The Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry

Home
About
Join / Donate
Activities
Newsletter
More

All Forums > Ethics >

Ethics

Author/DatePost
beersnob
Apr 7 2009
Morality maybe rationalized but is not rooted in reason

Interesting article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/07/opini ... ml?_r=1&em

I have heard the theme in several stories in the last year or so--the theme being that morality is a response to biological cues that have evolved to regulate human social behavior. Perhaps this is one that some devotees of God and of reason will find equally challenging.

n-atheist
Apr 8 2009
Re: Morality maybe rationalized but is not rooted in reason

I'm not sure I understand what in this is supposed to be a surprise or a challenge to me. Brooks discusses the way morality arises from natural selection and the fact that it is not entirely rational -- at least not our first "gut reactions" to a moral dilemma which come from parts of our brain that evolved before we had as complex an understanding of the world as we now have. Then he says:

It challenges the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning.

I don't know, maybe I'm not one of the "new atheists" he's talking about, but I'm an atheist. I'm not in a "war of reason against faith", but I do think that reason is a pretty great thing...and I'll even go so far as to say that I don't think my faith in it is "unwarranted" but is actually born out by the evidence of history.

Let me give you an example: homosexuality. I'm a straight man, and I'll admit that I have trouble watching when two guys kiss in a movie and am quite literally nauseated by looking at any gay porn. My gut reaction is that "it's just wrong". Apparently, I'm not alone in this. A lot of religions and countries have turned this into law, and it has been used to justify bad treatment (an understatement) of homosexuals.

I can also see how this bit of "morality" evolved. I mean, if men like me did not have this sort of revulsion built into our brains then there would probably be a lot fewer people in the world. From a natural selection point of view, the sex drive exists for the purpose of procreation.

BUT, being a secular humanist means that I don't think "homosexuality is evil" is a law from above. And, I certainly do recognize that my gut reaction may not be right either. So, I turn to reason. I don't think this is because I have "unwarranted faith in the purity of my own reason", but because I think that among the flawed tools available to us (ancient books by anonymous authors whose reason was not necessarily any better than my own, modern prophets who assure us that they know something we don't, our own 'guts', etc.) it seems like the best one.

And, reason tells me that my gut reaction here was wrong. In thinking about it, I don't see anything at all wrong with homosexuality. The gay people I know are as kind and ethical outside in all other respects as anyone else (or even more so), and how does it hurt anyone if they fool around with people of the same gender instead of people of the opposite gender? So, I ignore that feeling from my gut saying "it's so wrong!"

Of course, sometimes my gut tells me the right thing, too. I see a commercial on TV showing a child starving in another country and my heart goes out to him. I want to help. When I think about it rationally, I still want to help, but I realize that giving money to the organization showing the TV spot may not be the best way. I go to the Internet and figure out which organizations actually do the most with the money they get (some just use it to pay for more advertisements)! So, even though our desire to help a child in need just evolved because it was a trait that made our communities survive better, I agree with what it tells me to do and (still using a bit of help from reason) I do what I can to help.

So, I really don't see any challenge in what Brooks says for me. It is really what I always thought. I'd say it like this: The "innate morality" that we are born with is a product of evolution, but if we don't second guess it by applying some reason then we're not necessarily doing what we actually think is right. The article just seems to support that viewpoint, or am I missing something in it?

beersnob
Apr 9 2009
Re: Morality maybe rationalized but is not rooted in reason

First, I don't even recall that quote you shared, n-atheist. It is quite riduculous, but it didn't jump out at me. And, I'm glad, because it would have totally colored my interpretation of everything else. War analogies :p...

My response was based more on the general implications of the article and the theme it follows. Specifically, and using your example, I was thinking more along the lines that we're hard coded to some extent with the "Golden Rule." In your example you say "being a secular humanist means that I don't think 'homosexuality is evil' is a law from above. And, I certainly do recognize that my gut reaction may not be right either. So, I turn to reason. ...[H]ow does it hurt anyone if they fool around with people of the same gender instead of people of the opposite gender?" Here you imply that if an action does not hurt anyone then there are no grounds to consider it wrong. It is seen as a given, and it is a form of the Golden Rule. It is also the basis for your "reasoning" that there's nothing wrong with homosexuality. The message in the article is that evidence is mounting that our (generalizing here, I know) embrace of the Golden Rule is hard-wired--the evolutionary product of millenia of living in social groups. Therefore, even moral reasoning which is based this instinctively held principle is still ...largely instinctual.

The author overstates the reliance of reason for the great majority of those who choose reason over faith, I'm sure. Perhaps he needs a good beating. But, the "About" section of the website DOES say "Humanist ethics are derived from critical reasoning and their moral principles are tested by their consequences." So, there is ground to say that "humanist ethics" may need an adjustment in footing. This is specifically what I had in mind when I made the post originally.

n-atheist
Apr 10 2009
Re: Morality maybe rationalized but is not rooted in reason

Yes, I see what you mean. The ROOTS, the very bottom of it, don't come from reason.

When I say I'm a "secular humanist", I'm saying that I believe in trying to eliminate human suffering, increasing freedom and happiness, etc. Those things are not derived using reason from anything. The reference to reason has to do with how I determine more specific ethical questions, starting with these basic notions of what I consider "good" and using logic and evidence to decide what is moral when it comes to tricky things like euthanasia and animal rights. So, there are really two things going on here: reason being used to determine things on a case by case basis, but a general notion of what constitutes "good" at the bottom which is just assumed (like axioms in geometry) and not derived by reason from anything else.

If I look for where these basic notions of "good" that I have come from, they are a combination of things I learned as a child (from parents and TV shows) and some of it is also innate. They evolved in the sense that those creatures and human cultures which did not have this sort of compassion did not survive as well as those that did. And, I know there are some people around today who lack these desires. Either because they were born broken or because a bad life messed them up, some people just don't have any desire to help others and have no problem with hurting others. (Hopefully, this is a small percentage of the human population, but I know there are at least some people like that because I see them on the news.) I don't think there is any objective sense in which they are wrong and I am right. But, I'm glad that the majority of us who want what I think of as "good" have been able to work together to make laws and police forces and other things to limit the damage that people like that can do.

The criticisms of "new atheists" that Brooks throws out in the article don't really apply to me, I don't think. But, I've read a lot of articles by angry columnists complaining about "moral relativists". I suppose that charge would stick pretty well. I do not believe in objective morality. That's why I think "secular humanist" means more than just a fancy phrase for "atheist". In addition to saying that I don't believe in anything supernatural, I'm also identifying my basic moral goals. Most of the people I know -- whether they are religious or not -- seem to share that basic morality. It might be nice if we had a word for it that acknowledged this without implying anything supernatural or objective lies behind it. Then, we could have a word for people who don't have it and talk sensibly about why they don't. But, in any case, I still insist that using reason is essential, regardless of what sort of morals you begin with, because the consequences of our actions are the things that really matter and they are not always what we imagine they will be.

beersnob
Apr 10 2009
Re: Morality maybe rationalized but is not rooted in reason

Well, I guess I can agree that that using reason is essential in choosing the correct path given a basic moral precept, but my gut doesn’t like the wording. Like yours, my morality is the product of genotype and a lifetime of conditioning. And, I justify my continued adherence to my morals with reason. This reasoning is based on a number of rather flimsy assumptions such as: people will behave rationally; people will act with reciprocity; people in the social group all have the same or similar goals and values. The existence of police and lawyers and criminals is evidence of the wrongness of those assumptions. Nevertheless, from atop that flimsy foundation we consider how we want to be treated and treat other people accordingly with hope that they will behave reciprocally and knowing that some will not. I don’t know that it’s so tricky even in cases like euthanasia or abortion or chopping a thief’s hand off; some cases just involve a longer sequence of logical steps or additional bad assumptions. To paint the decision with “reason” creates an air of high-mindedness that I am uncomfortable with.

Also, I may have misled in my comments regarding the article which I originally referenced under the heading of current events. Specifically, I said “I was thinking more along the lines that we're hard coded to some extent with the ‘Golden Rule.’” This was intended to conform to the article, but, while there is mounting evidence for an evolutionary basis for altruistic tendencies, there is also evidence for the evolution of greedy people. As if Ayn Rand isn’t sufficient evidence for that point, this posting http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2009/03/is_greed_in_the.html, which I am not endorsing, touches on it and has a bunch of related links, which is why I’m citing it. There was one article I heard about that said greed may be the dominant genotype, because the wealthy have (contrary to intuition maybe) out-bred the poor. So, altruism is not uniformly the underlying principle of inherited morality. Reality is quite a bit more complex.

The article I originally cited was weak and judgement-laden. I regret using it to start a conversation on this topic, because its poor quality seems to distract from the theme of the article.

The theme of the article is the revelation that humanity’s millennia of moral philosophizing were really rationalization of forgone conclusions, of innate drives toward selfishness, compassion, or cooperation. It is this revelation that should compel one to peel back the layers of rationalization and ask oneself “What do I feel is right?” “Why do I feel that way?” “What is it about this that stirs my emotion?” all the while conscientiously avoiding rationalization. The revelation allows us to have a perspective on our personal morality that was previously inconceivable. I think there’s real power in that. It’s a window into humanity—much moreso than the declaration of “self evident” truths that so much moral philosophizing begins with.

Sidenotes: Moral relativism: a buzzword if not a codeword. Ethics are all relative unless they’re of divine origin. New atheists: Never repeat that phrase. The dude made it up. There’s no such thing. By repeating it you give the false, ill-conceived concept life.

Alex_Kasman
Apr 14 2009
Re: Morality maybe rationalized but is not rooted in reason

I am sometimes invited to make presentations at the College to "comparative religion" classes regarding atheism. Since one of those is coming up, I have had a look at the presentation that I prepared last year, just to familiarize myself with it again. On the page where I discuss our principles, I say:

Unlike many religions, we do not believe that secular humanism is the SOURCE of these values. They can be rederived by anyone using innate human empathy, a desire for justice, and reason.

That, I think, summarizes it pretty well. We cannot justify empathy or our desire for justice through a logical argument. But, given any other ethical question humanists believe that they should be resolved from these starting points using logic in the same way that some religious people will resort to holy books or the pronouncements of prophets to resolve them.

-Alex

Larry_Carter_Center
Jun 12 2009
Re: Morality maybe rationalized but is not rooted in reason

irrational fear is perhaps something that might be defined in evolutionary terms. There are large amounts of cranial tissues devoted to the "fight or flight" responses some are rational & self protective/territorial protecting hearth or family, but many others are irrational, fearing a full moon, solar eclipse or changing climate mis-understood & ascribed to "gods" causing some issue at hand..... however it is not comparable to fear of homosexuality. Watching some "straight porn" turns my stomach, how women are targets & visible slaves to male demands. There is nothing evolutionary or rational about making a jump from sexual preferences, desired and consentual sexual practices to passing laws that are neither "moral" nor ethical.

Society has every right to protect children from adult predators. Lines need to be drawn at one age or another of presumed ability to consent. However, now 6 states have legalized gay marriage by statute or court invalidation of marriage license restrictions. It is abundantly obvious, as in the Iowa Sup Ct decision, that laws against gay marriage favor one set or religions which call it evil while disfavor another set of religions/Atheists who call it love.

The articles below have not made their points. Obsfucating simple justice & observable fact does not solve the problem. No law forces a straight to marry a gay. Religious laws are proposed to force a woman to stay pregnant, regardless of her wishes or health. NO law forces a woman to get an abortion. Reason exists in the free exchange of non-violent ideas.

The threat of violence begins with hell threats, heaven bribes and irrational concepts promoted as "fact."

Most marriage laws began against Mormon multiple marriage. Very little law exists over the centuries regarding the free choices of women or men & who any may marry. Most regard property and inheritance, not who loves who.

Return to Ethics Forum
Return to Discussion Home

Webmaster: Alex Kasman 2016