Wednesday, January 11, 2012

In Praise of Error

Cover of Moral Relativism Magazine, Issue 3You can also read my article and lots of fabulous others at Buy Issue number three and support great philosphy 

Throughout the entire history of human social interaction, more categorical harm has occurred at the hands of justification rather than simple error. Justifications are attempts to cover up and smooth mistakes to protect the moral guilt and social image that goes with responsibility. When innocent mistakes cause misery or pain, the harm is multiplied by our justification and inability to recognize our blunder.  

Error, failure, and mistake are shameful and embarrassing. A public slip-up directly challenges the self-concept that we hold of ourselves. Many of us have pretty high self-esteem; we see ourselves as smart, kind and moral. When the inevitable cognitive dissonance comes from inconsistent actions of our self-concept, we justify. All of us justify, but most of us are not in a high, public position of authority that can affect many others. Justification is not always a bad thing. Without some justification, none of us would be able to sleep at night; we would be so tormented by every trivial moral violation we made that self-esteem would be nonexistent.

We have self-esteem but we also have Catholic priests molesting children, slavery, extreme social inequality, and terrorism, also powered by justification. Rather than saying, “Wow, I screwed up, I must not be as smart or as moral as I thought,” we justify, shrink the error, and minimize the harm: “It wasn’t my fault, the victim deserved it, and it is not a big deal.” The perpetrator takes a quick positive look in the mirror and goes to sleep peacefully, while the majority of the victims get quietly screwed while only a small minority makes it into the public conscience.

 I am not talking about the small percentage of human beings who are sociopaths or sadist. They knowingly cause harm to others and require no way to rationalize it. Their self-concept is consistent with their actions; these sadists and sociopaths have no interests in morality.   Justification cannot be used to explain and interpret these people, but they are a minority and can clearly be called “evil”. Statistically these people are not the ones we need to be worrying about. Their degree of harm is minimal.

In the “Occupy Wall Street” and the rest of the branching “Occupy” movements, people are protesting social inequality. Justification runs deep inside social inequality, rationalizing every layer inside the thick bureaucracy. Those Wall Street bankers do not see themselves as greedy thieves, and the protestors are not causing them a moral crisis; they sleep just fine on their presumably very expensive mattresses.

We have this great idea of the American Dream: Anyone, anywhere in the United States, can become successful and wealthy if they just work at it. We hold so tightly to this ideal that when it actually does happen, we glorify it to prove the American Dream’s validity. In the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, Will Smith works very hard and makes it. See, he can do it. You can too. Now quit complaining and get back to work.

The illusion of America’s open stratification system is a justification. Many of the 1% who are being targeted currently in the protests are being immoral.  Their disproportional wealth causes harm, but the harm of their original greed is made worse with rationalization. These 1% truly believe that they do no wrong, they believe that their social class was attained and not inherited. They remember working hard for their wealth, and so they think that anyone making equal work will get equal pay. The 1% do not understand social reproduction, cultural and social capital, and the firm class boundaries in the United States. Stopping an error where the perpetrators see no harm is almost impossible.
Religious institutions are another example of rampant justification. Religion is a major investment for most people. It usually requires lots of time and money. Any information that contradicts religion will cause extreme dissonance. “If religion is wrong, and harmful, than I am a fool for investing so much into it, but I am not a fool, I am smart and capable,” goes the process of religious rationalization. A Christian fundamentalist's new-found acceptance of evolution, homosexuality, or abortion will require him or her to admit having been wrong before. It is a lot easier to fudge our perception of reality than to alter our perception of ourselves.

As a whole, religious justification remains the same as the individual, because the processes of maintaining self-esteem in individuals are amplified in the larger social group of religion. The Catholic Pope (To be fair, the pope did try to allow some exceptions for a condom prohibition, but it was recently redacted. Justification remains strongest in black and whites) cannot say he was wrong about prohibiting condom use in AIDS-ravaged Africa and the Mormon Church cannot apologize for Proposition 8 outlawing same-sex marriage in California, because in their eyes no error has been made. Any evidence that says otherwise is apostate and blasphemous. If religious leaders and their followers would admit error, responsibility would come crashing down, and any sacrifices made for it would have been for waste. As of right now, religion cannot and will not let that happen.

The process of defending ourselves from humiliating errors is vile and putrid. It covers up mistakes making it almost impossible to correct them. Even after Human Beings, and the 99%, organize and make a loud voice, we are still burdened with the nearly infinite obstacle of facing an invisible enemy. We are beginning to make our army and our navy. But our opponent will not step forward. Our marvelous group of Human Beings must begin to accept personal responsibility. We need to learn to say, “I screwed up. It was inconsistent with the concept I have of myself, but I will take the uncomfortable accountability in order to minimize harm and prevent its future occurrence.” We need to realize that our morality can stay moral and the mistake can remain a mistake without cognitive dissonance. Error sucks, and the consequences can be unfortunate, but error cannot always be avoided in practice; justification can be.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Moral Point

My morality differs from the religious. I make moral choices after a careful analysis of the harm and good that will come from my actions, not because it is an absolute crime. Moral decisions should be based on what will benefit humanity the most, not whether or not it will piss off a temperamental Bronze Age deity.

I read a book a couple of years ago called In Praise of Doubt. In it, the authors argued that in our western world there are two competing forces for moral decisions. The first is religious fundamentalism. Religious fundamentalists see moral decisions as absolute. There can be no compromise because there is no doubt. Their morality comes straight from God, and I guess God is infallible.

The other is called pluralism. The authors incorrectly associated pluralism with science. Many people in science do share this spineless position on morality however. And many anthropologists are the worst of all offenders. They are trained to rarely make moral decisions, and try to understand different social groups on their terms. They would never be able to say, “I think it is fucked up that many Arab women are forced to be illiterate, and made to feel ashamed of their body.” There is no certainty behind any moral decisions. Pluralist morality has too much doubt.

The authors argued that moral decisions should be in between fundamentalism and pluralism, between not enough doubt and too much. For a long time I thought this was an important concept. I left religion because of the harm I saw in dogma morality and its resilience to change moral policies. And too much doubt also seemed harmful to me because there are object harms and crimes that are part of culture but also cause great human suffering. Moderation between two conflicting forces is a fallacy. In between does not equal truth. So much of my mental energy was wasted at this time trying to settle moral decisions in a precarious balance act.

I have completely left this spectrum. It no longer works for me. I no longer understand what it means to be in between confidence and a refusal to make a position. I do not know why moderation between extremes is a good platform.  If an extreme position works it should not be dulled through moderation.

I propose a new moral system; an improvement on the moral balancing act suggested by In Praise of Doubt. But instead of a doubt spectrum, I want a point. An area without human suffering and misery. At the highest point of human good and happiness. Where every individual’s brain feels the greatest possible joy, pleasure, and contentment. A point extremely contrasted from the worst possible anguish humans can experience.

Unfortunately however, this point does not exist and we cannot be exactly sure what it looks like. But we can make objective comparisons of existing structures to bring us closer to our hypothetical paradise. It is not difficult to see that genital mutilation does not lead to greater happiness. Or that the forcing others to be illiterate will not lead to a productive, satisfied society. These are objective moral comparisons looking for human good and not ethnocentrism. These comparisons should be done through the scientific method to eliminate human bias.

I think the Navajo way of passing on family names is pretty excellent. The western way of patrilineal name inheritance has developed harmful sexual norms. European men were required to enforce strict and limited sexual behavior, because they had to be confident that when they passed their name onto a son there was no mistake of the child’s paternity.  The harmful puritan sexual paranoia and the remnants that continue today could have been avoided if we had used the morally superior Navajo way. It is pretty obvious who a child’s mother is. Cultural sexual norms would have been less oppressive to our humanity. It is not difficult to objectively critique ourselves. Searching across the world; taking the morally superior and rejecting the destructive.

There is more than one path toward the point of moral perfection. Our cultures can be different and remain on an equal moral ground. Our wide human diversity can all fit inside the point. I want to separate equal cultural norms with dysfunctional moral mores. But we should not excuse obvious tangents and blatant directional errors toward the moral point. This is not ethnocentrism. I will not refrain from attacking cultures that violate human rights in order to avoid offense. I will call out harmful moral structures for what they are; irrational, dogmatic, and not based off of a desire for maximum good. We cannot have world peace until everyone adopts a logical, rational, universal morality.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Absolute Religious Morality

The solution to morality’s incredible complexity is not to simplify and dumb down. Ignoring morality’s vast profoundness is a massive error. It would be nice if everything was absolute; if there were really black and white moral principles and ethics, but the high deviation of social moral norms tells us that absolute morality is wishful thinking.  I certainly share this wish, we would have less moral conflict, conflict in general really, and I wouldn’t have to think and write so much about this stuff, giving me more time to sell drugs, and sacrifice animals or whatever else we atheists do. But wishful thinking is not a logical argument; religion’s simplified morality is utterly wrong.
Religion became permanently frozen in the archaic Bronze Age with the Ten Commandments.  The Ten Commandments are an absolute joke as a moral guide. These ten rules stand above all other arbitrary religious restriction, because God himself felt they were important enough to physically write them on stone. Just think what good would have been possible for an omniscient creator. Think of all the unjustifiable crimes that could have been outlawed; genocide, slavery, rape, torture, cruelty, and human sacrifice. What a different story the bible would have been.

But no, instead Yahweh wasted four of the ten rules on his own vanity. Four rules for a God that can’t be harmed. Four rules wasted that could have done so much good for a morally primitive culture. God does not want us saying OMG, but sacrificing Isaac is cool. God cannot accept being a number two god, but raping your daughter is justifiable. Yahweh likes it when we take a day off to worship him, but stoning others for minor offenses was not worth his time to stop.

The next six are barely acceptable, only because some of the time lying, stealing, and murder do cause objective harm. However, war can be justifiable, deceiving to protect others is good, and stealing to feed your starving family is probably the right thing to do. But unfortunately consequentialist morality is too advanced for a barbaric god. If you are hiding children in your house, and lied to the nice Nazis, Yahweh is fucking pissed, and will get his nice chosen people to disembowel you or something.

The Ten Commandments is not only a failure of crappy rules, but is immoral for what hypothetical Yahweh did not say. This is a different argument from “why bad things happen?” because Yahweh is intervening in our world. The cop-out of God standing back to protect free will holds even less ground ; he is directly responsible for the moral code. Any harm that comes immediately after is a failure of the Hebrew God.

Wash your hands, sickness is actually caused by bacteria and viruses not evil spirits, and different genders are equal, don’t treat woman like shit. Do not worry so much about crimes without victims, tolerate others with different beliefs, do not go to war for stupid theology reasons; would be a few of the things that I would have thrown down to prevent future harm. But Yahweh did not, and the mass human suffering that has resulted from the inadequate Ten Commandments is 100 percent his fault. He chose to get involved with our world, and he did a shitty job.

If Mount Sinai was just like any bible or religious teaching; my logical objections would still stand, but I would not be as angry. The Ten Commandments are taught to children as an absolute moral guide, it guides political leaders on the extreme right in our government, and there are still representations of it in government buildings; it affects me! The simplified morality shown in the Ten Commandments is used to make other moral decisions. Abortion is wrong black and white, cause god says so, homosexuality is wrong cause it’s a principle in the bible. No moral reasoning is being taught or used; black and white rules are simply regurgitated.

I do not understand why religions aversion to change is seen as a positive quality to religious people. We advance, we improve, and we increase our ability in moral understanding. Why do religions suppress this? To be fair, I do not think they really do because they will defend and rationalize biblical atrocities. This shows that moral reasoning interprets the bible, not the other way around, but my argument still stands because they think that the bible determines morality, and many theists mirror their judgment from it.

Please! We as human beings must advance our moral capacity. Religion does not have it right. It is simplified, black and white, and absolute. This simplification has done harm and is still currently harming others. The fear of moral relativism is irrational. Human beings in general want to be moral; we want to minimize harm and do good. Moral relativism is not a weak excuse to justify harming others. We need to break away from religion’s moral monopoly to begin our long, difficult, journey toward moral perfection.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Useless and Abstract God Concept

The word “God” is tricky and can cause complications for both theists and atheist. It is an abstract concept without any solid definitions backing it up. It can be used for pantheism like Einstein, as a sense of wonder and immensity in the universe as for Stephen Hawking, or as the personal, loving caring God of monotheists. My concept of “God” is merely an idea, a social concept, but all of us are burdened with the broad inaccurate word, “God,” making our speech clumsy.

 Atheists deny the existence of “God.” But since the concept of God is so broad and abstract, I cannot logically deny all of these versions of God. Some of these new sacred canopies respond to the powerful force of empiricism by creating a God concept that is unfalsifiable.  Useful scientific theories must be falsifiable; there must be some kind of reality check. I cannot deny the existence of Bertrand Russell’s orbiting teapot. I cannot deny Pantheism or Deism and if everyone in our world had a belief like this, I would not be an active atheist. I would still think that some are inconsistent with reality, but these beliefs currently do little harm. But I can logically deny the personal, loving, powerful entity that directly interacts with our reality; the way monotheists define God.

One important step on my way out of religion and theism (I was raised Mormon) was Karen Armstrong’s book The History of God. She describes how people’s perception of God has changed drastically over time. Revision to the God concept was based on popularity, force, and theological debate, but it was never consistent for more than 300 years. Karen Armstrong was once a catholic nun, now she remains a theist; but barely. Her version of God is so diluted, reduced and non-personal that Richard Dawkins remarked that if she would describe god that way to any church congregation, they would call her an Atheist. Dawkins said, “They would be right.”

It is not useful to use these definitions of God. I do not care what a bunch of specialized theologians have come up with about Gods “true” nature. I care about the way average Americans and theists relate to the social concept of God.  I care about the way this harms, emotional abuses, and intellectually crushes average worshipers.

But while I deny the existence of a physical entity in our physical universe, God is real in a social sense. This god has real observable effects in my life and in my world. This concept has become real through social use. I have a few friends who fall into this unfalsifiable abstract god definition category. I complain about fundamental religions by saying that “God” expects this or says that. They will correct me by saying, “No, they think that is God. They think that that is what God is like, but they are wrong. I have the true understanding of God.” I think it is ironic that an atheist has a more useful, and concrete concept of God that has more of a basis for reality and objective evidence.

Don't edit this for your broadcast 
so it looks like I'm yelling, 'I killed
 Earl Milford!'-Gob Bluth 
There is nothing illogical about me and other atheists attacking “God” or being angry at “God.” God is real (I better not see that quote out of context somewhere). God affects my life; this social concept passes laws that affect me and attempt to influence my behavior. The American God is a real objective force, and I will write and be angry to defend myself and others from its harm.