Tag Archives: Ethics

Speaking of us little devils…

After reading and posting a comment on Greta Christina’s 9 Questions Asked of Atheists… I have just caught up with Mano Singham’s The Morality of Atheists. And Mano’s post is about another post, How a Huguenot philosopher realised that atheists could be virtuous, by an assistant professor of philosophy, Michael Hickson. I’m a history lover so Hickson’s opener grabbed me:

For centuries in the West, the idea of a morally good atheist struck people as contradictory. Moral goodness was understood primarily in terms of possessing a good conscience, and good conscience was understood in terms of Christian theology. Being a good person meant hearing and intentionally following God’s voice (conscience). Since an atheist cannot knowingly recognise the voice of God, he is deaf to God’s moral commands, fundamentally and essentially lawless and immoral. But today, it is widely – if not completely – understood that an atheist can indeed be morally good. How did this assumption change? And who helped to change it?

One of the most important figures in this history is the Huguenot philosopher and historian, Pierre Bayle (1647-1706). His Various Thoughts on the Occasion of a Comet (1682), nominally dedicated towards taking down erroneous and popular opinions about comets, was a controversial bestseller, and a foundational work for the French Enlightenment. In it, Bayle launches a battery of arguments for the possibility of a virtuous atheist.

So if the same interests you and is new to you then you have the links above.

One more from Hickson’s article:

Moral action, which concerns outward behaviour and not inward belief, is motivated by passions, not theories. Pride, self-love, the desire for honour, the pursuit of a good reputation, the fear of punishment, and a thousand customs picked up in one’s family and country, are far more effective springs of action than any theoretical beliefs about a self-created being called God, or the First Cause argument. Bayle writes:

Thus we see that from the fact that a man has no religion it does not follow necessarily that he will be led to every sort of crime or to every sort of pleasure. It follows only that he will be led to the things to which his temperament and his turn of mind make him sensitive.


Head, Heart and the Death Penalty

Or alternatively,

The Cerebral Cortex, the Amygdala, and the Death Penalty

I aspire to embrace humane values and to cage my reptilian impulses to bare tooth and claw. So when I was watching a recent episode of the TV historical drama Poldark and witnessed the death of perhaps its most in-your-face vile and repulsive villains and felt nothing but a sense of pure joy and total satisfaction I had to pause and think.

An online review said it all:

Ossie Whitworth finally got his comeuppance, dragged squealing into the woods after being set upon by Rowella’s husband, and killed in a suitably embarrassing, brutal fashion.

It’s not usually nice to see a Poldark death, but that was particularly satisfying. The greasy, toe-sucking wrong-‘un, so beautifully brought to screen by Christian Brassington, was finally undone by his enormous sexual appetite. And his horse.

. . . . There was a fight, only for Whitworth’s horse to bolt and his lifeless body to eventually ending up bruised, battered and (probably for the first time in his terrible life) limp.

Good riddance to this vile creature of the TV screen!

Who could not (at least inwardly) cheer!

So I had to ask myself what happened to my aspirations to human values vis à vis the death penalty.

Oh how shallow is our ethical progress. Give me a different set of parameters, a pre-arranged set of cerebral inputs, and I’m right back to the barbarism of the theatre.

I see now that the Pope has come out against the death penalty, at last, and has confessed that the new ethic is grounded in a new set of cerebral inputs relating to gospel hermeneutics:

The church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.

A related statement expands on that

If, in fact, the political and social situation of the past made the death penalty an acceptable means for the protection of the common good, today the increasing understanding that the dignity of a person is not lost even after committing the most serious crimes.

How historically contingent is our moral progress, and how fragile given our proximity to the end of organized human life.


Evolved Morality

I  loved this video clip of Frans de Waal’s talk, Moral Behavior in Animals. (It was recently linked on Jerry Coyne’s Evolution is True blog.) It demonstrates that more animals than humans have evolved moral attributes of empathizing with others, offering others consolation, “prosocial” tendencies such as caring for the welfare of others, and a sense of fairness. The talk begins by balancing the themes we used to hear so often about our nearest animal relatives being so aggressive and territorial by showing that they also “believe in” reconciling after fights.

Or if you are short of time and want to jump to the funniest part where we see outrage over an unfair deal . . . . .

When it is wrong to be right as a Christian or other God-fearing believer?

I’m not saying it is right to be wrong, either, by the way. The following is a stream of consciousness thing, thinking aloud . . . I have never really tested the thoughts before to know if they do hold.

I have sometimes said that I see the mainstream orthodox versions of religious faiths as sharing a responsibility for the extremists associated with their brand of religion: the murderers of abortion doctors and manslaughterers of those needing medical care and murderers of those of the wrong ethnicity, faith, politics and real-estate. I still think that is the case.

At the same time I have found myself feeling a tad uncomfortable working with mainstream religious groups in social justice causes. Not that I dislike the people involved. Many of them are fine and sincere and good company and it’s encouraging to see them doing more than just praying.

But there’s still something wrong and a line in Gilad Atzmon’s The Wandering Who? caught my attention and reminded me of part of why even mainstream religion is not a healthy thing and why its perpetuation gives respectability to the same ways of thinking and valuing that can be turned so easily to criminality.

The ethical subject is engaged in a constant dynamic ethical exercise rather than a symbolic acceptance of a given rule. (p. 63)

That is, when we live by principles, or rules, that are inculcated or imbibed from a source external to us, we are not living a truly ethical life. It comes down to the old adage, Principles or People. If we choose to live by external sets of precepts we are failing to the ethical life of self-reflection that leads us into identifying ourselves with fellow-humanity and acting accordingly.

Likewise mainstream religion gives social respectability to faith in the occult. Occult technically means things hidden, such a spirits or a God. Once we accept such a faith as socially respectable there remains no way to control the nature of some of the gods that some people will embrace. We are giving respectability to irrational beliefs that can have dire consequences.

What I found slightly discomforting about our mainstream religious partners who joined with us in some of our activism was that they were clearly acting “as Christians” because it was their “faith” to do so, and their obligation to “perform good works”. There seemed to be a certain patronizing at work. It was as if they were needed in order to be sure the genuine ethical message was broadcast. We were simply doing it because we felt and cared for those we were trying to help. We had no thought of being “a light” to “witness” to “God’s/our love”. That was self-serving bullshit and in a sense hypocritical.


What is wrong with Peter Singer’s ethical views?

Peter Singer lecturing at Washington Universit...
Image via Wikipedia

I can understand people being shocked by some of Peter Singer‘s conclusions, but I am a little surprised that certain academics (professional thinkers) have reacted so strongly against his views. Many critics strike me as falling into the logical fallacy of arguing from adverse consequences. (The argument is false because I don’t like its conclusion.)

Singer does not argue, from what I recall of my reading of any of his books, that abortion, euthenasia or infanticide “the morally right” or “the morally justifiable” thing for people “to practise”. It strikes me as a gross misunderstanding of his arguments to claim that he argues that a cockroach is of more value than some human lives. I don’t have my Singer books with me now, but none of those ideas are what I took away from reading any of them. Did I miss something?

Where I understand his analysis takes us is to realizing that the value of another person’s life is multidimensional. There is the innate value of a person’s own life-quality and potential. But there is also the value and meaning that each person has for others, especially family. The love a parent bears for a child, the supreme value a parent places in a child, makes infanticide unthinkable for most, for example.

And we are above all by nature social animals. Everyone loves and values the cuteness of infants. So even in those tragic circumstances where parents do not want their children, a child is not unwanted or unloved.

The value of Peter Singer’s work is, to my thinking, in helping us see ourselves for what we are — one of many species inhabiting this planet, and that there is a lot more in common among a range of social animals than we have often cared to admit. Other scientists of consciousness have likewise shown that consciousness is not something that is an either-or phenomenon, but something we see in varying degrees throughout different species.

I think some of the more extreme criticisms of Peter Singer’s conclusions actually demonstrate the strength of our social nature. Humans as societies, not just as parents, do care for infants.

At the same time, advances in biology must necessarily challenge our understanding of ourselves, and not only the values we impute into each other, but the value we place on ourselves within the context of all sentient species.

My reading of Singer’s discussions on ethics is not so black-and-white, nor even contrary to normal human compassions, than some critics seem to suggest.

Image via Wikipedia

The ethics of belief

Notes from Peter Singer’s The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush (pp. 114-119)

What are we to think, ethically, of someone who bases his or her life on unquestioning faith, of someone for whom religious belief is “an unquestioned foundation that will not shift”? read more »

The ethics of Peter Singer and Jesus compared


Peter Singer is a moral philosopher currently based at Princeton University (see his Princeton homepage). He is most famous for his pioneering work on animal liberation but has advanced his utilitarian philosophy into a range of other controversial public areas as well. He has expressed disappointment that his arguments for alleviating human misery have been less influential than those he was expressed to reduce animal suffering.

The Singer Solution to World Poverty is a timeless argument, elegant in its simplicity and lacking only in suggestions that are consistent with what people have become habituated to doing and thinking. (And as “Bad” commented, it is essentially a discussion of Peter Unger’s argument in his 1996 Living High and Letting Die.)


I won’t repeat the argument here. It is only the equivalent of a 6 page chapter in his book, Writings on an Ethical Life. It’s readily available to all online.

But let’s compare relatively modern utilitarian ethics (judging an action to be right or wrong according to its consequences) with the ancient ethics of Jesus in relation to the poor. read more »