Good and Evil vs Well-Being

In his book, The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris asks a provocative question:

What would our world be like if we ceased to worry about “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “evil” and simply acted so as to maximize well-being, our own that that of others? Would we lose anything important?

Surly the strongest objection to Harris’s proposal would come from the religious. Based on my own experience in the evangelical church, I know they would protest that a focus on well-being alone would cause us to miss a relationship with God, which is based on faith, and we would be deaf to those moral truths which are spiritually discerned.

I have already written a post on why I am profoundly skeptical of “spiritual discernment” as a means of discovering truth. I would add to it this thought: if we humans are equipped with an antenna that receives spiritual insights from a supernatural being, it has proven — proven — to be so unreliable as to be useless.

Aside from the fact that the world’s “great faiths” are mutually exclusive, I consider the spiritually discerned “truths” that have been promulgated in my own, evangelical tradition. These would include everything from statements that the Earth was created in 4004 BC to firm announcements that it would end in 2011 AD (as well as by any number of other dates that have passed unremarkably into history). Between those dates, spiritual discernment in its strongest form, direct revelation, has led us to commit genocide and rape, endorse slavery, and even discriminate against the handicapped.

Can we be honest and admit that spiritual discernment does not work?

If you wish to attract people to faith, consider Pope Francis. Although a man of faith, his main focus is on the temporal well-being of the poor and marginalized. Paradoxically, he has done more to attract people to the Catholic faith than his predecessor, who was more focused on what was unique about the faith itself (i.e., its dogmas).

My answer to Sam Harris’s question is that the interests of both the secular and religious would be better-served if we were to focus on universally recognized measures of well-being rather than our own ideas of right and wrong. What do you think?

Faith-Based Morality

It’s an old question, but still a good one: If God were to command you to do something evil, would you obey?

“But he would never ask me to do anything evil,” you say. “That’s a stupid, hypothetical question. Such a thing could never happen.”

Some people are convinced otherwise. Let’s remember what happened just last week.

Herbert and Catherine Schaible

Herbert and Catherine Schaible, a couple in my home state of Pennsylvania, were sentenced to prison because they had refused medical care for their 8-month-old son, Brandon, who then died. “We believe in divine healing, that Jesus shed blood for our healing and that he died on the cross to break the devil’s power,” the boy’s father had said.

The kicker is, he didn’t say that about Brandon. He said it last year after another one of their children had just died in similar circumstances!

The Schaibles were sincerely convinced that The Right Thing to Do was to pray for their son and entrust him to Jesus, the Great Physician. They had dozens of Bible verses to prove it. They were so convinced that they did it a second time, even after an epic fail the first time.

What could the Schaibles have been thinking?? I have a pretty good idea.

You’re no doubt familiar with the story of Abraham and Isaac. God demanded of Abraham that he sacrifice his son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. Although God had promised to give Abraham many descendants through Isaac, Abraham was willing to obey God and kill his son. Only an angel’s intervention at the last moment kept the knife from plunging into Isaac’s heart.

So what was Abraham thinking?? The Bible actually tells us, and it’s very simple.

Hebrews 11:17-19 says that Abraham believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead. For his tremendous faith, Abraham makes it into the Faith Hall of Fame, as the catalog of believers in Hebrews 11 is sometimes called. This man who was willing to kill his own son and trust God for the outcome is upheld as an example for us all.

I don’t know whether the episode of Abraham and Isaac actually happened, but the Schaibles’ did, and theirs is very much in the faith-filled spirit of Abraham.

This is the problem with faith-based morality. The more divorced from reality it is, the higher it is exalted. The prologue to the Faith Hall of Fame says that faith is “assurance about what we do not see.” In other words, it is being sure of something without evidence. The more sure you are, based on as little evidence as possible, the better.

By design, faith-based anything (morality or anything else) has no check based on observable outcomes. To the extent that there are checks, we are not talking about faith, but about its opposite, namely skepticism.

Returning to the question at the top of the post, the Bible-follower must answer, “Yes, I would do something evil if God told me to” and he could not claim that such things don’t happen.

Most of us never hear God’s voice telling us to kill our children. But how about simply hating on people?

Another item in last week’s news was the Arizona legislature passing a bill that would allow businesses to refuse service to homosexuals, if the business-owners had religious objections. You can guess which way the lawmakers on the Religious Right voted. All but three Republicans voted for the bill; all the Democrats voted against it. This is faith-based morality at work.

(If you think that owners of businesses that are open to the public have a right to turn away homosexuals, what would you say about business owners who have religious convictions against mixed-race couples? Many people had those convictions just a couple of generations ago, based on their sincere reading of the Bible. There are still some hold-outs. Some of them probably own restaurants. Should they be allowed to refuse service to mixed-race couples?)

I’ve heard many times that those of us who are secular have no basis for morality. Be that as it may, we have all observed how faith-based morality can run amok, ending not only in medical neglect of children or discrimination, but in jihad and Inquisitions. (Sorry to trot out those cliche examples, but they are applicable.)

As I’ve started to outline in the last two posts, there is an alternative: morality based on the well-being of conscious creatures. I contend that this is a safer bet.

Of course, secular morality runs the risk of missing what may only be observable through the “eyes of faith.” I’ve addressed that in my post, Spiritual Discernment, but I’ll say more next time.

The Bad Life, the Good Life, and Moral Realism

When I was in high school, my grandparents took me on a trip to the American Southwest to attend a Quaker retreat. (These were the same long-suffering grandparents who took me to the eclipse that I missed while standing right under it.) I remember them asking what I thought of medical missionaries like Albert Schweitzer, who devoted his life to relieving the suffering of the poor.  A particularly obnoxious evangelical at the time, I answered that any missionary who merely did “good works” but did not concern himself with the saving of souls was wasting his time.

To me, good works did not even count unless performed in the context of glorifying God or leading people to him.

And then there’s the matter of motive. I recall learning at the summer camp where I became a Christian that even our good works are actually selfish, for our motive is to make ourselves feel good.

As the Bible says, “Our righteousness is as filthy rags.”

My earlier views embarrass me now, but at least I got one thing right: moral truths really do exist. I remain convinced of this even though I have cut the line to the Christian faith that was once my anchor. Why do I still believe in right and wrong? If morality is not grounded in glorifying God, how can it objectively exist?

In The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris invites us to imagine two lives: a Bad one endured by a refugee of guerrilla war in Africa whose husband and children have been hacked to death by machetes; and a Good one enjoyed in the midst of loving family, rewarding work, and excellent health.

Surely, he argues, someone who seeks to move as many people as possible from the Bad Life to the Good is on a better moral track than someone who seeks to immiserate all and sundry. And since what makes a life Good or Bad is nothing more nor less than the brain state of the person living it, and brain state is a physical fact about the world, we can see that morality is ultimately anchored in hard facts. Moral facts are exactly as real as facts about our blood pressure or oxytocin levels.

There are many possible objections to this argument, and I’ll consider some in upcoming posts. For now, I’ll illustrate with what Dr. Harris would say to a hard-core evangelical like my former self.

A theist, he says, merely expands the notion of brain-state to include God’s brain. Thus, moral realism continues to be grounded on the brain-states of conscious beings.

One can do similar jiu jitsu to accommodate an afterlife: simply expand the time-span for measuring brain state.

Having subscribed to both secular and religious morality at different times in my life, I confess that I find Dr. Harris’s attempts to reconcile them to be slightly artificial. Although including God’s brain-state and an eternal time-frame in one’s considerations may reconcile the approaches in theory, the theist’s tools for learning about the unseen are so different from the ways we learn about each other here on Earth, that they feel like completely different systems in practice.

Maybe that will be a good place to begin the next post: contrasting faith-based morality with morality based on elevating the well-being of conscious, mortal creatures.

In the meantime, how about you? Do you believe that moral facts are just as real as physical ones? Do you buy Sam Harris’s argument that they are related?

The Moral Landscape

The Moral LandscapeI almost didn’t read Sam Harris’s book, The Moral Landscape, because I could not imagine it had anything worthwhile to say.

The book gets its title from the idea that various moral viewpoints are like different locations on a landscape. Moral systems that are associated with greater well-being are the higher elevations; those that bring misery are the valleys. For example, the moral system that characterizes a typical, first-world democracy, while not perfect, is certainly at a higher elevation than the brand of morality to which the Taliban would subjugate us all. Our job, says Harris, is to get to the highest ground possible.

I’ve always been skeptical of utilitarianism — the idea of “the greatest good for the greatest number.” First of all, how do you establish what is “good”? And even if you can measure the good that someone experiences, how do you combine those measurements across several billion people to produce a meaningful statistic that lets you make a moral decision? And let’s not even talk about the conundrums exposed by trolley problems! Before reading his book, I thought Dr. Harris’s idea had to be just another cul-de-sac in the utilitarian suburb.

My own view, which I outlined last fall, is that humanity’s competing moral systems are nothing more than memes, but, happily, the memes that cause their adherents to flourish will eventually dominate.

It turns out that Dr. Harris’s ideas are compatible with that view, but he strengthens it with a dose of moral realism. I would summarize his argument thus:

  1. Moral values must ultimately be about the well-being of conscious organisms (including God, if you will). If there were a value that had absolutely no impact on anyone’s consciousness, we would by definition have no reason to value it.
  2. One’s well-being is embodied in one’s brain state.
  3. We have thus made a link between morality and physical fact.
  4. Physical facts are the domain of science.
  5. Science can therefore help us find moral truths.

As Dr. Harris puts it, “morality should be considered an undeveloped branch of science.” (Just to be clear, Dr. Harris, a neuroscientist, is not saying that we should seek answers to all moral questions by attaching electrodes to people’s scalps.)

In the next several posts, I’ll relate some points that were most thought-provoking for me such as…

  • The Bad Life versus the Good Life.
  • The disastrous consequences of separating facts and values, as practiced by the Left.
  • Ditto, when done by the Right.
  • An analogy between moral health and physical health.
  • How much respect should we give other views?
  • Have we flown the perch built by evolution?
  • How does an afterlife figure in all this?
  • Can suffering be good?
  • What about religion?
  • Hume’s is/ought distinction.
  • How a barbarous act by one person  becomes respected if it is a cultural practice.
  • Might there be more than one answer?
  • The strange case of the Dobu Islanders.
  • If we were to concern ourselves with maximizing well-being rather than with right and wrong, what would we lose?
  • The most important task facing humanity in the twenty-first century.

There’s actually a lot more, but that’s all I’ll promise for now. Stay tuned!

Would you vote for this man?

In 1988 and again in 1992, David Duke ran for president. He was a handsome man with qualities that appealed to many, but his campaigns went nowhere. Even people who liked his economic ideas could not bring themselves to vote for him. Why not? He had only one fault:

He had been a Grand Wizard in the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

David Duke

Now imagine a politician who believes that every African-American should be lynched. “Every Negro on Earth deserves to be beaten, tortured, stripped and hung,” he says.

Even if you agreed with everything else he stood for, would you consider voting for such a man?

I think you’ll agree that it’s possible for a politician to have a single flaw that is so egregious that it totally disqualifies him as a leader.

When we vote, we vote for the whole package. Nobody is perfect, but it won’t do to say, “I know he promised to torture to death every black person on Earth, but I voted for him because of his economic policies.”

If you are an evangelical Christian, I have bad news for you. You have already voted for such a man.

In fact, you have voted for him because you think he’s utterly perfect.

His name is Jesus.

“Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

“Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked.

“Yes,” they replied.  (Matthew 13:47-51)

Although this passage and others like it consign the wicked to hell, you have interpreted “wicked” to mean “unbelievers,” probably due to passages like these:

He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you. (2 Thessalonians 1:8-10)

But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. (Revelation 21:8)

In other words, “If you don’t agree with us, you will be lynched for all eternity.”

Chances are good that the church you have joined has chosen to emphasize the doctrine of hell by including it in your Statement of Faith.

We believe in the resurrection of both the saved and the lost; they that are saved unto the resurrection of life and they that are lost unto the resurrection of damnation. (National Association of Evangelicals Statement of Faith as of 1/27/2014)

Depending on how seriously your church takes its Statement of Faith, it may be that you cannot join the church without agreeing to every point including this one.

You know that it can’t possibly be just to punish someone for all eternity for sins committed in a comparative blink of an eye. You know that no injustice could possibly be more egregious. If a politician were to advocate a penalty of everlasting torture for even the smallest offense, you would never vote for him.

Why do you still vote for Jesus?

McDonald’s and the Act of Uniformity

Have you ever heard laments like these?

With Wal-Mart forcing the mom-and-pops out of business, the whole country is becoming the same. Soon there will be no such thing as regional character.

Exports from the American entertainment industry are slowly making the rest of the world just like us.

There are 3,000 McDonald’s restaurants in Beijing! American culture is polluting the world.

(There’s even a word for that last one: McDonaldization!)

As communication and trade increase, it is inevitable that ideas and culture will diffuse like dye through water. It can seem that where we used to have enchanting red liquid over here and emerald green liquid over there, now we just have a brown puddle.

Not so fast. I suggest that this so-called homogenization is actually bringing us diversity, not uniformity.

The subject came to mind when a book called Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices happened to catch my eye this morning. I Googled around about its author, Thomas Brooks, and discovered that he was a “non-conformist” Puritan minister. What that means, among other things, was that he ran afoul of the Act of Uniformity passed by the English Parliament in 1662. Although he was a devout Christian, he apparently didn’t pray in the right way, or believe the right things, and he lost his job — he and about 2,000 others.

Combined with other Acts passed at about the same time, the Act of Uniformity not only  restricted church offices to conforming Anglicans, but likewise limited opportunities in the military and government.

I suppose that was better than a few years earlier, when people of the wrong Christian faith could be executed, but still…

Obviously the England of 1662 was still rife with in-tribe / out-tribe psychology. That’s hardly surprising: most people’s knowledge of Catholics, the French, and other out-tribers was limited to ugly rumor.

Today, thanks to the internet and the dreaded globalization, we are no longer as xenophobic. To be sure, we still trust our own kind more than outsiders, but the situation is not nearly as bad as it used to be. Dealing with people around the globe has taught many of us that people on the other side of the Earth can be good people, too. Beyond that, we are coming to appreciate and welcome each others’ cultures.

Last November, my software team in Massachusetts celebrated a small Thanksgiving feast over video-conference with the other half of our team, located in India. At Christmas, we exchanged gifts.

As people are being mixed together more, we’re also discovering that our old prejudices against foreigners, people of lower classes, people of higher classes, homosexuals, people with disabilities — really prejudices against anyone — just don’t make sense.

It’s hard to imagine, but just 100 years ago we had a president (Woodrow Wilson) who said, “The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation … until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the southern country.” And that was from a Northern progressive! He was one of the liberal ones!

How have we freed ourselves from such insanity? Only as commerce and the internet have thrown us together.

Perhaps the world is becoming more homogenized, but only in a coarse-grained way. At the fine-grained level where people live, we are more diverse than ever.

How I Missed a Total Eclipse while Standing Right Under It

When my children were younger, they often asked, “Daddy, tell us a story of when you were a little kid.” Here’s one I wish I had told more often.

When I was twelve years old, my grandparents took me to see a total eclipse of the sun (map here). It was a pretty big deal. Not only was there going to be an eclipse, but a rocket would be launched to study it. All this was to take place in the neighboring state of Delaware, so off we went.

A large crowd had gathered to see eclipse and rocket. The authorities gave everyone a small piece of dark plastic framed in white cardboard through which we could see the eclipse without being struck blind. (The danger of looking at the eclipse without eye protection was firmly impressed on me!)

Being a 12-year-old boy who grew up during the decade that saw the first man walk on the moon, I was just as interested in the rocket as in the eclipse. What’s more, I knew that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and I was determined to capture the rocket and the eclipse on film.

I had my Kodak Instamatic and a plan. When the eclipse started, I would first wait for the rocket to launch, and get a picture of it. Second, I would put the plastic shield over my camera and photograph the eclipse. (If the shield was necessary for my eyes, it must be necessary for the camera, too, right?) Finally, I would look through the shield myself. My plan ensured that I would capture everything on film so I could enjoy it forever, as well as see the eclipse in person.

A long and agitated wait…

The sky darkened and I prepared my camera.

Everyone was looking through their plastic shields, but not me! I didn’t want to miss that rocket! I knew it would only be streaking skyward for a few seconds, so I kept my finger on the button of my camera and did not allow myself to be distracted by anything else.

It was growing darker by the second, but still no rocket. Evidently that rocket was not going up until the eclipse was total, but I continued to wait anxiously.

Finally, the rocket  launched. Snap! I got my picture. The eclipse was already a little more than half-way over, and I still had parts two and three of my plan ahead of me.

When you’re an excited, 12-year-old boy under time pressure at the event of a lifetime, it’s surprising how long it can take to position a one-inch-square piece of plastic in front of the tiny lens of a cheap camera and take a picture. Especially when you’re not sure just where to point your camera because said piece of plastic is supposed to be covering your eye as well as the camera. And especially when it’s hard to hold the plastic perfectly over the lens as you move the camera into its uncertain position. And most especially when you’re only going to get one chance.

After much fumbling around, I finally took what I thought might be a picture of the eclipse.

The eclipse had already been at its midpoint when the rocket had launched. By the time I got my picture of the eclipse, it was nearly over. When I finally put the camera down and looked through the plastic myself, it was over.

I had missed it!!

The weeping and gnashing of teeth that shall arise from people who have missed their chance to go to heaven will have nothing on the wailing that came from the 12-year-old boy who missed that eclipse. Theirs will supposedly be because they had been too focused on passing pleasures while neglecting their futures; mine was the opposite: I had been so focused on photographs for the future that I had missed the present.

When my pictures came back from the developer, the rocket was indistinct and the eclipse didn’t look like much at all. I had prepared and sacrificed for … nothing.

I don’t even remember when I threw the photos away.

Many people think that unless life goes on forever, it has no purpose and there’s no reason to enjoy it. Try telling that to a 12-year-old boy who missed the present because he was so obsessed with a future that never came.

After the eclipse, my grandfather told me that he had stolen a quick look at the sun with his naked eye.

He had not gone blind.