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On what basis do you decide what is good?

I was going to introduce this post but I believe that Faithfool has done an excellent job summarizing how this post came about. I will however say that I have enjoyed this immensely and hope to do something similar to this in the future. Please make a point to visit Faithfool’s blog on a regular basis. He does offer a different perspective than I would normally see. We would both enjoy hearing your comments on this subject.

Faithfool: As my name indicates, I am not the typical visitor on this website, and when I first visited, it never occurred to me that I might be invited to collaborate. But I asked a few questions, Skeptigator kindly replied, and before you know it, we had a conversation on our hands that was too big for mere “comments” to handle. This is the beginning of a strange conversation and we’re inviting you to join in.

What do you need to know about me? Not much. My own blog http://faithfool.wordpress.com tells you even less than I am about to tell you now. I am new to blogging, but not new to writing. I have spent years studying the Bible and the history of thought about God (theology) with people who believe more-or-less like I do. And I have spent years working, cleaning, brewing, serving with people who believe things very different from what I believe. Both kinds of experience have helped make me whole. I hope I can offer a concentrated, if mediated, version of that here. I do not think that the details of my personal life are especially important. Good ideas and true words speak for themselves, and unless mine prove to be such, you have no reason to keep listening.

We’ll pick up where he and I left off.

Skeptigator’s original question to all of us was: Does atheism lead to humanism?”. He concluded that it had for him and that, even if “humanism” was difficult to define, it had to include emphasis on human responsibility for fixing the world’s problems via reason and science.

My question: If humanity is to solve the world’s problems, how are we to decide which problems are worth solving? And do those ends justify any means? In other words, how do you determine moral goals and the moral actions necessary to fulfill them? On what basis do you decide what good is? Or is there no basis?

Skeptigator: Let me see if I can knock out each of these questions as they come.

“If humanity is to solve the world’s problems, how are we to decide which problems are worth solving?”

This is quite simple we use our reason. Humanity in the abstract should approach those things that “plague” them the most and find a workable solution. I know this is very vague but so is the question. While it’s easy to ask the question about what “humanity” should do; there isn’t some kind of ivory tower committee that sits around thinking of what to fix next and then ponders the deep things until they arrive at an “ah ha” moment. These are/should be governments and community groups, the United Nations or the local Boys and Girls Club. Many of these organizations are humanist almost by definition. Global Climate change is a global human problem that will require some larger and local effort to solve. World hunger, the favorite of beauty queens, is another good one.

Honestly a humanist’s reasons for picking which of the world’s problems to fix are the same as a Christian missionary (if they spend more time helping than preaching) or the Red Cross. Last time I checked there was no “form an American medical relief agency without respect to nationality” commandment in Clara Barton’s Bible. A humanist simply strips out the supernatural reasons. While I know this sounds conceited (and likely is), I think a humanist’s motives for volunteering time are “purer” simply because we aren’t banking our riches in heaven or instructed to help others for fear of some hellfire or ultimate accountability. We do it to end human suffering for no other reason than to end human suffering. Think of it as the Golden Rule on steroids.

“And do those ends justify any means?”

The end of an humanitarian effort is ultimately human dignity, you cannot withhold human dignity in the pursuit of human dignity. This applies regardless of whether you are looking to bring potable water to a remote area or helping victims of inner-city crime.

In other words, how do you determine moral goals and the moral actions necessary to fulfill them? On what basis do you decide what good is? Or is there no basis? ”

I’ve struggled to find a way to express myself on this one so I’ve done quite a bit of reading (much to my wife’s dismay) and here’s the best shot I could come up with. Humans are the source of our morals specifically through our human experience, a healthy dose of rationalism and a scientific worldview. With all three of these things we will have the wisdom to see beyond our individual and immediate circumstances, a method for evaluating reliable knowledge and the tools necessary to acquire and assimilate new knowledge.

Yes, this process will be prone to errors. We will have incomplete knowledge that we’ll base some policy on that may at times do more harm than good but we will have a self-correcting mechanism in place. We will be able to constantly evaluate our policies as new information is assimilated. I know that sounds like a Star Trek utopia but it’s the best I could do.

I don’t claim to have come up with this, in fact, a lot of what I just said is probably quoted verbatim from somewhere I’ve read before.

Perhaps, I should turn the tables a bit. If we use the process as I’ve laid out what advantages does a “faith-based” approach provide? Why is the above not a better approach to solving human woes? Or have I missed the point, it’s been known to happen 😉
Faithfool:
Primary response: The benefit of a faith-based approach? Depends on the faith. If it’s a “go do it, ’cause you’re good enough and strong enough and you can” kind of faith, there is no discernible benefit. This commonly passes for faith, so you are right in pointing out that there is, in many cases, no discernible benefit.

Approach to healing human suffering that is based in a trusting, dependent faith is superior in every way… but only if God exists, because I need Him. I can trust God to work in me, even when I am at my wit’s end, as I have been every time I have worked up close with the poor and with the dying. He sustains me. He also draws me close to my fellow workers, reconciling the tensions between us. I cannot trust the purity of my own motives in helping others. As often as not, I help someone because I want people to think good things about me or I want to think good things about myself, not necessarily because I genuinely want to see someone else receive help. I cannot love others, much less those who need love the most, on my own strength. But I don’t have to. God is with me and draws me close to others. I need you and I need Him. Apart from Him, I forget that. I trust that He will finally bring all things to justice, past, present, and future, including all of the things that I am powerless to make right. My faith sustains me, humbles me, deepens me in relationship with my fellow man, even with those whom I am helping, even as it gives me hope that, in the end, justice will be done.

In humanitarianism without God, I see many good motives and actions. But I know that I need the sustenance and hope that my God provides if I am to serve humanity for long. Of course, if God does not exist, then I must be playing some amazing mind games with myself, although my argument would be irrelevant.

Secondary questions: Using reason sounds simple. But I am more than my mind. What role do and should emotions play in the process of deciding what issues to tackle and how? Are emotions irrelevant? The things that motivate me most to help others are not my intellectual observations, but rather the aches of my heart. Then there is also the problematic issue of history. On numerous occasions (revolutionary France, the Soviet Union, etc.), groups of rationalist atheists have realized that, in order to make the biggest difference, they had to be in power. En route to power and once in power, these groups realized that the logical thing to do with the opposition was to imprison or execute them. I’m not saying that rationalist atheists are more prone to imprison and kill their opposition than any other group. My thesis is that all groups in political power are problematic, but every group hoping for large-scale influence must reckon with that possibility. How are humanitarians to navigate the issues of political power? Is global change truly possible without global power? But is global power possible without global (read: absolute) corruption?

Star Trek is Rodenberry’s vision of the future. He’s one of the better scientific atheist storyteller’s we’ve had. But he was also a bit of an optimist. Might 1984 or “A Brave New World” be even more likely? If we want to eliminate suffering, why not drug everyone? Or, Sartre’s conclusion, is suicide the only rational response to life’s suffering?

If evolution is our primary paradigm for understanding humanity’s development…
…how did eliminating every one’s suffering all of a sudden become a priority? (will that help evolution along?)
…how are we to avoid the tendency of seeing some people are less fit to survive than others? (is helping evolution along even a priority anymore? If not, why not? If so, how does that compete with eliminating suffering?)

Skeptigator: I guess I don’t really see what advantage your faith has over using your own reason and logic. For me as an atheist and a skeptic faith, as most commonly practiced in America, too often relies on some revealed dogma with specious claims of authenticity. This faith requires a suspension of logic and reason and essentially any other self-correcting mechanism that humankind has. This faith all too often fossilizes into dogma which is incontrovertible. I’m inferring from your primary response that it is a personal experience that you seek and you find that in a god.

I don’t really understand why you can’t love without a god. I could say that I love just fine without a god but to you would say that I love because of a god anyway regardless of whether I acknowledge that or not. That’s probably an argument that will go nowhere.

To the contrary, I do not think that using reason is simple I actually think it is harder than faith. Faith to me is a cop out and simplistic. Faith is a binary function (now I’m definitely giving my programmer geekiness away). Every situation can be evaluated with faith very simply. Abortion is always bad, no shades of grey, no opportunity to apply your reason to say, “An egg that was fertilized 24 hours ago, beyond its potential for human life, holds no distinguishable characteristic as compared to that of any other rapidly dividing cell. So these Morning-After pills are not that big a deal, it’s certainly not murder.” A Christian faith cannot accept this, it does not fit the dogma.

Before I tackle emotions I must reluctantly disagree with the rather tired argument that if you remove a god (the ultimate dictator?) from our world it will simply be replaced by dictators (Robespierre and Stalin) here on earth (all in the name of atheism, of course). Stalin didn’t kill and imprison gypsies, Jews and other vermin for atheist reasons, he did it for ideology. It wasn’t an atheist ideology it was a Marxist (some would argue a Stalinist) ideology. Religion was bad for him because it allowed you to worship or give final authority to someone other than him (or technically to The People).

In fact, maybe what atheist need to do is to frame the arguments against religion in different way. As a freethinking person we should be very uncomfortable with ideology of any kind. But a political or economic ideology can be argued with in a free society in fact they can be shown to not work (too often after an ideology has been implemented and failed with much human suffering). An atheist takes special exception to religion because it is an ideology that cannot be argued with. This has been covered in Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ latest books in a much better way than I will ever be able to cover. It’s the special exemption that religion has that gets so many of us riled up. Having said all that, I have to agree with your statement,

I’m not saying that rationalist atheists are more prone to imprison and kill their opposition than any other group”.

I wholeheartedly agree in fact I will go even further and say, “that rational atheists are just as likely to imprison and kill their opposition as any other groups (including Catholics and Buddhists).” But then again I’m not the one who makes unequivocal claims that Christians are morally better people and that atheists just want an excuse to live their immoral lives. Let me make this clear to the reader I’m not saying that Faithfool is saying this but it is very often said by notable Christians like Jerry “Teletubbies will turn you gay” Falwell and Pat “Bust a cap in his ass” Robertson.

As far as to what extent should human emotion play in what issues to tackle. I don’t know how you can measure “how much” emotion should be allowed to go into those decisions. But if I had to put an amount I would say no more than 12 ounces of emotion should be used. OK, I’m being snarky. Seriously, emotions play a role there is no way that they can’t but they can be tempered by that panacea for all things, reason. As individuals we are prone to make poor decisions when emotions are involved but when you extrapolate that to a nation very often those hotheaded emotions become tempered by cooler heads. Is it perfect? No. Do we imprison Japanese and Germans during war time? Sure. Should we? No. How many Muslims are in camps today? Zero. Why not? We’ve imprisoned other groups based on nationality before why not now based on religion? We’ve learned that whole groups of people cannot be painted with blanket stereotypes and mistreated out of fear. This is not religious logic but simply rationalism.

Has religion stopped treating whole groups of people with blanket stereotypes? Does religious dogma have the capacity to not do that? No. But people do and it will not come from their religion, it will come from their own brains, their own reason. Black people in America were less than human at one point (as was taught by the Bible) and now we view them as fully human and that to think anything otherwise would be absurd (as taught by the Bible). What changed? The Bible? No. Human Reason? Yes. I believe Christopher Hitchens makes a more thorough example of this in god is not great.

If evolution is our primary paradigm for understanding humanity’s development…
…how did eliminating every one’s suffering all of a sudden become a priority?”
Beyond eliminating human suffering what else would be a priority? Seems reasonable to me that starving people is a bad thing.

(will that help evolution along?)”
Evolution doesn’t need our help. It exists with or without us. Why are you trying to stop gravity when you hang a picture on the wall?

how are we to avoid the tendency of seeing some people are less fit to survive than others? (is helping evolution along even a priority anymore? If not, why not? If so, how does that compete with eliminating suffering?)
Humans often work against evolution, why do we routinely remove albino snakes from the wild? Because they won’t survive long in the wild.
Helping evolution along? Again I help or hinder evolution as much as I can help and hinder gravity. I think maybe you are mistaken that because I accept (not faith/belief) evolution as the natural order of things that I would be reluctant to go “against evolution”. Why do we care for the mentally-challenged and indigent? This would go against evolution since the retarded will be naturally selected against. We care for the mentally-handicapped because it’s the moral thing to do (based on our reason) for the same reason we build homes to shield us from the very real and completely natural weather.

I really don’t want to come across as “I know something you don’t” but I really don’t believe that you may not fully understand what evolution is. I think maybe if you had a better understanding you wouldn’t try to mix evolutionary theory with morality and ethics in such a deterministic fashion.

Faithfool’s Closing comments:
Skeptigator and I agree on four basic things: that we should alleviate human suffering; that reason should play a role in that process; that we should all be willing to work together in practical ways; and that this is a conversation worth having. I commend him for his desire to alleviate suffering everywhere, regardless of any benefit to himself.

The details of our disagreement stem from one primary source (surprise!): the existence of God. And not just any God, but a God who is engaged in human history and knows our suffering on a personal level. An intellectual solution to physical suffering is insufficient. “Every one of us is made to suffer,” Annie Lennox says. It is true, for which of us has not known our fair share of physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual woe? Our problem is bigger than we by ourselves can fix, although we are a part of the solution. The God of Jesus knows, cares, helps us now, and promises that final justice is on the way.

The second less obvious source of disagreement is human nature. Skeptigator, by his own admission [in original “Does Atheism Lead to Humanism” comments], sees no need to define it. I do. I have no business believing that we need God unless I believe that we are needy! By ourselves, we cannot do good. “If history has shown us anything, it is that you can kill anyone,” said Don Corleone. And we will kill anyone, I might add. Christians, Muslims, atheists and everyone else in power throughout history have always abused that power; and they always will, until this world ends, because we are human. We will always seek power, always abuse it in the name of the greater good, and always insist that this tendency is the problem of an isolated few.

The third significant issue is what began this whole conversation: humanism’s basis for determining good. Reason, human experience, and science are useful tools, but are not sufficient for establishing morality and purpose in life. Neither are they sufficient for establishing a consensus, even a wrong one. Disagreement is in our nature. Human reason has its limits, which we are wise to acknowledge.

In the end, we’re both skeptics: him about God, me about us. The burden of proof is on me, but I have none. Evidence and testimony, sure, but no proof. The only one who can prove His existence is God Himself. He refuses, for the time being, for our benefit. Faith will have to remain faith: “the evidence of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1).

Skeptigator’s Closing Comments:

Faithfool obviously has a religious faith and I obviously do not. Faithfool in his quest for understanding (and I dare say a budding skeptic but that’s perhaps wishful thinking) wanted me specifically to further explain where I derive my sense of morality.

The purpose of this conversation was to offer a unique way of discussing the source of morality if you do not have a religious faith (at least from my perspective). I think Faithfool and I could have gone for much longer than this however I believe we’ve each had enough space to make our cases. I do hope that this conversation will add to a growing number of conversations between people of faith and those without. As Faithfool pointed out recently to me, “we are not the only ones having this conversation”.

I do want boil down my primary answer to Faithfool’s question, “On what basis do you decide what good is?” Essentially my answer came down to “we are”. The combination of humanity’s experience, rational thinking and a scientific worldview is an extremely powerful tool or set of tools for understanding reality and the correct moral actions. I believe that this offers a better alternative to blind faith (a bit redundant I admit). I believe that moral actions have always been determined by human reason and that religion all too often captures/justifies immoral behavior at a certain point in time and that fossilizes and becomes incontrovertible dogma.

I am willing to accept uncertainty since a scientific worldview will never offer complete knowledge or certainty. I am willing to accept the possibility that we will make the wrong choices however and perhaps more importantly unlike many religious faiths we have a self-correcting mechanism in place.

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Filed under: Atheism, Internet, Religion

5 Responses

  1. […] atheism isn’t any better or worse than religion. Although if this guy would read what I say about ideology then maybe he would be enlightened, ok that’s probably not […]

  2. […] exist. John Loftus at Debunking Christianity asks What Do Human Beings Want? Skeptigator discusses On What Basis do you Decide What is Good? And Russell Blackford at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club explores some of the problems of […]

  3. True for you says:

    Religion means a way of life based upon belief.
    Atheism is a way of life based in belief.
    To compare them as appes and oranges when they are both apples is the first msconception that leads to major error on both illusionary sides creating arguments.
    Good and bad are judgements. At least Jesus tried to tell everyone that no one is good (including himself) but God in heaven. As “God” is beyond comprhension of the mind, what ever you assign to God is your own judgemental illusion to justify what ever you want.

    Another way of saying it is “He who partakes of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil shall surely die” which is old testement as well. There is a transcendental difference between spirituality and religion just as there is a difference between Christianity and “churchianity.”

    The truth is echoed in the bible and other texts, but well hidden from the church in plain sight and I sure will be as such for many centuries to come due to the poltical and money model driving the people by judgment for the illusionary gain of a few. This occurs in all religions including atheists, humanists, etc. Humanist and atheists just call their church government in attempt to control others instead of themselves.

    Until mankind drops judgment of good and bad, internalizes conscious self control and recognition as all others as one’s self in the world of cause and effect, this world will be a constant realm of conflict.

  4. True for you says:

    Excuse me that would more properly read “of all others as ones’ self”

  5. Skeptigator says:

    “This occurs in all religions including atheists, humanists, etc. Humanist and atheists just call their church government in attempt to control others instead of themselves. ”

    Church = Government, curious correlation.

    What about all of the Libertarian atheists?

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