"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Some thoughts on enlightened self-interest as the basis for morality

(What follows is a slightly rambling expansion on some of my comments about morality in the post below. What I'm hoping to show is that enlightened self-interest can provide us with a strong reason to act in a "moral" way. It's intended as a conversation starter rather than a definite pronouncement on the subject.)

Enlightened self-interest is different from sentiment or whim – I may save someone's life because I like the look of them, but such an action does not count as truly moral.

The vast majority of human beings are bound together by certain innate desires (security, companionship, contentment, procreation, etc.) which are harder (or downright impossible) to realise outside of the social setting. These desires, as well as forming the bedrock of all civilisation, provide the foundation of secular morality.

Immoral acts constitute those which undermine the realisation of these desires.

For example: I desire safety for myself and those I care about. If I make a habit of killing those who get in my way then I not only provide no reason for others to help keep me alive, I actually provide them with a reason to kill me – as I represent a significant threat to them and their loved ones. The best way to realise my desire is to promote the safety of all in the expectation that they will, in turn, ensure my safety. If I kill, or tolerate killers, such an arrangement is impossible to maintain.

This differs from whim in that reason is employed to consider the total effect of my actions. If someone makes me angry whim may tell me to kill them while reason tells me that such an action will be counter-productive.

(Obviously, most people aren't that keen on killing in the first place, no matter how angry they get – but I'm assuming worst case scenario to show the strength of enlightened self-interest).

As another example: I'm able to provide for myself and my loved ones much easier in a social setting than on my own. Bartering services and goods allows me a much comfier lifestyle than I'd enjoy in isolation – catching and cooking your own food (not to mention building a house, dealing with illness, etc.) is much harder than turning up at work each day and sitting in front of a computer. In order for bartering to work there has to be a basic level of trust between individuals. If I go around lying about everything then people will cease to trust me and so cease to work with me. (The social aspect of my life will also be significantly reduced). So not only do I have a strong reason to be truthful but also a strong reason to promote truthfulness in society as a whole.


An immoral individual is one at war with the rest of society – undermining their chance to realise significant desires.

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Monday, February 25, 2008

Some thoughts from Salman Rushdie

From Rushdie's letter to the six billionth living person:

As for mortality, the second great question - how to live? What is right action, and what wrong? - it comes down to your willingness to think for yourself. Only you can decide if you want to be handed down the law by priests, and accept that good and evil are somehow external to ourselves. To my mind religion, even at its most sophisticated, essentially infantilises our ethical selves by setting infallible moral Arbiters and irredeemably immoral Tempters above us: the eternal parents, good and bad, light and dark, of the supernatural realm.

How, then, are we to make ethical choices without a divine rulebook or judge? Is unbelief just the first step on the long slide into the brain death of cultural relativism, according to which many unbearable things - female circumcision, to name just one - can be excused on culturally specific grounds, and the universality of human rights, too, can be ignored? (This last piece of moral unmaking finds supporters in some of the world's most authoritarian regimes, and also, unnervingly, on the editorial page of the Daily Telegraph.)

Well, no, it isn't, but the reasons for saying so aren't clear-cut. Only hard-line ideology is clear-cut. Freedom, which is the word I use for the secular-ethical position, is inevitably fuzzier. Yes, freedom is that space in which contradiction can reign, it is a never-ending debate. It is not in itself the answer to the question of morals, but the conversation about that question. And it is much more than mere relativism, because it is not merely a never-ending talk show, but a place in which choices are made, values defined and defended.

A response from Alex
I whole heartedly agree with Rushdie's discomfort regarding morality being unquestioningly legislated by "religion". Even his comments on "fuzzieness" I find myself empathizing with. One insight I have come to recently is that on the level of the individual, moral truth can only be recognized through praxis. When I speak of an "absolute morality" I would want to clarify that what I am advocating is not that there are a certain set of actions that will be true for all peoples in all places. Neither would I wish to be construed as saying there's an exhaustive list of rules somewhere that if we just followed all of them we'd be "absolutely moral". Reality is more complicated (or maybe simple?) than that. To try and construct such a list only leads away from Christianity and towards moralism.

Still, I continue to disagree with any line of thinking which claims humanity ultimately has no transcendent ground yet we can still have such things as moral obligations. I would wish to reemphasize that my position does not at all claim that people who do not believe in God cannot be good, but rather if there is no God there's no such thing as good.

So where does the Christian find his guiding star when it comes to ethics? Is it because all actions have an inherent (deontological) moral bias? Perhaps that's to constricting. Would it be better to then only consider the results of our actions? (teleological) Bernard Adeney has a few helpful words here:

Deontological and teleological ethics are often treated as mutually exclusive. The polarization of means and ends, the antithesis between principals and results, this is a characteristic weakness of Western dualistic thought. It leads to war between the absolutists and the relativists. The absolutists are thought to be too narrow and rigid. The relativists are thought to be too wishy-washy.

Actually, the distinctions between deontology and teleology helpfully show two necessary and contrasting elements in moral choice. These are not contradictory, but complementary. The way they fit together cannot be determined by abstract philosophical principle. The concrete situation in which moral choices are embodied reveal the ways in which principles and results interact. [emphasis mine]

As a Christian I believe there are absolute moral principles and rules that reflect the character of God. These moral principles underlie all human behavior and are based in the fact that we live in a moral universe. Human beings were created in the image of God and have an intrinsic value. in the words of the Westminster Confession, we are created "to glorify God and to enjoy him forever." While these deontological absolutes are expressed and emphasized differently in different places and times, they are clearly affirmed by Christians in all cultures.

The central moral absolute that follows from these Christian affirmations is " 'The Lord our God , the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' ... 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these" (Mk 12:29-31).

Strange Virtues, Ethics in a Multicultural World pp.149-150

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Argument from (evolved) design

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. (...) There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. (...) Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.

– William Paley, Natural Theology (1802)

This is the most famous expression of the “watchmaker analogy”, often used in support of the 'Intelligent Design' “theory” of evolution.

The basic idea is that as we know that certain examples of complexity around us (watches, computers, the faces on Mt. Rushmore) have been designed by intelligent minds we are justified in assuming that examples of complexity in the natural world (the eye, echolocation) were similarly designed.

However, I think that this idea is seriously flawed in its understanding of designed complexity. Concepts such as the watch or computer did not suddenly spring, fully-formed, into the mind of their designer – but are actually as much the result of mutation and natural selection as any biological system. In order to make clear what I mean, I'll provide a rough outline of how I think the modern concept of the watch evolved:

The ancestor of the modern watch was a simple Concept allowing prehistoric man to structure his day more efficiently – probably no more complex than a distinction between earlier, now and later.

The means of replication was language – Man A would express the concept, spreading it to the mind of Man B. During replication, mutations would creep in, partly through errors in communication and partly through the interaction of the Concept with the other concepts found in the mind of Man B.

Some of these mutations would make the Concept less effective, thus making them less useful and (therefore) less memorable and impeding the spread of that variant. Others would make it more effective, thus making it more memorable and useful and increasing the spread of that variant.

Thus, natural selection comes into play – with increasingly complex variants of the Concept vying for a place in the human mind.

Over time, variants of the Concept become increasingly complex and some evolved to take advantage of man's ability to manipulate his environment – leading to the development of increasingly complex timepieces, which, by increasing the exposure to that design, increase the chance of that particular variant spreading into other minds.

Thus, the watch that Paley stumbles across can be seen as a sort of extended phenotype, “designed” to promote the spread of the Concept in the minds of man, and as such would seem to support rather than challenge the concept of evolved complexity.

What do people think?

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Militant Atheists

Hour 1:

Hour 2:

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Friday, February 15, 2008

A word from my son, Adrian


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Common cause

In the posts on humanism below, I quoted and supported the idea expressed by Richard Norman that theists, atheists and agnostics (and others) should work together for common causes, even if they don't quite see eye to eye on everything. So it gives me great pleasure to point you all towards Greg Boyd on his vegetarianism:

Almost immediately after making this pledge I began to understand why the Lord had wanted me to make it. Scripture says a little yeast leavens all the dough (1 Cor 5:6). Well, I discovered that the little yeast of my willingness to engage in violence towards animals and other creatures for self-serving reasons (e.g. appetite, convenience) was polluting my heart and to some degree compromising my capacity to love. It felt like – and still feels like – my commitment to total non-violence has had, and is yet having, a purifying effect on my heart.

Obviously, my reasons for not eating meat are different to his, but there does seem to be a considerable overlap in our attitudes.

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Worth watching

Agnostic theism?

Daniel Dennett on the tricks of consciousness

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Tom Wright on Heaven & Our Role in Creation

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Sunday, February 10, 2008

On the merits of arguing and commitment

Two quotes by Trevor Hart that made me smile.
Our conscience will not permit the sort of cosmopolitan wandering from one perspective to another which suggests that none is any more or less true than others. Yet to others who demand that we should justify our stance and show forth its truth we can ultimately respond only with an invitation to come and stand where we stand, to view the world through our eyes, and see whether the result does not make more sense than the one which they themselves are familiar with. We must be equally open, of course, to the risky business of being prepared to do the same.
Faith Thinking pp.67

An important part of our own commitment to one particular tradition or faith standpoint will be our desire to share this outlook with others, to testify to its truth, to express the universal intent attaching to it by exposing others to it, engaging in the humble task of persuasion not in order to suppress or curb the holding of other points of view, but in order that others might be free to consider ours and explore the possibilities inherent within it as a account of truth. As I have already suggested the condition under which such testimony or witness must be engaged in this a willingness to consider the views held by others, not because we are not confident in the truthfulness of our own perspectives, but precisely because we are, and because we are also more committed to truth than to our own accounts of it.
Faith Thinking pp.69

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Thursday, February 07, 2008

A new perspective on doubt (to me anyway)

It has recently been brought to my attention that doubt is not properly conceived strictly as a negative position. In reality we have a two sided coin; doubt being the negative side, is balanced by positive and simultaneous belief. The one cannot exist without the other. For instance to utter a statement in the form of "I doubt P" is at the same moment affirming "I believe not P", or "I believe P is not proven". What is revealed here is that in order for us to doubt anything we must believe something else which we are not at present doubting.

As Trevor Hart puts it in his highly recommended book "Faith Thinking",
Thus every doubt has a fiduciary structure and is rooted in a set of faith commitments which for so long as they support the doubt, cannot themselves be doubted. The branch upon which every doubt sits is a belief. To insist on chopping this branch off in the misguided attempt to assume a wholly uncommitted position can only result in self-referential destruction, as the initial doubt itself falls to the floor.

The reason I find all this so fascinating is that for quite some time now I have felt that in the absence of mathematical/empirical certitude the most responsible epistemological stance to assume is that of doubt. (not just epistemological humility) As such, my Christianity, which does not at all rise to such a level, has been held in tension with this basic conviction. However after reflecting on the above perspective it becomes clear that doubt is not analogous to an uncommitted stance. The question must then be raised, what does our commitment rest on in light of the always searching tendrils of Cartesian doubt?

I'm hoping I will have something to say to this question in an upcoming post I'm working on while also responding to Matt's questions here. Apologies for the roughness of anything I post this week. Whatever I end up posting is an attempt by me to synthesize material we are being drenched with while away at "intensives". (aka two weeks of 8 hour per day lectures) It's a wonderful exercise in drinking from a fire hose. I feel like complete mush at the end of the day, but I also can't help but feel like I need to do something with what was thrown our way before crawling into bed. Otherwise I fear it will all seep out my ears as I sleep. Speaking of sleep...

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Monday, February 04, 2008

On agnosticism

From an interview with David Attenborough in the current edition of 'New Humanist':

Yet he had never openly declared himself to be an atheist. “That’s right. I’m an agnostic. In the strict sense that I don’t know. And I don’t know a lot. And I certainly don’t know about the existence of a supreme being or about the existence of an afterlife. The absence of evidence does not mean that there is a god. The absence of evidence means two things. It means that we don’t know but it also means scientifically that it would be interesting to find out.” There are those who accuse agnostics of hedging their bets. But this would quite unfair to Attenborough. His agnosticism is not a way of saying that there might be a god; it is rather a statement about the necessary humility and open-mindedness of the scientific attitude. It is a prescription for action rather than a refusal to enter the argument.

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More on humanism

In the comments to this post below, I stated that humanism shouldn't be seen as a purely atheistic standpoint. This is from an article by Richard Norman (interviewed in the second podcast) in a recent edition of 'New Humanist' magazine:

Humanism is more than atheism, it is about putting humanist beliefs and values into practice and trying to make the world a better place. And that is impossible unless we’re prepared to cooperate with others who share those values, including those for whom the values are inseparable from a religious commitment.

It goes deeper than that. For many humanists, religious believers are also friends, lovers, colleagues, neighbours, spouses and partners. The attitude that religion poisons everything is unlikely to be an auspicious basis for such relationships. We really do need something a bit more nuanced.

And this brings me to my practical conclusion. If we are serious about our humanist values, we should look for all those who share them, and work with them. If, according to Hitchens, that means that such people are really humanists after all, then call them that if you wish, but accept that they may also be committed Christians or Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists or whatever. The labels don’t matter. If Christians are happy to defend science against the idiocies of creationism, let’s work with them. When the news broke that state schools in this country were teaching creationism as science, Dawkins and Richard Harries, then Bishop of Oxford, issued a joint statement of criticism. Dawkins has been accused of inconsistency in doing so but it doesn’t matter, it was the right thing to do and it was highly effective. After the most recent attempted suicide bombings in Britain, national newspapers carried a full-page advertisement by Muslim organisations condemning the bombings and dissociating themselves from them. What are we supposed to say? “You’re just as bad”? That would be madness. They need our encouragement, and we need their help.

This pretty much sums up my own views, and hopefully shows why I see blogs such as this one as worthwhile and important.

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