RSSCategory: Good and Evil

The next best thing to vegetarianism

June 2, 2010 | By | 7 Replies More
The next best thing to vegetarianism

Today I had the opportunity to discuss the meaning of life with St. Louis Activist Adam Shriver.

Adam mentioned that, a few months ago, he was invited to write an op-ed for the New York Times. The topic he examined was what we can do about the 100 pounds of meat the average American insists on eating every year. This situation raises moral red flags for many of us because it is rather clear that confined animals suffer painful bone and joint diseases. In his article, which he titled “Not Grass-Fed, but at Least Pain-Free,” Adam noted that mammals have two parallel pathways relating to pain:

[A] sensory pathway that registers its location, quality (sharp, dull or burning, for example) and intensity, and a so-called affective pathway that senses the pain’s unpleasantness. This second pathway appears to be associated with activation of the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex, because people who have suffered damage to this part of the brain still feel pain but no longer find it unpleasant.

This neurological situation, combined with the ability to genetically design mammals that lack proteins necessary for the perception of the sharpness of pain, presents a potential solution (or, rather, it presents a fascinating thought experiment):

If we cannot avoid factory farms altogether, the least we can do is eliminate the unpleasantness of pain in the animals that must live and die on them. It would be far better than doing nothing at all.

Adam’s tongue in cheek solution, then would be to continue to abuse the animals but to relive ourselves of moral queasiness by genetically modifying the animals so that they won’t hurt.

Adam’s article reminded me that I’ve sometimes wondered what most vegetarians would think if we could grow meat in test tubes, meat that was never connected to any sort of brain. Imagine pounds and pounds of brainless meat coming out of big vats at a factory, the raw materials being mostly grass. Before you answer, consider that I raised this topic a few years ago over lunch. A woman in attendance was adamant that if we could develop veggie burgers that tasted as good as beef burgers, it would still be immoral for a committed vegetarian to enjoy that food. A buddy and I looked on perplexed as she ranted at length. She scowled and said, “If you created a meat substitute that had the shape and texture one would experience if eating a human baby, it would be immoral to eat it!”

Now I do think it’s creepy to contemplate eating anything resembling the texture and taste of human babies (I insist that I haven’t actually tried this delicacy), but in my book, eating something that is not a human baby is not anything like eating a human baby. And consider too all of the people who play violent video games. Is “killing” the image of an innocent person somewhat immoral, even just a bit? And what about a man who fantasizes about having sex with children, or even creates his own drawings of nude children to enhance his fantasies? Assume, further that he has never solicited a real-life child. Is he immoral? And imagine this: imagine that someone at work really pissed you off. Is it immoral, even a little bit, to imagine poisoning that person the next day at work? What if this sort of fantasy actually kept you calmer and actually prevented you from being fiercely tempted from carrying out the murder?

Maybe I’m just too much enamored with thick black lines, but I believe that for something to be immoral (or criminal), one must actually do the forbidden act rather than fantasizing about or simulating doing the forbidden act.

Now, back to the eating of abused animals who couldn’t feel pain. What if I could actually choose to buy such pain-free animal-meat at the grocery story? Wouldn’t it be more moral to eat the pain-free animals than the animals who ached with joint pain? It would seem so, even if it not perfectly morally commendable.

[Full disclosure: I am a somewhat guilt ridden non-vegetarian. Most of the meat I eat is chicken or turkey, though I do eat a hamburger every few weeks.]


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It’s The Women, Stupid…redux

May 20, 2010 | By | 9 Replies More
It’s The Women, Stupid…redux

I have from time to time made the point that the entire debate over abortion and birth control and almost the whole edifice of what we call Fundamentalism in the world, in whatever religion, is all essentially over controlling women.

Here is an article which has one of the most bizarre takes on the entire issue I’ve ever seen. The central premise is early on stated in 0ne sentence that defines all of this nonsense, in whatever creed you care to name.

“Sexual relationships, while enacted privately, are public property.”

The twists in logic, never mind rationality, are among the most byzantine I’ve ever encountered. What is more, the writer doesn’t seem to understand that this “philosophy” reduces children to little more than marks on a scorecard. The exhibition of marital health and fidelity is all that is important. The attempt to limit family size and indulge private acts privately for private purposes is reduced to an attempt to deceive the community, pure and simple.

But ultimately, as in all other instances of this kind of obscene interference with the personal, it is the women who bear the costs, the burdens, and the responsibility.

I suppose the next step would be to devise a kind of tracking bracelet for the penis and vagina so someone somewhere can determine when either is being used and where.

I have no answer for this kind of inanity (or insanity). The fact that this makes sense to some people disturbs me no end, because it means that some people cannot see past the end of their own prurience. Yes, I said prurience, because to come up with this kind of thing, rather than demonstrating a balanced healthy appreciation for sex, shows an obsession with it that can only be described as prurient.


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Sam Harris on objectively measurable moral progress

April 13, 2010 | By | Reply More
Sam Harris on objectively measurable moral progress

Within a tradition that extends backwards at least to David Hume, many people insist that science is utterly incapable of telling us what we ought to value, and that science is thus unable to weigh in on moral issues. This position has often been referred to as the naturalistic fallacy–the claim that what is “moral” can be defined in terms of natural properties.

In this highly-engaging and wide-ranging TED talk, Sam Harris argues that this is a dangerous illusion, because whether humans are experiencing “well being,” and whether communities “flourish” clearly depend on facts. He argues that questions of values reduce to facts about the brain functions and specific social circumstances of human beings. Science is thus relevant to values, and as we move further into the future this will be ever more obvious.

Harris paused to make it clear that he is not claiming that science will necessarily provide answers to all values questions. He is not claiming that those trying to decide whether to have a second child, for example, will turn to science. On the other hand, meting out corporal punishment on children (which is still allowed by the laws of many southern states) raises a factual question: Whether inflicting pain, violence and embarrassment encourages positive emotional development. He also points to the wearing of burkas under threat of physical punishment as a practice that can can be factually analyzed as not likely to improve well being.

Harris doesn’t offer a single recipe for a “right” or a “correct” way to run a society. Rather, he suggests that the moral state space consists of many peaks and valleys; there might be many right answers, in addition to many wrong answers. This multiplicity of approaches doesn’t mean that there aren’t factual truths about the better and worse ways of achieving social well-being, however.

He repeatedly makes the point that science has a lot to say about morality, and there is no good reason to be non-judgmental when the facts scientifically show that a particular practice leads to social dysfunction. In many human disciplines, some of the people weighing in are so ill-informed that their opinions shouldn’t count at all — not every person has a right to a wide audience on the topic of string theory. The same thing goes for moral expertise. Those who insist that the best thing to do when their young daughter is raped is to kill her out of shame lack moral expertise. Those who would behead their son because he is gay in order to keep him from going to hell do not have moral opinions that should count.

There are right and wrong answers regarding questions of human flourishing (this can increasingly be fleshed out in terms of brain function) and “morality” relates to a specific domain of facts.

It is possible for individuals and even whole culture, to care about the wrong thing. It’s possible for them to have beliefs and desires that lead to needless human suffering. Just admitting this will transform our discussion about morality.


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Comprehensive moral instruction

April 11, 2010 | By | 4 Replies More
Comprehensive moral instruction

We’ve all seen many Internet lists offering suggestions for improving one’s life or state of happiness. This list, by a young man named Henrick Edberg at The Positivity Blog, caught my attention today, perhaps because it includes some of my own favorite bits of productivity reminders and folk wisdom, including the “80/20 rule” and the advice to not beat yourself up for making mistakes. His list also includes a nice twist to the golden rule: Give value to get value, not the other way around. Another item on his list reminds us to express gratitude to others in order to enrich our own lives, reminding us that expressing gratitude is socially contagious.

What also intrigued me was Edberg’s pre-list commentary: He laments that the nuggets of advice in his list aren’t taught as part of the high school curriculum.

But I still think that taking a few hours from all those German language classes and use them for some personal development classes would have been a good idea. Perhaps for just an hour a week in high school. It would probably be useful for many students and on a larger scale quite helpful for society in general.

I think I know why there are no such classes in public schools. Teaching advice on how to navigate through the complexities of life in a positive state of mind would too often trigger discussions regarding “morality,” which too often trigger discussions of specific religious teachings which, in turn, tend to anger at least some parents and students, which would then shut down the course (in public schools, anyway). I suspect that this causal chain is a big reason that so many schools tread lightly on teaching students how to navigate through life, even though there is an immense amount of information that needs to be discussed. Instead of vigorously teaching what the students need to know to be functional and virtuous, most schools ostensibly defer to families and churches (though they actually defer at least as much to pop culture, including magazines, “news” programs, television shows and movies) to fill that “moral” vacuum of students.

In America, however, even “serious” teachers of morality often insist that the way to best live one’s life is by obeying a standardized set of “moral” rules. Is the advice to follow any set of rules really the best approach for instructing us how to get along with each other down here on planet Earth? Is it even possible for any form of obedience to serve as the foundation for a high-functioning society? I think not.

I’m going to digress at this point . . .

[more . . . ]


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Warning stickers for the use of the word “them”

April 6, 2010 | By | 1 Reply More
Warning stickers for the use of the word “them”

“Language is the source of misunderstandings.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1900 – 1944)

As I read the news these days, I am struck by the great power that is exercised by categorizing groups of people into “us” and “them.” The use of the word “them” so often seems like such an innocent and natural thing to do, but look what happens when we divide people into “us” and “them.” We give the benefit of the doubt to those in the “us” group. We take better care of the “us” people. We tend to trust the “us” people, even when we don’t really know who they are.

We are rude to those in the “them” group. We tend to not trust those outsiders. We instinctively twist their words to mean something other than what they say, often the opposite of what they meant. We exclude “them. Many of “us” feel hostility toward the “them” people, ranging from annoyance to things much more terrible. Many of “us” feel justified treating “them” people as though they were farm animals, or worse. Maybe this tendency comes from ancient biological roots. Regardless, we need to learn to see around our own corner–we could do so much better than we tend to do these days. And perhaps some might argue that it is not the choice of a word that divides us, but that the word choice merely recognizes pre-linguistic instincts. To the extent that this is true, it is my belief that the choice of the word “them” locks in such pre-linguistic tendencies, making them seem more stark, more real.

This subtle early linguistic move of categorizing people into the “them” category has great power to harm, power of which we are usually not aware when we make that quick initial decision to place people into the outgroup category. The dangers sticking someone into the “outgroup” is well known to psychologists. On the streets, though, we make “us” versus “them” categorizations without much thought, and then down the road, sometimes way down the road, many of us pay a big price for our thoughtless choices to use such a powerful word. The choice of the word “them” is often careless and even thoughtless, but great evil can result. That’s the thing about the greatest evils of the world: the greatest evils don’t usually result from conscious intent or malice. Rather, they usually result from lack of thought, lack of conscious attention.

I’ve written about these concerns before—for example, I once suggested that all humans should refer to themselves as “Africans,” an scientifically-justified categorization that might avoid much of the conflict we now see between non-existent “races” of people. And see here. I suspect that much of our social distress, “racial” and cultural, is a result of failing to use the word “them” with the care it deserves. Here’s what I interpret to be another recent example.

Perhaps the word “them” should always come with some sort of warning sticker (I haven’t figured out the logistics, of course). The warning would go something like this:

Careless use of the word “them” often divides humanity into ingroups and outgroups, setting the stage for highly polarized conflict, which often escalates into violence. “Them” is a powerful work that should always be used with great care.


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The Long Road To Papal Self Destruction

April 5, 2010 | By | 1 Reply More
The Long Road To Papal Self Destruction

The legal back-and-forth over the Vatican’s position on the sexual abuse revelations seems to Americans bizarre. While certainly the Catholic Church has a large contingent, we are a traditionally Protestant nation and after ditching the Anglican’s after the Revolution, the whole question of a Church being able to deny the right of civil authority to prosecute one of its representatives for criminal acts was swallowed up in the strident secularism that, despite the current revisionist rhetoric of a very loud activist minority, characterized the first century of the Republic. Even American Catholics may be a be fuzzy on how the Vatican can try to assert diplomatic immunity for the Pope in order to block prosecutorial efforts.

But the fact is, the Vatican is a State, just like Italy, Switzerland, Germany, or the United States. The Pope is the head of a political entity (technically, the Holy See, but for convenience I use the more inclusive term Vatican), with all the rights and privileges implied. The Vatican has embassies.

They have not quite come out to assert that priests, being officials (and perhaps officers) of that state, have diplomatic immunity, but they have certainly acted that way for the past few decades as this scandal has percolated through the halls of St. Peter. It would be an interesting test if they did, to in fact allow that attorneys generals, D.A.s, and other law enforcement agencies have absolutely no legal grounds on which to prosecute priests. To date, the Vatican has not gone there.

So what is the political relationship between, say, the Vatican and the United States?

From 1797 to 1870, the United States maintained consular relations with the Papal States. We maintained diplomatic relations with the Pope as head of the Papal States from 1848 to 1868, though not at the ambassadorial level.

With the loss of the Papal States in 1870, these relationships ended until 1984, although beginning in 1939 a number of presidents sent personal envoys to the Holy See for specific talks on various humanitarian issues.

Diplomatic relations resumed January 10, 1984. On March 7, 1984, the Senate confirmed William A. Wilson, who had served as President Reagan’s personal envoy from 1981, as the first U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. The Holy See in turn named Archbishop Pio Laghi as the first Apostolic Nuncio (equivalent to ambassador) of the Holy See to the U.S.

The Pope, as head of the governmental body—the Holy See—has the status of head of state. Arresting the Pope—even issuing a subpoena—is a problematic question under these circumstances, as he would technically enjoy immunity stemming from his position.

The question, however, more to the point is the overall relationship of the global Church to the Vatican and the prerogatives the Pope and the Holy See seem to believe they possess in the matter of criminal actions and prosecutions of individual priests, bishops, even archbishops.

That requires going back a long time.

At one time, the Holy Roman Church held secular power and controlled its own territories, known as the Papal States. When this “country” was established is the subject of academic study, but a clear marker is the so-called Donation of Pepin. The Duchy of Rome was threatened materially by invading Lombards, which the Frankish ruler Pepin the Short ended around 751 C.E.


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A teenaged girl visits Gaza

April 4, 2010 | By | 1 Reply More
A teenaged girl visits Gaza

Najla Said gives a dramatic reading of one section of her play entitled “Palestine,” describing how her life was changed after visiting Gaza as a teenaged girl, along with her father, the late Edward Said, who was a Palestinian activist.


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Neo-Humanist Statement of Secular Principles

March 24, 2010 | By | 4 Replies More
Neo-Humanist Statement of Secular Principles

What guiding principles would you select if you wanted to establish a highly cooperative new society? In order to avoid re-creating the deep-seated cultural strife that is ripping us apart, you might be tempted to brush aside all current conflicting systems of religious-based morality and start fresh, striving to come up with a system to which most non-believers and many believers could assent. At center, it would be an evidence-based system.

That’s what Paul Kurtz has done with his newly released Neo-Humanist Statement of Secular Principles and Values. It’s not for everyone, but its list of principles and values will resonate with many people. Here are the basic principles:


  1. aspire to be more inclusive by appealing to both non-religious and religious humanists and to religious believers who share common goals;
  2. are critical of traditional theism;
  3. are best defined by what they are for, not what they are against;
  4. wish to use critical thinking, evidence, and reason to evaluate claims to knowledge;
  5. apply similar considerations to ethics and values;
  6. are committed to a key set of values: happiness, creative actualization, reason in harmony with emotion, quality, and excellence;
  7. emphasize moral growth (particularly for children), empathy, and responsibility;
  8. advocate the right to privacy;
  9. support the democratic way of life, tolerance, and fairness;
  10. recognize the importance of personal morality, good will, and a positive attitude toward life;
  11. accept responsibility for the well-being of society, guaranteeing various rights, including those of women, racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities; and supporting education, health care, gainful employment, and other social benefits;
  12. support a green economy;
  13. advocate population restraint, environmental protection, and the protection of other species;
  14. recognize the need for Neo-Humanists to engage actively in politics;
  15. take progressive positions on the economy; and
  16. hold that humanity needs to move beyond ego-centric individualism and chauvinistic nationalism to develop transnational planetary institutions to cope with global problems—such efforts include a strengthened World Court, an eventual World Parliament, and a Planetary Environmental Monitoring Agency that would set standards for controlling global warming and ecology.

Paul Kurtz has issued an invitation for others who accept its main principles and values to sign on in support, even if they do not agree with all of its provisions. I have signed up. The values listed in this document are my values. It is so rare that I find a collection of principles to which I would so readily aspire. These principles should not surprise anyone familiar with the work of Paul Kurtz.

This Neo-Humanist statement is both a set of positive principles and a push-back against radical atheism:

Writing in the December 2009/January 2010 issue of Free Inquiry, the magazine he founded, Kurtz declared “militant atheism is often truncated and narrow-minded…it is not concerned with the humanist values that ought to accompany the rejection of theism. The New Atheists, in my view, have made an important contribution to the contemporary cultural scene because they have opened religious claims to public examination…What I object to are the militant atheists who are narrow-minded about religious persons and will have nothing to do with agnostics, skeptics, or those who are indifferent to religion, dismissing them as cowardly.”

In his interview at Huffpo, Kurtz reminds us that only 2 to 3 percent of Americans self-identify as “atheists,” whereas 16 percent of Americans (50 million people) do not affiliate with any religious organization.

The Statement ends with this invitation:

We submit that the world needs to engage in continuing constructive dialogue emphasizing our common values. We invite other men and women representing different points of view to join with us in bringing about a better world in the new planetary civilization that is now emerging.


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Milgram redux

March 18, 2010 | By | 1 Reply More
Milgram redux

There’s a new French documentary based upon a faked French television show (“The Game of Death”). The “show” was based on the experiments Stanley Milgram conducted at Yale in the 1960’s.

On the TV show, the game consisted of one participant asking questions to another player locked inside a booth with an electrode hooked up to his or her wrist. Any wrong answer meant the first player had to push a lever that subjected the victim in the booth to electrical charges up to 460 volts as punishment.

The audience applauded and chanted “Punishment! Punishment! Punishment!” when the contestant inside the booth answered wrong.

The results were startling, just as they were in Milgram’s study: 80% of the contestants administered what they believed to be lethal electric shocks. BTW, it’s not clear whether the audience consisted entirely of stooges–I assume that all audience members were stooges and that they had been instructed to encourage the reckless behavior of the contestants (if not, the consistently terrible audience reaction was phenomenally more interesting to me than the behavior of the contestants).

The CNN reporter reporting on this French “show” was perplexed by the behavior of the contestants on this “show.” She was flummoxed by the contestant’s willingness to administer (what they believed to be) painful and apparently deadly shocks to innocent people. She quoted the show’s French producer: “People were willing to act against their own morals, their own principles when they were ordered to do something extreme by a source they they trust is legitimate.”

According to the CNN reporter, the lesson is that “even the most well-adjusted person can be swayed to act in horrendous ways if the situation leads them to it–that anyone is vulnerable to this.” The host of the CNN news show, Campbell Brown added, “I hope that’s not the case.”

But the evidence is ubiquitous that people will happily allow entire communities of other people to needlessly suffer and die. We tolerate mass death of millions of innocent people, including children, through starvation and malaria right here on planet Earth, even though we could substantially alleviate those disasters if we only acted. We tolerate and even cheer on wars that have no purpose relating to “freedom,” even though we know that using our terrifying weapons often takes the lives of numerous innocent human beings. We fail to guarantee a minimum safety net of health care for those who can’t afford it, resulting in more deaths. We tolerate thousands of institutions that are “schools” only in name rather than insisting on paying a bit more for first rate teachers–we know that these sad public “schools” are ruining lives, but most of us couldn’t care less (if we cared, would we be doing something about the situation? Consider too, these eight other ways to kill 3,000 people. How is it that we tolerate any of this? But we do tolerate needless suffering every day, most of it through our inaction. “The Game of Death” demonstrates (just as Milgram had earlier demonstrated) that people are also willing to hurt and kill through their one actions, not merely inactions. For the most part, however, I find this action/inaction distinction to be legalistic and distracting. Highly moral people don’t make this distinction when lives are on the line.

How can people on the “show” be so cruel? In my opinion, the Milgram study is a finding that relates to limited human attentional capacity. Our limited and rickety working memory can easily be filled with things (such as audience encouragement and the “authority figure” of a show host) which leaves little room for moral processing. Simply fill up our heads with TV, “the threat of terrorism,” or whatever, and we are willing to not attend to everything else. We are incredibly fallible beings. I would also suggest that Hannah Arendt’s concept of banality of evil illustrates this human vulnerability to attentional distraction. I explain my reasoning regarding human attention capacity in the context of Arendt’s work here.

Back to the “Game of Death”. . . Some of the contestants purportedly explained that the power of television made them do those horrendous things, but this claim confuses me. I suspect that the live audience served as a proxy for that “television audience” (there actually wasn’t any such audience, at least until the documentary came out). But assume that the live audience boo’d and hissed when shocks were administered, thereby working at cross-purposes with the show host. In such as case, I would assume that far fewer “lethal” shocks would have been administered. My belief, then, is that the fact that there was a television audience (even an imagined one) didn’t cause the contestants to act in any particular way. Rather, the effect of that audience depends on how that audience reacts. No research needs to be cited for the fact that we are social animals and that we feel immense pressure to do the things that are approved by others around us (though I will cite this famous study by Solomon Asch).

Some might find this sort of “show” bizarre, but I find it valuable, and I hope that the documentary reaches a wide audience. Humans cognition is a complex and conflicting bag of tricks, many of which work counter to others. That is one reason I have repeatedly stressed at this site that we should first and foremost think of humans as human animals, not the demigods . We desperately need the humility and the skepticism that usually comes with the acknowledgment that we are frail and fallible. Consider that when when humans are thinking least clearly, we are nonetheless capable of feeling certain that we are correct. We are a lot less competent than we’d like to believe. The French “show” is dramatic evidence that merely presenting an audience and an “authority figure” can severely inflict moral blindness. These two things blinded the contestants to the most basic rule morality: don’t needlessly hurt and kill others.

The more likely that human animals become consciously aware of their gaping cognitive and moral vulnerabilities (I consider these part and parcel), they are less likely to do great damage to other humans. Perhaps this show will remind us that we regularly need to exercise social skepticism and put on the moral brakes, even when those around us seem certain.


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