RSSCategory: Good and Evil

Morality without religion

April 10, 2012 | By | 1 Reply More
Morality without religion

In this TED talk, primatologist Frans de Waal asserts that human morality has evolved, and that the existence of morality doesn’t depend on religion. He observes that “humans are far more cooperative and empathic than they are given credit for,” and that they are, in many ways similar to other primates.

From de Waal’s experiments, one can learn that chimpanzees (who have no religion) often reconcile with one another after fights. The principle “is that you have a valuable relationship that is damaged by conflict so you need to do something about it.”

What are the “pillars of morality,” that which morality is based on? Reciprocity (fairness) and Empathy (compassion) are two constants. He indicates that human morality includes more than these two factors, but not much more.

Check out the beautiful 1935 video of chimpanzees at the 3:35 min mark; they cooperate in synchronized fashion to pull in a heavy box of fruit. Then check out at 4:20 what happens when one of the two chimps is not hungry, thus not motivated to work hard. This is incredible footage that will remind you of a species you often see in the mirror. What makes the uninterested chimp to work at all, according to de Waal, is receipt of a past or a future favor, i.e., reciprocity.

[More . . . ]

Share

Read More

Hundreds of civilians bugsplat by U.S. drones

February 14, 2012 | By | 4 Replies More
Hundreds of civilians bugsplat by U.S. drones

Who is being killed by U.S. drones? Or to use the vernacular of the U.S. military, who is being bugsplat by U.S. drones? Human rights attorney Jennifer Robinson reports on her trip to Pakistan at Al Jazeera:

In Islamabad I took part in a jirga – the traditional Pashtun forum for public discussion and dispute settlement – where tribal elders and villagers from the Pakistan tribal areas (FATA) came to meet with us to explain their personal experiences of US drone attacks. Sitting just two rows behind me was a 16-year-old boy named Tariq Aziz. Listening to story upon story of the extrajudicial murder of innocent civilians and children, the heartache for loved ones lost and the constant terror instilled by the now familiar roar of drones overhead, I could not have imagined that Tariq and his family would soon suffer the same fate. . . .

As I landed at Heathrow, thousands of miles away from the dirt road where Tariq and Waheed now lay dead, a CIA operative in northern Virginia will have reported “bugsplat”. Bugsplat is the official term used by US authorities when humans are killed by drone missiles. The existence of children’s computer games of the same name may lead one to think that the PlayStation analogy with drone warfare is taken too far. But it is deliberately employed as a psychological tactic to dehumanise targets so operatives overcome their inhibition to kill; and so the public remains apathetic and unmoved to act. Indeed, the phrase has far more sinister origins and historical use: In dehumanising their Pakistani targets, the US resorts to Nazi semantics. Their targets are not just computer game-like targets, but pesky or harmful bugs that must be killed.

Share

Read More

What Most Sets of Commandments Get Wrong

December 11, 2011 | By | Reply More
What Most Sets of Commandments Get Wrong

I recently read Penn Jillette’s 10 Commandments for atheists, written as a response to a challenge by Glenn Beck. Most of Penn’s rules made good sense. But one went off the rails, I opine.

He included one found in most mistranslations of the Christian Ten: “Don’t Lie.” Penn explicitly adds the caveat: “(You know, unless you’re doing magic tricks and it’s part of your job. Does that make it OK for politicians, too?)”

But the premise is basically flawed. The original line in Exodus 20:16 (KJV) is Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. This is a very specific form of lie. Even too specific. Not only is it an injunction against perjury, but only against perjury against your landholding neighbor, as opposed to people from other places, or to property such as women and slaves.

Of course we all must lie on occasion. How else can we answer, “Isn’t she the most beautiful baby ever?” or “Honey, do I look puffy?” Would it be false testimony to confirm a harmless bias one on one?

Yet I suggest that the proper commandment should be, “Don’t bear false witness.” Period. Don’t testify to things of which you are not absolutely sure; that you have not personally experienced. Not in a public forum. Don’t repeat “what everybody knows” unless you preface it with an appropriate waffle, such as “I heard that someone else heard that…”

But this might make it difficult to testify to the all-embracing love of a demonstrably genocidal God. A Google image search of “Testify” gives mostly Christian imagery.

Share

Read More

Americans shop while families from Afghanistan bury their dead children

November 25, 2011 | By | 3 Replies More
Americans shop while families from Afghanistan bury their dead children

I’m not in a holiday mood at all. Weapons from my country keep killing adult and children civilians from Afghanistan and, based on America’s newspapers, almost no one from the United States gives a crap. In fact, we are repeatedly hearing politicians and wanna-be politicians blithely talk of starting a war with Iran.  Add to the Afghanistan carnage that at least 168 children have been killed by U.S. drones in the ongoing illegal war in Pakistan.

Now back to the dead civilians.  Quite often, my “leaders” claim that those who were killed were “insurgents,” though we must keep in mind that this term has a nefarious real-life meaning: anyone who is killed by an American weapon is a insurgent, and there is no American media present on the ground to dispute these sorts of government claims. Sometimes, we do admit that we have killed civilians, and the “solution” is to apologize to the mourning families, as though that means anything to the weeping families. As Glenn Greenwald points out, these American killings of children are not unusual and they thus are morally reprehensible. These killings by America keep occurring the midst of a ten year so-called war that is costing America $2 Billion per week. This is a grotesque amount of money to spend on an activity that has no feasible morally justifiable objective.

In the absence of any reasonably articulated objective, we are left with de facto objectives: We are indiscriminately killing children as part of our program to keep America’s defense factories humming and to give American politicians an excuse to claim that they are “defending the United States.”

You’ll find articles on Black Friday everywhere you look today.   If you are an American, you’ll find almost nothing about the blood that is on your hands because you are not working hard enough to voice your opposition to this so-called “war” in Afghanistan.  Your friends, family and politicians desperately need to hear more from you (and from me).

Share

Read More

Why does Santa Claus let so many African children starve to death?

October 29, 2011 | By | Reply More
Why does Santa Claus let so many African children starve to death?

Tomorrow is Halloween, the day when Americans agree that it’s OK to talk about death, evil spirits and depravity while eating lots of unhealthy food. These traditions seem normal to those of us who have done this October drill more than a few times, but Halloween must seem completely bonkers to outsiders.

I suspect that Halloween serves as a psychological safety valve, allowing us to air out our anxieties about our deepest fears. On Halloween, we talk about these horrible things (dismemberment and other forms of horror) together while laughing—there’s seemingly safety in numbers. And then we make sure that we avoid talking about these things for the remainder of the year. On days other than Halloween, we don’t like to be reminded of the fact that there are skeletons inside of our bodies and that we’re all on a treadmill leading to inevitable death, and that there is no evidence of any afterlife. These things freak us out because there is no cure, no fix, other than working hard to fabricate that everything is OK.  For most of the year, we follow the pattern predicted by Terror management Theory: we cover up the fact that we are mortal animals through the use of elaborate diversions and baubles, pretending that we are Gods with anuses.  I often attempt to do otherwise, and to share my thoughts freely, but I admit that my fear of inevitable death occasionally gets the better of me too. Thus, I do think I understand the need for something like Halloween in a society that heavily discourages free-thinking about disturbing topics. These topics are heavy to me too, though regularly delve into these topics rather than dousing myself in Halloween tradition or seeking comfort by joining a traditional religion. For most people, though, Halloween rituals seem to offer a bit of relief from this admittedly heavy existential anxiety.

Thanksgiving is coming around the corner, and we have ready-made myths to take care of our anxieties related to that holiday too.  Thanksgiving is the time for many Americans to unquestionably repeat the myth that benevolent Europeans were welcomed to American by the Native Americans: “Hello, white people. Make yourselves at home. Take our possessions and our land. Send us to reservations.” One little story about Europeans sharing a meal with Native Americans takes care of thousands of pages of inconvenient history. One little myth kicks in the confirmation bias and invites Americans to believe that they live on a moral oasis, and that it’s OK to strictly filter our history in order to think happy thoughts about how many of us came to be here. Pass the turkey, please.

What kind of myth would extend one’s belief in a moral oasis almost all the way to the new year? If you owned a magic sleigh and you were capable of creating and distributing toys and food all over the world, why would you ignore the children of Africa? The evidence suggests that Santa skips them year after year, even though many of them are dying of starvation and malaria.  Further, this tragedy is something that American children don’t discuss in the context of the Santa

myth. But if you’re magical then, damn it, what’s more important? More iPods for well-to-do American families (it seems like Santa gives well-to-do American families better gifts) or basic food, water and medicine to prevent African children from starving?  Maybe Santa doesn’t care about African children. Or maybe he doesn’t know about the existence of Africa because his Atlas is out of date.  Or maybe he avoids Africa there’s not much snow there. But, again, we don’t discuss the Africa problem with our children when we tell them about the magic and benevolence of Santa Claus, and we are silent because Africa is inconvenient to the Santa story.

The increasingly dominant prosperity Gospel churches preach that Jesus wants us to hit the stores hard on Black Friday because we deserve to have lots of stuff. Many Americans are attracted to churches that advise them that admission to heaven is through faith, and not good works. It’s OK with this Faith version of Jesus that we buy lots of consumer goods rather than saying no to ourselves and sending all of that gadget money to organizations that can truly feed starving African children and provide them with mosquito nets. Year after year, the Santa myth serves as a focus-mechanism of a precious human commodity—attention–that makes certain aspects of the world salient at the expense of downplaying others. That is the general mechanism of all myths. They are colored filters for reality.

In these modern times, our many comforting myths need some serious self-critical analysis, but that is unlikely, because their power is in their uncritical repetition. All of this immediately makes sense when we remind ourselves that we choose our myths—they don’t fall down from the sky.

[http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-images-santa-in-his-christmas-sled-or-sleigh-silhouette-image20920349 used with permission.  Map of Africa – creative commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Africa_(orthographic_projection).svg]

Share

Read More

The so-called Iranian terrorist plot

October 12, 2011 | By | 10 Replies More
The so-called Iranian terrorist plot

About a year ago, I was speaking to man whose son was serving in the U.S. military in Iraq. Without any provocation the man announced to me that we ought to simply drop a nuclear bomb on Iran and “take care of that problem once and for all.”   I was not surprised to hear such a blunt call for such widespread sterile violence. I’d heard talk like this before on AM talk radio, and I’ve heard it since. I’m well-aware that many of our conservative citizens and politicians are wired up in this Manichean/essentialist way, where all people residing in the Middle-East are suspect (or worse) and America is the greatest nation in the history of the entire galaxy, no matter that it refuses to take care of its own while burning $2 billion/week in Afghanistan. I’ve heard far too many people speak simplistically of burning millions of Iranians in a nuclear fire, all the while racking up such a proposed mass-murder with a shrug after labeling it “collateral damage.”   This is what it’s now like in the horror-carnival that much of America has become. For those of us who are able to pull our minds out of tribal mode even a bit are witness to hordes of blindered fellow citizens who have been turned intensely incurious by a mass media obsessed with conflict pornography and urged on by psychopathic politicians.

[More . . .]

Share

Read More

Senator Bernie Sanders proposes changes to America’s corrupt banking system

October 8, 2011 | By | Reply More

At Huffpo, Senator Bernie Sanders, who remains one of my heroes, points out that the secret bailout by the Federal Reserve makes the better-known bailout look tiny:

More than three years ago, Congress rewarded Wall Street with the biggest taxpayer bailout in the history of the world. Simultaneously but unknown to the American people at the time, the Federal Reserve provided an even larger bailout. The details of what the Fed did were kept secret until a provision in the Dodd-Frank Act that I sponsored required the Government Accountability Office to audit the Fed’s lending programs during the financial crisis.

As a result of this audit, the American people have learned that the Federal Reserve provided more than $16 trillion in low-interest loans to every major financial institution in this country, huge foreign banks, multi-national corporations, and some of the wealthiest people in the world.

In other words, when Wall Street was on the verge of collapse, the federal government acted boldly, aggressively, and with a fierce sense of urgency to save our financial system from collapse with no strings attached.

The huge backdoor bailout is a slap in the face to American taxpayers, especially since the big Wall Street banks are bigger than ever and because they are taking more risks than ever, presumably emboldened by the fact that they are “too big to fail,” and that the federal government will come bail them out yet again. Here’s what Bernie Sanders proposes to clean up this despicable situation:

1) Break up the big banks.
2) Cap credit card interest rates (“Today, more than a quarter of all credit card holders in this country are paying interest rates above 20 percent and as high as 59 percent.”)
3) Force the Federal Reserve to make low interest loans directly to small businesses.
4) Put an end to speculation that jacks up the price of petroleum products.
5) Demand that Wall Street invest in real businesses instead of “gambling on derivatives.”
6) “Establish a Wall Street speculation fee on credit default swaps, derivatives, stock options and futures. Both the economic crisis and the deficit crisis are a direct result of the greed and recklessness on Wall Street.” Sanders points out that there was such a fee (.2% tax on all sales and transfers of stock) from 1914 – 1966.

Sanders points out that getting these measures passed will be enormously difficult, given that these Wall Street banks spent $5 billion on lobbying over the past decade.  Which leads to another enormous need: to get money out of politics.

Share

Read More

Ken Burns on Prohibition

October 3, 2011 | By | 1 Reply More
Ken Burns on Prohibition

Tonight I watched Part II of Ken Burns’ excellent new documentary, “Prohibition.” I highly recommend it (and you can watch Part I, “A Nation of Drunkards,” here). Here’s the bottom line of Prohibition:

Prohibition turned law-abiding citizens into criminals, made a mockery of the justice system, caused illicit drinking to seem glamorous and fun, encouraged neighborhood gangs to become national crime syndicates, permitted government officials to bend and sometimes even break the law, and fostered cynicism and hypocrisy that corroded the social contract all across the country.

If only Americans would open their eyes and acknowledge that our raging drug war is Prohibition redux, and that it is causing the same kinds of destructive problems as Prohibition.

Share

Read More

Jonathan Haidt: What the moral sciences should look like

September 29, 2011 | By | Reply More
Jonathan Haidt: What the moral sciences should look like

At Edge Video, psychologist Jonathan Haidt has given a briskly presented 30-minute lecture on what the moral sciences should look like in the 21st century. He opened his talk by indicating that we are now in a period of a new synthesis in ethics, meaning that in order to do meaningful work in the field of moral psychology, one has to draw from numerous other fields, including biology, computer science, mathematics, neuroscience, primatology and many other fields. The bottom line is that one needs to be careful to not attempt to reduce moral psychology to a single principle, as is often done by those who advocate that morality is a code word for a single test, such as welfare-maximization or justice-fairness.

I have followed Jonathan Haidt’s work for several years now, and I am highly impressed with his breadth of knowledge, his many original ideas, and the way he (in keeping with his idea of what moral psychology should be like) synthesizes the work of numerous disparate fields of study. In this post, I am sharing my own notes from my viewing of heights two-part video lecture.

In Haidt’s approach, the sense of taste serves as a good metaphor for morality. There are only a few dominant bases for moral taste (akin to the four types of taste receptors), taste can be generally categorized as “good” or “bad,” and despite the fact that there are a limited number of foundations for moral and sensory taste, there is plenty of room for cultural variation–every culture has its own approach to making good moral decisions (and making good tasting food).

Haidt warns that those studying moral psychology should be careful to avoid two common errors that are well illustrated by two recent journal articles. The first article, titled “The Weirdest People in the World,” indicates that most of the psychology research done in the entire world is done in the United States, and the subjects tend to be Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic (“WEIRD”). Not that one cannot do psychology with this homogenous group of subjects (typically college students), but one needs be careful to avoid generalizing to the entire world based upon a WEIRD set of subjects. In fact, WEIRD people tend to see the world much differently than people in many other cultures. They tend to see separate objects (versus relationships), and they tend to rely on analytical thinking (categories and laws, reason and logic) versus holistic thinking (patterns and context). Does this make us WEIRD people more accurate since we think in these analytical terms? Not necessarily, but before generalizing, we need to take it to heart that we live in an unusual culture. Haidt warns that this problem is exacerbated because our psychologists tend to surround themselves with similar-thinking others, and when this happens, the confirmation bias kicks in and they will inevitably find lots of evidence to condemn those who think differently.

[More . . . ]

Share

Read More