Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Morality of Fairness: Objectivism and Christianity

This is a continuation of the ongoing debate I'm having with a friend of mine. To catch up on where we started from please see my blog entry here:

A Discussion of American Culture

As before, I have edited out personal references and names. I'll keep the same color coding. T is blue and American Antitheist is green.

T: I actually just finished reading a philosopher discussing "what is philosophy," and he was saying how many believe philosophy to begin with doubt. He believes, instead, that it begins, and in fact encompasses, wonder. To see the world and be caught off-guard is truly the first step of coming to understand some of it. Of course, though, in the end, the word "philosophy" itself means "love of wisdom," and not "wisdom," and so we must find our way towards something that cannot be achieved, if we take the etymology of philosophy to hold any sway at all (which I do). To hold loyalty to the truth, and not one's opinion of the truth, is the true act of the philosopher. Or at least that's how I see it. Regardless, thanks, and know that I see you in the same light. I once described your views to a Catholic friend of mine, and he asked, "You two are friends?" I laughed, and responded, "Yes, of course! We never run out of things to talk about."

I agree with what you said about my diatribe on an ad's use of the word "goddess." Of course, language changes, and the natural phenomenon of such is something that should not be regretted. Mostly. The north eastern American culture (the only one with which I am in contact at the moment) is not exactly, in my opinion, a healthy culture. It seems that for the most part reverence is given to oneself. I understand your views on the individual (or at least I think I do, correct me if I'm wrong), but "oneself" and "the individual" are two very different things. One who reveres "the individual" can look past themselves to others; a person who reveres "oneself" cannot. One of the most unfortunate effects of the growing dissatisfaction with religion in this part of the country is that very few people know how to revere anything.

I'll definitely look into Ayn Rand, regardless of her atheism or her feelings towards altruism. I've read Anthem and loved it, though Atlas Shrugged, with it's size, makes me feel like Atlas himself, haha. Has she written philosophy other than her fiction? I wouldn't mind reading what she has to say without her trying to say it in a story (though, the story is one of the best ways to get one's opinion across).

Though I agree with you on morality, I disagree that religions focus away from the "why" towards the "what." There is a rather large difference between the way in which some religious leaders act and the way that person's religion is meant to be. I will admit that there are many Christians who wish for people to "follow the rules" cause God said so. It's unfortunate in my mind that Christianity encompasses these people and ideas, but, well, humanity encompasses short sighted folks every generation, and we can't argue with a system that, in the end, does not encourage such an opinion for stupidity. I think you will probably respond to this with: "But does Christianity not support the general idea that, because a higher power demands things to be this way, then they ought to be this way?" In one way, yeah, it does, but more along the ways of "because I'm a human being I shouldn't go around acting like a dog." Religion represents in many ways the human predilection of thinking "this can't be all there is!" and directing that feeling, that hope, towards a view of humanity that is larger than the single person. Humans are animals, and we need to be fed, taken care of, etc. Yet if one only focuses on meeting one's physical needs, a person can grow rather focused on "oneself" (again, different than "individual"). Religions developed from the feeling humans have that physical needs are not all there is about life, not all there is about being a true human being. We are not beings locked in the mere environments that surround us. Most religions I've heard of understand this, and they try to remind those who listen of that fact.

I've gotten off track, haha, sorry. Back to the why as opposed to the what. I again can only speak of Christianity, but I believe religions explain more about the why than rational morality does. One can say that "to do good to your fellow man" is an important piece of morality because it solidifies society and prevents squabbling over resources (or whatever the problem might be). But one might ask, "Why is that important?" The answer would then be, "Because we don't want to get everyone in a state of fear of their neighbors, so that we can live in a somewhat peaceful fashion and not get killed." But, then again, why is peace important? Why is life important? Why is protecting one's family important. In the end, a person (any person) has to stop and say "because it is." What religion does is answers the "why" of that statement. Why is it important? What makes it important? Where does importance come from? Or rather, religions allow a person to begin to understand the answer to these questions. In the end, God is quite the mystery, and I can't think of many religions where God, The Great Cause, etc. is anything but a quest (not even in a religion that believes that Being came down and became one with our corporeal reality).

I'm not quite sure I understand what you mean in your paragraph on "fairness," but I'll see if I can say a few things about it. Any story taken out of context is rather worthless, really, whether it is used for finding happiness in one's life or a bit of laughter. Taking a story from a religious text and forgetting what comes before and after, or, really, what the very words meant to those who wrote them, is rather foolish (one of the reasons people got so upset about translating the Bible). The difficulty comes in, though, with what you're saying about where any story really comes from, or, rather, any general feeling that something is innate. Is the sense that things ought to be fair innate? I could say yes and you could say no and we could sit here with unhappy red faces, and that's unfortunately what a lot of people do, haha. I suppose, for me, my reasons come from plausibility. I ask myself what is more plausible: humanity understands innately that they will be dealt with fairly in a spiritual sense and, due to their having both a body and a soul, confuse the spiritual fairness with a physical fairness that does not exist, or do people learn it as "a function of values encoded in our society," to use your words. Well, where do those values come from? I suppose you might answer "from cultural evolution." Yet they had to have begun somewhere. I suppose they might come from a desire to retain life, to stay alive: basically from a sense of survival. Survival is an instinct, but I was already wondering in my last email about how instinct isn't an ought, it's a suggestion. I've probably dug myself a rather nice hole of supposition here, so I'll leave off this paragraph for now.

Your friend's comment on the big three monotheistic religions confuses me, though again I can only speak from a Christian perspective. I don't think Christianity is xenophobic or that it promotes violence against non-believers. In the end, yes, the Old Testament is rather xenophobic, but the message Jesus (the center of the New Testament and of Christianity as a whole) is one that breaks down barriers that had been set up by society. One of his big messages was that religious leaders are not the sole possessors of religious knowledge and that the "kingdom" that Judaism was waiting for was not a kingdom won by battle or that was to be lorded over by a high king above everyone else, but that Jesus, a poor man, was to bring everyone (and that means everyone in the world who follows the path of the spirit) into a spiritual kingdom where all are equal. This thought, developed during the middle ages (as well as before and after) split people's minds from the view that worldly power can conquer all as well as from the ethnocentric viewpoint that most cultures held. Unfortunately that process is still going on, but that is not due to any work of Christians, but the works of men who use religions to hold sway over people.

What a way to end a letter there! I can only say that I don't think his "demands" are that horrible. And I dunno about siding with Satan in Paradise Lost: though his descriptions of heaven weren't as interesting as those of hell, I certainly would rather be quite far from the petty squabbling and hierarchy of the place. And anyway, "serving" and "rule" are just outdated terminology that should be done away with. There's not much serving going on with living in tune, completely, with reality.

American Antitheist: I appreciate the anecdote about your friend's bewilderment at our friendship. I think it's because we only really differ at the very base of our assumptions, the main difference probably being reducible to your belief in religion and the religious moral structure and my non-belief in religion and my belief in an objective moral system derivable from a common reality. But even then, I'm not sure how much we differ there. Like you said, "To hold loyalty to truth, and not one's opinion of the truth, is the true act of the philosopher." This implies that we both hold that there is a common reality, an existence which exists regardless of our perception of it and about which we can investigate and determine its properties and nature. To us, therefore the major difference comes from the God premise. A universe that includes an all-powerful God has to be fundamentally different from a universe where there is none. So, the difference in this premise unavoidably alters our subsequent judgments of what is or is not possible in this testable universe. Primarily, that difference being that our standards of evidence must be somehow different.

For me to believe in something I require proof of existence. Now that proof can take various forms. Of course the most certainty comes from directly observable and repeatable experience. But obviously one can't be bothered to recreate every single experiment that has ever been done to have a secure basis for knowledge. That is why there are certain checks and balances in the world of scientific discourse which make it very hard for an idea to be adopted and make it very easy for an idea to be discarded. Theories, as such, come and go. But the basis behind that is simple. It only takes one counter-example to disprove a theory. But conversely, if a theory can provide no predictive value, or there is a lack of supporting evidence then it is equally dubious. In order for an idea to be accepted by the scientific community it must run the gauntlet of the double-blind peer review process. It must face criticism and attack from all directions. It must be able to stand on the merits of its rational discourse. And if it cannot, then it is discarded or modified as necessary until it can face such criticism. Everyone's career is at stake. From purely selfish motives, the inestimable benefit of scientific progress is distributed to all humanity to use as they wish. And having been vetted through that process, the reliability of science in our current era is greater than knowledge from any other source. This is the basis of belief from rational argument based on the scientific method.

However, I think, that to believe in God, one must put faith at a higher level than reason. That the existence is presupposed to the evidence, as there is none. Believing without evidence is a presumption that one is somehow directly privy to that which is unknown and perhaps unknowable. It means, in short, that at some stage one has to know first and then search for evidence to bolster that belief. Whereas the scientific method is to suspend belief until after one has found sufficient evidence, or to form beliefs that explain the evidence at hand. I think this is why scientific "beliefs" are prone to change more readily than religious ones. This is because the basis of belief is different. If the basis of science is fact, then beliefs must change to accommodate that which we have learned. If the basis of religion is faith, then we must hold our beliefs, despite the evidence. In short, science encourages the humility of self-correction, whereas at some level religion encourages a kind of metaphysical obstinacy.

I'm sorry for going on a tangent of sorts, but I still think it has some relevance to our current discussion, which is why I indulged myself a little to address it. I agree that morality is a code of values for humans. It has to take into account that we are not dogs. It has to recognize the nature of a human being, in all respects. It has to take into consideration, emotions, psychology, genetics, family bonds, loyalty, betrayal, desire, ambition, genius, and incompetence and so on. The problem is, does religion adequately do so? I agree that focusing purely on one's physical needs is insufficient. That, again, would be ignoring human nature, the qualities that make human beings unique, or at least unique as we understand them to be.

I disagree slightly with your distinction between "individual" and "oneself" or perhaps I'm just not clear on what that distinction is. The way I see it, the ability to look past themselves is not necessarily a good thing. One needs to include oneself in all decisions. That does not mean to turn a blind eye to the people around you. That would instead be an evasion of reality, an intentional obfuscation of the necessary facts upon which a rational moral code must be based. Objective reality is quite simply everything that is around you, everything you act upon or that tries to act upon you. To ignore oneself for the sake of others, or to ignore others for the sake of oneself are simply both sides of the same coin, they entail some level of intentional evasion of reality. A truly integrated appreciation of human social existence must take into account that neither side is something to be sacrificed for the other. The individual self is not something which should be sacrificed to others. Likewise, others are not something which should be sacrifice to oneself. The only moral basis for the interaction for people is therefore a mutually agreed exchange of values. One in which there is no coercion or threat of violence of any kind. One in which people are free to decide who they will deal with and on what terms. This is the morality of objectivism. It comes from the recognition that this IS all there is. That there is no rational basis for believing otherwise. That to believe that "this can't be all there is" is to actively suppress everything that your senses tell you, everything that the standard rules of logic and nature tell us about existence. A rational system of morality cannot spring from a source which is decidedly arbitrary in its origins.

If God is not arbitrary, if there is indeed such a being, then naturally we would have to base our moral decisions on its existence. But then the question becomes which god is the one to which we should adhere? How do we make the distinction? Are they all right? How could that be? For me it's hard enough to find a religion that is internally consistent much less one that is consistent with all other religions as well. In fact, they are as diverse as human cultures are, and as varied as language and ideology. So then, how do we know which is the truly moral path? If our decisions for morality must be based on and come from religion must we then assume that those who follow other religions are inherently evil because they follow a moral system that differs from ours? Or must we retire completely from moral judgements and say that they are all equally moral despite their differences? But if we do that, then don't we surrender the concept of morality entirely? After all if all moral systems no matter how different can be regarded as moral, doesn't the concept of morality become meaningless? Clearly, neither of us believes this. So, what then are we basing our moral judgements? What then are we deciding that this religion is moral, or that action is wrong? I am not in the least bit religious and yet I would bet that we would find similar things to be immoral.

Child molestation, murder, theft, rape, fraud, extortion....these are things which are objectively wrong. And the reason they are wrong to us, is because we recognize at some level that they are anathema to life and to the generation of life. They are facets of destruction, they kill life, ebb its luster, and threaten to darken the horizons of the future if unchecked. They attack life. They rob people of the choice to live in freedom. They rob people of the choice to decide how best they should live their own lives. They represent an imposition of an external power upon the life of the individual. No matter what one's personal religious beliefs, acts of this nature are clearly wrong. But why? Not because god says so. They are wrong because they work against everything that is held to be of value to someone who values life. They are wrong because they work against everything that it means to be a human being, to be a man among men, a woman among women. This is the why of morality, and one that I don't think is adequately explained by religion.

I'm sure that you know that there are parts of the bible which at times either condemn or extoll rape. There are parts that promote or admonish against slavery. There are areas which even condone incest and the sacrifice of children, whereas other areas would punish such things. Where then is the explanation as to why it was moral for Lot to conceive children by his daughters, or Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son? And yet Lot's wife is condemned merely for the sin of curiosity? Adam and Eve were cast from the Garden of Eden for the same sin, and yet the Bible states that before they ate the apple they did not know good from evil. So, how then could they have known that it was wrong to eat the apple in the first place? This is one of the things I refer to when I speak of the irrational demands of God upon his creation. If God is a rational, benevolent being, why would he place demands on mankind that we cannot meet by the very nature of our creation? To say it more simply, if we were created with a certain faculty for discerning reality and then we are judged based on principles which are outside the scope of that faculty, how then is this standard of judgement fair or even rational? If I were to put a steak on the ground and tell the dog not to eat it, would it make sense for me to have the dog put to sleep because it didn't understand what I was saying? The answer is no. Either I would have to be irrational or malevolent. In either case, there would be something wrong with me and not the dog. This is the reason why I say that even were there to be a god, I would still oppose him. I cannot revere that which is either malevolent or irrational. And this is also a fundamental reason why I reject the notion of religion as inherently moral or as the source of our modern morality or even our sense of fairness. Fairness is of course intricately intertwined with our notions of morality.

Which finally brings me back to fairness. What we perceive to be "fair" ultimately depends on our concept of reality and our notions of causality. It is natural to expect that if we do good things then we will have good results. The dog expects a reward for doing a trick. The child expects praise for accomplishment. Adults expect a raise for doing good work. The student expects good grades if they study properly for the test. But this is only in relation to the action that we have performed. The results of our labor directly equal the reward of that labor. What, then if we divorce the two from each other? Should the student expect good grades for helping an old lady across the street? Should a man expect a raise because he is a good father? Should a woman expect to have a successful career because she gives to charity? The problem is obvious. The problem is causation. If a person's concept of "fair" divorces the relation between ends and means, if they are perceived as isolated and unrelated events, then saying that "doing good things bring good results" means that we may expect that if we are a good person than we shouldn't get caught in earthquakes, that good people shouldn't get cancer, or that good people should all have happy joyous lives devoid of tragedy or loss. However this would be distinctly unrealistic. Unfortunately, I think this is the root of why the "conventional wisdom" is that life is unfair. The reason is that quite a lot of people hold exactly this metaphysical view. Cause and Effect are dissociated. People don't see the ramifications of their beliefs, and very often they don't see the ramifications of their actions. They think that ideals can never be attained, that perfection is impossible, that compromise with one's morals is the only way to survive. They think that if the world was fair, that people should get benefits from some unspecified benefactor for the very reason that they consider themselves to be a good person. But if this judgement is made divorced of any kind of objective measure, then who is to say that one person is good or another person is bad? In short, it means that all such judgments must be subjective and naturally from any given subjective perspective where a person simply "thinks" that they are better than the next, that person always thinks that they deserve more.

From an objectivist standpoint, however, life is fair. Eminently and unavoidably so. Of course people will still get caught in natural disasters or swept up in events beyond their control, but this has nothing to do with an objective concept of fairness. Fairness can only be conceived in a situation where "good things" and "good actions" have some causal connection. If there is no causal connection then no expectation of results is rational. For any given occurence, situation, or happenstance to be "fair" it has to have a causal relationship to something within a person's volitional control. If there is no causal relationship, then it cannot be fair or unfair, it simply is. Likewise, if there is a causal, volitional relationship and the results do not equal the actions, then we can say that the situation is unfair. But this would ultimately have to be based on our own evaluations of our work, or efforts and the results we are getting for them. Here too it is essential to be rational, otherwise such estimations become meaningless. And ultimately we must decide the terms of our interactions with other people based on our integrated concepts of fairness and value.

And once again the difference in our views of the fundamentals of the universe has led to our difference in a concept so removed as that of fairness. When you refer to the "innate" sense of fairness, or to "instinct" you are assuming that human beings are somehow pre-programmed with a moral compass of some kind. From a cosmological perspective based on God, this is completely acceptable. If we were created by God in god's image, then it isn't too far of a stretch to assume that he granted us some "sense" of right and wrong. But if we don't accept god as a given, then this begs a very serious question. I do not hold that we are programmed with morality through instinct or innate knowledge in any way. On the contrary, I think that human beings have to learn how to be moral creatures. I don't think that we are innately programmed with much of anything beyond our basic conceptual hardware. If we were programmed with morality from birth as an innate function of our existence, then the only way to explain people like Stalin or Hitler would be to chalk it up to a birth defect. And by so supposing, would it then be possible to genetically engineer out of existence immorality?I don't think so, and I would bet you would balk at that idea as well. This is for a number of reasons. First of all, where there is no capacity for choice, the concept of morality once again loses meaning. Good or evil only has meaning where there is choice. If everything is pre-determined or outside of one's control then there can be no conceivable good or evil in one's actions. It just simply is. But if you have the choice between two options, then one must usually be better than the other. In order to get from this simple decision to a whole code of morality requires quite a few steps of logical connection. However the necessary premises are only two.

1) That our perceptual hardware presents to us an image of reality as it truly is for all intensive purposes. A is A. The law of identity.

2) That we value our lives.

From this all else follows. If we value life, then death is something to be avoided. If we value life, then things which sustain and enrich that life are good. Conversely, things which diminsih or threaten that life are evil.

Why is peace important? Because if we all value our own lives, then we don't want to die. But also, if we value our own lives we may find a situation where we are forced to fight to defend that very same life.

Why is family important? It is important in that we value those people in the family. Their existence enriches ours. We value them as people. If we didn't would they then still be important? And what would it say about us if they are are decent people deserving of our respect? But conversely, what about a family which is abusive, perhaps even incestuous? Should we value the family then? Or is it more important to once again look at the individual and how that family interacts with the individual life? If we hold the life of the individual as the ultimate value, then the rest of these questions resolve with crystal clarity. A family is not a value in and of itself. Its value is dependent on the quality of people who form that family and their relationship with the individual. If they are viscious repressive and cruel, then I would say to the individual, "Flee! and never look back!" If they are, instead, supportive nurturing and in essence good, then I would say "Value that bond, and cherish those people". But the distinction is not one of need or absolute value. The family should be valued because the people who make it up represent something worth valuing to a person. But this is a value which is earned and substantiated over a long period of time. It can be just as easily lost. The mother cares for her child not because the child needs care. The mother cares for her child because she values the child. If she did not value her child and truly only cared for it because of its need, what kind of mother would she be? What kind of person? And could we truly call that good?

You see, I don't have to stop and say "just because it is". I can say "it is because I value my life. It is my ultimate value. And all the other values in that life are derivative of that ultimate value." I value people to the extent that they enrich my experience of this life. And such people I call good. To the extent that people diminish or threaten that life, they are evil. And all the others with which I have not interaction whatsoever are simply neutral, they are not either good or evil until their chosen paths of action coincide with mine for good or ill or that their choices and influence affect my life, and at such time I make the moral distinction.

This is another reason why I regard God's demands as horrible. It is because that moral decisions do not have to be an arbitrary guessing game where we try to get into God's head and think of what Jesus would do. It can make sense, and purely based on the observable facts of our existence. The supernatural is extraneous. I know what is right and wrong. And that knowledge is not based on somebody else's assertion. It is based on my knowledge of the world. If that knowledge is in error, then I must modify my knowledge, reassess the moral ramifications, whenever that knowledge must be corrected.

And finally, I feel I should address the concept of Jesus as a moral figure. I'm sorry if I may happen to offend you here, because I realize that this is getting very close to your spiritual center. Unfortunately there's no way that I can avoid the issue as it does lay right at the hub of the problem.

Jesus claimed that all people are equal in heaven. Yet, the Christian notion of equality is one that is debateable. "Easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to eneter heaven" seems to be equality of a decidedly communist bent. The richer you are, the more evil. Rich and poor are not equal spiritually. And even then, what does it mean to be spiritually equal? Does it mean we are all the same? Are we all equally good? Equally bad? If so, then once again what does morality mean in a world where all are essentially of equal goodness? Perhaps it refers to the concept that we should "do unto others as we would have done unto ourselves." But is this really an adequate moral principle? What it implies is that we should treat other people in a way such as the open expectation of which is that they will treat us well. The moral principle here is that we should be good to people in the hopes that they will be good to us. That we should surrender our desires to the expectation of some kind of fair return. What then is the evil in working directly for that fair return by refusing to sell one's values short, by refusing to compromise on the open-ended expectation that people will treat you fairly. What is wrong with demanding fair treatment from the outset? What is wrong with holding one's rights as inalienable and demanding that people respect them in their dealings with you?

Why is "turning the other cheek" considered a moral principle? Doesn't this leave us at the mercy of any bully who would come to extort the fruits of our labors? Doesn't this leave us open to any kind of abuse simply for the sake of pacifism as an absolute value? Ghandi is often revered as the most devout practitioner of this tenet. Would it surprise you then to hear that Gandhi advocated that the Jews should have comitted mass suicide so as to deter the Germans from their murderous campaign and that war should have been avoided at all costs? What price in human blood and misery would such a course of action actually have entailed? What was Gandhi valuing in that instance, if not human life? The answer is rather dark. The answer is that these philosophies do not hold life as the ultimate value. They recommend that we abdicate the responsibility for our lives to an external power, they advocate that we value obedience over existence. They advocate our status in death as superior to our status in life. They advocate a successive chain of sacrifices to other men, to God, to anyone but oneself. Even to help others with an eye to helping yourself is considered bad in a way. The purest act is to do something where you have absolutely no vested interest in doing so whatsoever. That is the act of purest nobility from a christian standpoint. And to crown it all, they have selected a symbol of death and torture as the symbol of spiritual enlightenment, the cross. This is why the christian ideal is unattainable in life. This is why perfection from a christian standpoint is impossible. The reason is that we are only able to live in this life to the extent by which we contradict the ultimate extension of that code of ethics, which is death. We are immoral to the extent to which we live and live well, And we are moral to the extent to which we sacrifice ourselves to the benefit of others. Needless to say, under such a code of morality, we can only ever find ourselves in some kind of grayish middle region where we can never live up to our ideals and live well at the same time. To be perfectly moral is to be in a state of perfect sacrifice and that means death. Why are martyrs revered above the people who worked to do good things, without dying? Why is death in the service of good considered a higher value, regardless of the good done? Who actually saved more lives? Louis Pasteur? Jonas Salk? Or Mother Teresa? Who actually did more good?

And yet Christianity does not enshrine the pioneers of the germ theory of illness as the spiritual benefactors of mankind. Who is enshrined in their place? Those who sacrificed everything in their lives, even to the point of death, in the pursuit of the Christian "moral ideal". No, I do not regard Jesus as a moral figure. I regard him as a prophet of death. And I'm sorry if my words seem offensive. Please know that it is not my intent to offend you. This is truly what I think and feel. It is only through the perversion of concepts of morality, good, evil, sacrifice, charity, selfishness, and so on that our world has come to the state it is today. If you're still with me here and I haven't thoroughly turned you off by now, I would like to recommend just two sources that you may find of interest if you want to understand my way of thinking better.

One is "The Virtue of Selfishness" by Ayn Rand. In it she discusses the fundamental principles of objectivism. Especially the essay "The Objectivist Ethics".

The second is a series of YouTube videos that presents the main philosophical soliloquy from Atlas Shrugged. The videos are skillfully done, and may be easier to digest then in writing.

I've included a link here: "This is John Galt speaking..."

Hope to hear from you. I'm interested in what you would have to say.


Michael M said...

Utterly illegible! but a great migrane trigger...

Legibility is a mini-science all its own with objective laws you have excruciatingly violated. Change your background to white or pale color and text to dark blue and dark green (not electric) and triple your audience. At the very least lighten the colors and reduce the intensity of the hue. The blue is worse than the green.

American Anti-theist said...

Thanks for the recommendations. I'll try to play with the color schemes. The trick is making it legible on the site and on the feed (which has a white background).