here. Rhology posted a nonsensical comment here. I responded to it here and here. Rhology responded to me here. I responded in his comments, but I’ve reproduced it below the fold. Go ahead and read the exchanges in their original locations, this is just here in case of deletion.
So one wonders why Tom would have a problem with my statement.

My problem is that the statement is nonsensical. What does it mean to be “worthy” of something that does not depend on one’s worthiness? If I say, “you are all worthy of feet,” I’m not making a moralist statement, I’m making a Dadaist one.

If he were to be consistent, he’d neither disagree nor agree.

Consistent with what? With my determination that “worthy of death” is a meaningless judgment? As I said in the quoted portion, “worthy of death” and “worthy of being killed” are different judgments–one makes sense, the other does not. There is no inconsistency here, only your incoherency.

There’s no “should” in his worldview, no way to prescribe nor proscribe the ‘right’ behavior for anyone to follow.

That’s a blatant strawman. The “should” is determined by society, and at its core, by the necessary elements required for society to exist. I discuss this later in the post.

Further, putting someone to death is simply enabling a natural process to take place. It’s the same as giving someone a carrot to eat. Or a slab of steak. Or a live hamster (if one were so inclined). Or brain from a living person. It’s all-natural. It’s all the same.

I suspect there’s quite a bit of equivocation going on here, but in any case, you’re wrong. Killing someone is not merely allowing death to take place; killing someone necessarily implies that death would not have otherwise taken place at that moment. It is taking a process that would have come about eventually and making it happen immediately. You fail to recognize, in your meandering, that time exists and is significant.

1) There’s no necessity that society exist.

There is if the species is to continue. Granted, there are those individuals for whom that’s not a concern. For the rest of us, that society exists is a given.

On naturalism, it so happens that humans evolved in such a way that living together in community aids in survival, most of the time.

No, living together is necessary for prolonged survival, all of the time. Last I checked, humans couldn’t asexually reproduce.

But of course, praying mantises have evolved in such a way that they hang out alone all the time, except when they get together for sex and dinner (in that order). So what?

So what indeed. What’s your point?

2) I’ve heard this claim many times and always I have wondered whence this social consensus comes. When and where did “society” get together and establish this moral agreement?

It’s not a one-off thing, nor is it a universal thing. Surprisingly enough, Rhology, morals evolve as society progresses. It’s why, unlike your favorite holy book, the general consensus in the industrialized west is that women are not property, slavery is not right, and unruly children should not, in fact, be stoned to death.

What % is a consensus, and what is the basis for pegging the % at that point?

The consensus is not a matter of percentages, and I’m sure you’re not stupid enough to think that it is. It’s represented in the ongoing conversations about rights, the progression of laws, and the overall changing social attitude.

3) What of those in society, such as anarchist protesters, murderers and other psychopaths, and M-16-toting, compound-dwelling Mountain Men, who have no and want no part in this societal moral consensus?

They’re generally free to band together and secede. In many cases, to some degree, they do just that, which is why there are such things as “compounds” and “enclaves” and “communes.” People seclude themselves from the larger social group in order to form their own small societies, based on their own consensus of morality. Hence why those of us in the urban world do not share the Amish belief that buttons and technology are morally forbidden, and why those at the YFZ compound do not share our moral outrage over raping children.

Whence comes the “should” in “these guys should have no say in our moral deliberations”? It’s arbitrary.

Not in the least. One, no one says they have no say in the moral deliberations. They have a say, so long as they’re participants in the society, but their voices may be drowned out by the general consensus. Two, we come again to the closest thing society has to moral absolutes: the conditions necessary for society to exist. A society as complex as ours is naturally going to have a lot of such necessary qualities, but the most basic is “killing people is morally wrong” (because society cannot exist if we cannot reasonably trust one another not to kill us when we stop watching them). There are others, naturally, but I’d rather keep this post as brief as possible.

The point, anyway, is that we can judge these variant viewpoints by comparing them to our society’s foundational moral principles. Those mountain men sure don’t seem to fall in line with the qualities we recognize are necessary for our society to continue, but hey, let’s give them a fair shake. We recognize that there’s a lot of murderous mountain men out there, what might happen to society if we agreed with their point of view? Well, we can imagine that it might fall apart pretty quickly. But we needn’t be so quick to dismiss it even now; what if we make an exception to the rules? Well, then we have to roll up our sleeves, get together as a society, and decide what the parameters of the exception will be.

And that’s where it does get arbitrary, which is why we come to an explicit consensus and codify it in law. Much of law is arbitrary–arbitrary boundaries drawn in sand by democratic plurality or dictatorial edict. They vary from place to place, and that’s not generally a problem. It’s not morally significant whether the highest speed limit in the state is 65 or 70 mph; the difference is arbitrary.

That the tiny details are arbitrary does not mean that there are not practical absolutes. That reasonable people can reasonably disagree on moral principles is a demonstration of their malleability and flexibility. More disparate cultures may disagree on more basic points, but even the simplest social animals have codes against killing members of the society and other basic, foundational principles.

4) What of entire societies who have gone “astray”? The Yanomamo, the Auca, the 3rd Reich, Vichy France (who willingly exceeded the quotas for sending French Jews to Germany set by the Nazis)… when was their moral consensus created? And was it OK? Tom Foss would probably say no, but on what basis? He has to be inconsistent with his own stated views to avoid the awful (and embarrassing) conclusion.

Don’t presume to speak for me, Rhology. You don’t.

On a personal level, Rhology, I would say that these “astray” societies were obviously doing morally wrong things, since I, and the society of which I am a part, consider oppression, murder, pogroms, and so on to be morally reprehensible.

But what about those societies at the time? Certainly in 1945 we could have judged Nazi Germany to be in the wrong; their actions were–again–contrary to the moral values that we hold in the US. Moreover, they were contrary to the foundational values that are necessary for society: killing bad. Applying the same metric we used for the mountain men, we can imagine that a society where folks went around killing anyone they didn’t like would fall apart pretty quickly. So maybe they wanted to get together and make an arbitrary guideline about when an exception would be warranted–and they did, making an arbitrary exception to the “no killing” rule that applied to anyone who wasn’t Aryan. And we, and others, were able to judge that arbitrary decision to be morally incorrect, based on our own values and some pretty basic applications of reason and logic.

I’m curious, though, how much the actions of Nazi Germany actually fell in line with the moral consensus. Just because a government does something or codifies a law doesn’t mean that those actions or codes are in line with the moral consensus of the people.

Said actions were, however, well in line with the moral views of many folks here in the US and abroad, based on judicious applications of anti-Semitism. And much of that anti-Semitism stems from some supposed book of morals which suggests that homosexuals ought to be put to death (which the Nazis did happily) and that Jews deserved to die based on their treatment of some magical God-man centuries before (which was a handy moral justification).

Wow, all that, and without invoking the principle of least suffering or the ethic of reciprocity, both of which are about as foundational to our society (and most others, for that matter), and would probably shortcut the whole “how do you judge the Nazis” question.

I’m sure most of this will fall on deaf ears, Rhology, but I post it anyway.