Thursday, May 31, 2012

Protecting the weak.

This is last (so far) in a series on the roots of Christian Violence. You can find the other parts here. .
The Folly of Appraising Christianity
The Unpayable Debt of Salvation
The Forces of Light and Darkness
There's still one post I intend to write on this topic but its a long time coming.

At first it is impossible to see how sympathy for the weak could itself serve the rise of a violent Christian state.  By identifying with the victims of state violence through their founder, it would be reasonable to expect Christians to be protected from becoming crucifiers themselves. This didn’t happen and this post continues my series attempting to uncover the why of that.

To explain how this transformation from crucified to crucifier is not remarkable but logical requires an understanding of power that is not a natural western understanding. From a western perspective such an understanding of power can seem perplexing and over-sophisticated. I’ve struggled with how to express that sophistication in this blog. Furthermore I have reached outside of my own familial and cultural upbringing to form the thoughts in this post. I still feel unease and uncertainty in reading over this.

I believe this particular problem of an unsophisticated appreciation of power is broader than Christianity. It is there across all western philosophy. My way of understanding the problem is that Western philosophy springs from the Greeks, and Greek philosophy came out of Ancient Greek culture. Ancient Greek culture was heroic; cunning, wisdom and courage were the merits of heroes who brought those gifts to bear on the world. Ancient Greek theatre knew how to express the paradoxes of the heroic path through tragedy. However Plato despised the theatre, and Greek philosophy declared itself separate from its heroic and poetic past. Rationality was about submitting to universal truth more than the particular observer doing good.

This was a false declaration. Rationality and western philosophy have remained concerned about reforming the world to fit intellectual virtues or virtues in general. Principally this is through the merits of philosophical “heroes” like Socrates. Socrates’ willingly died for a higher truth. In fact his state execution makes him into a clear forerunner of Jesus and certainly would have helped Greeks understand Jesus if nothing more. The connection was made in a recent performance of Godspell I saw which quoted the following;
 “Wherefore, O men of Athens,
I say to you:
Therefore, acquit me or not
But whichever you do
I shall never alter my ways
Never adjust my approach to this maze
Never reform til the end of my days
Even if I have to die many times.”
        Socrates speech in Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord, Godspell Lyrics.*

Unfortunately Western philosophy has also tended to deny its clearly heroic agenda.  Most western philosophy has privelaged objectivity and rationality and retained a distance from drama and narrative. In such a world view the observer is not just non-heroic but irrelevant.  Consequently it has taken Western philosophy a longer time to re-evaluate its problems with its own heroes power. Post-structural Feminist theories of violence go some way to doing this.

Post structuralism was/is an attempt to step back from how we conceptually structure the world around us - and pull such structures apart. Post-structural Feminist theories of violence recognized that victim, perpetrator and saviour all represent symbiotic roles. In particular you can’t have a saviour without the other two. In discussion amongst women particularly it was recognised that “good” men who protected women from “bad” men were in their own way disabling women. In fact “good” men were often devoting more attention to controlling women for their protection than confronting “bad” men directly. This made sense once the co-operative nature of saviour and perpetrator (or hero and villain) was exposed.

Feminism however is itself still a heroic exercise. It still engages in the world to bring rightness forth through intellectual virtue. In fact women can sometimes feel bullied by feminist rhetoric as it plays the role of saviour and requires them to play victim. Hence, I’m not sure we can complete this re-evaluation of heroism from within western philosophy.

I expect many readers to be thinking that unless we want to reform the world to fit intellectual virtues (such as through just laws or a “true” science or a logical ethics) there can be no philosophy. To many of us westerners contemporary philosophical critiques of heroism in philosophy such as moral relativism or postmodernism can feel paralyzing and de-motivating. Further it’s questionable how much they actually escape the heroic dynamic. Even these anti-truth ideologies are still trying to rescue us from wrong-headedness (often zealously).

I think we can find answers to the heroic problem of Western philosophy more easily outside of its scope. In particular I want to recommend Daoism. If we understand much of the violence of Christendom as the abuses of moral government- that is the imposition of a moral order via the state – then Daoism is the perfect place to turn. This is because Daoism is largely a critique of Confucianism which is all about the legitimacy and feasibility of moral government.

Daoism makes the claim, at first astonishing, that the more we try to impose justice or beneficence on the world the more we do harm. This is not a claim from celestial authority but from observation which the Book of Chuang Tzu illustrates beautifully:

To guard yourself against thieves who slash open suitcases, rifle through bags and smash open boxes, one should strap the bags and lock them. The world at large knows that this shows wisdom. However when a master thief comes, he simply picks up the suitcase, lifts the bag and carries of the box and runs away with them, his only concern being whether the straps and locks will hold! In such an instance what seems like wisdom on the part of the owner surely turns out to have been of use only to the master thief…..
….The more sages are brought forth to rule the world, the more this helps people like Robber Chih. Create weights and measures to judge by and people will steal by weight and measure, create balances and weights and people will steal by balances and weights, create contracts and legal agreements to inspire trust and people will steal by contracts and legal agreements; create benevolence and righteousness to ensure honesty and even in this instance benevolence and righteousness teach them to steal.
How do I know all this?
This one steals a buckle and he is executed, that one steals a country and he becomes a ruler. Yet it is at the gates of rulers that benevolence and righteousness are professed. Surely this is a case of the wisdom of the sages, benevolence and righteousness being stolen?
-          Chapter 10, Broken Suitcases

The above text is pointing out that moral or religious language functions just like the buckles on the suitcase. It might thwart the petty thief who would steal a little but it profits the master thief who would take the whole bag or country or culture. I would consider this a fair depiction of how Christianity as a more moral system could establish a harsher tyranny than its predecessors. The language of sin and God’s law are effective at reducing petty crime but are useful for the perpetration of  great crimes such as the Inquisition.

Rather than fill this post with endless quotes from the book of Chuang Tzu I’ll just urge readers to seek it out. It might be more helpful to leave off an ancient Daoist text anyway because I can find illustrations of its principles in my own life.

Parenting can be a form of “moral government”. Classically the patriarch is supposed to impose moral order on his household and even when the maleness of that role is rejected it is still seen as the adult’s responsibility to rule wisely and justly. However just as the Daoists would imagine, all attempts at parental rules for good bring their harms. For example it’s been important to me to teach my child to express thanks when someone does something for her as a matter of basic manners. As I teach her this because I teach the rule that one should show gratitude I am also inevitably teaching her something else. I am teaching her that she shouldn’t do anything for others without an expectation of gratitude. That’s not so ideal.

A friend of mine who has a teenage child told me they recently asked their family, “Can we try not be so right all the time?” That’s a brilliantly concise summary of the dilemma of moral parenting. The point of a family is not that it operates justly but that it sustains life and shares love. The former can sometimes hinder the latter.

Anyone who has witnessed their pre-school child parenting another younger child knows exactly what I am talking about. At that age your child is a literal and concrete thinker who will pretty much parent the other child into a small cage if not stopped. The brutal reality is however that they are only reflecting our own parenting. They are carrying it to its perfectly logical conclusion. I think this is what logical moral government looks like when there isn’t a pluralistic culture to restrain it; when “the good guys” win.

What then is the point of any parenting you may wonder if it isn’t to be right? I once made the sweeping statement that the young are more interested in being right than the old. A young person replied, “Everyone wants to be right,” as if any alternative was unimaginable, after all no-one wants to be wrong. However happy and healthy are also valid goals. Non-violent may even be a goal in itself. Safe is a perfectly reasonable goal.

In western philosophy our immediate reaction to this is that it is cowardice or selfishness. Longevity and contentment are to be condemned as unworthy goals of spiritual or scientific people. At the end of a recent Australian television debate between Archbishop Pell and Professor Dawkins an intersting question was asked of Dawkins. They wanted to know what Dawkins thought about justifying theism on the basis of its health benefits “even if it is an illusion.” Dawkins called this a trivial question in relation to the more important question of whether God really exists or doesn’t. Pell agreed and added that his life would be “much simpler and much easier” if he wasn’t defending Christian principles but that it’s not about a long stress free life so much as the truth. I wonder if this isn’t a perfect illustration of our problem in Western philosophy. Should we challenge these priorities?

Our life has a boundary but there is no boundary to knowledge,
to use what has a boundary to pursue what is limitless is dangerous,
with this knowledge, if we still go after knowledge we will run into trouble.
Do not do what is good in order to gain praise,
if you do what is bad be sure to avoid the punishment,
Follow the Middle Course, for this is the way to keep yourself together,
to sustain your life, to care for your parents and to live for many years.
-          Chapter 3 The Nurturing of Life

This contrasts sharply with;
 “Do not think that I came to bring peace on Earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:34-39 NASB)

I have always understood this passage as calling us to find eternal life by adhering to that which is eternal and universal truth. This is the path of what Soren Kierkegaard calls the Hero of Faith in Fear and Trembling. This is the Socratic idea of the good life. The consequences of this are not happiness and long life;
Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth I tell you, Nay; but rather division: For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three. (Luke 12:50)

In Daoism all this would be called “the fault of the sage” who “infected all under Heaven with his offer of benevolence and righteousness”. Chuang Tzu would agree with Jesus that this will only lead to unhappy homes and a strife-torn world.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Measure me.

Science can be a powerful trigger word. For some people science evokes a visceral wariness. Their objections are manifold and some I agree with:

  • Science potentially makes objects of study out of everything and everyone. Being an object of study is dehumanizing. Even though it’s perfectly valid to challenge this, our dignity is tied up with being subjects not objects. Maybe we’re not autonomous subjects to the extent we like to think we are but it’s a bitter pill to have thrown down our throats that we’re not.
  • Science (like everything else) is driven politically. Certain groups of people are objects of study more often than others. There is more research into the psychology of people on welfare than the psychology of tax avoiders for example. This makes the dehumanizing effect of science into a weapon. Research knowledge often feels like something taken from the communities who provide it to be used against them; like the science of how to lay out a supermarket for example.
  • Scientific results have such huge ramifications in their areas of policy that they are an obvious site of corruption. It’s been shown (scientifically) that any study with a picture of a brain has more authority than the same study without. Food science is so corrupt at the consumer level that fruit based confectionary is sold to parents using scientific sounding claims of healthiness. That’s a criticism of the abuse of marketing more than a criticism of pure science itself, however the masters of marketing are very clever and the difference can be hard to spot. Is it any wonder we are sick of the sound of science?
  • Science mistakenly produces “real things”. Or rather it produces models but the model is read as some piece of actual discovered reality instead (a process called “reification”). Something like depression is understood as a fixed phenomenon, a cluster of stable traits. Compare that with sadness which is not thought of as anything near as concretely real. Something like “skate punk” or “gender” gets fixed in the same way. This tendency may be resisted by scientists but we the public still respond to the science like this. This causes countless problems because we tend to think of “real things” as resistant to change and having an independent existence. Hence it can sometimes (not always) be a barrier to recovery from depression to actually receive the diagnosis. Similarly by treating gender as independently “real” we then treat atypical gender patterns as something broken inside a person – a gender dysphoria. This is really a criticism of our mind’s prejudices but those prejudices are amplified by scientific terms.

There is another common criticism of science which I strongly disagree with. This is that science is only interested in what can be measured and there are important things beyond our capacity for measurement. I think this criticism dangerously throws out baby with bathwater and I want to write in defense of measurement.

Measurement precedes modern science. It is the building block of careful thinking. When we “take the measure of” something we are engaged in profoundly important activity. We are establishing the worth of a statement. We are qualifying it.

When we reject measurement by entertaining phenomena that can’t be measured or even that shouldn’t be measured, we abandon more than just science. We have stopped caring about the meaning of our words with any degree of precision. That opens the door, the window, even the roof to more bullshit than we can imagine.

Consider if I told you I needed two eggs to make the cake I’m making. You can hear from this that one egg would be too few, three eggs too many; that the number of eggs matters. You can work out if you need to go to the shop to buy more eggs. Underlying all of this is some real concern for the results of our cooking, for our resources and for our effort (or the effort of the chicken).

Imagine if I told you that the cake needs egg but in no way can that egg be measured. I think that this is enough to cast suspicion on whether “needs” is the right word. Perhaps I want you to accept that it’s the principle of egg rather than the amount that matters. Would you wonder if you could save yourself a trip to the shops and just bluff your way through adding the egg? We have entered the land of bullshit and perhaps just saying you added egg would do.

Now I hear you saying (yes, I can hear you through the internet) “That’s all well and good with eggs in a cake but it doesn’t apply to everything. You can’t measure decency or love.” I think that attitude is exactly an open invitation to bullshit where some precision is rather what is needed.

If I say I am a good person then taking a measure of what I mean is a very valuable thing to do. Asking myself to quantify what I am talking about – asking how much time or money do I give to those in need, how much do I help my neighbours, what do I sacrifice for others – gives my statement some actual worth. If I can’t or won’t quantify my goodness then I ought to call my own bullshit. I ought to say I am a good person in a way that might as well be a perfectly ordinary person because there’s no discernible difference.

Similarly it is a perfectly valid and time-honoured exercise to measure a person’s love. If some smooth talker wants to woo me away from my happy home they are going to need to do more than just say they love me “heaps”. They need to lay some measurement on that love by saying they will look after me in my old age or they will take a bullet for me or something similar. Similarly if I want my partner aware that I love her it should be very possible for her to say how and to what extent I do. She should know the measure of my love. The alternative idea - that love is a nebulous, immeasurable quality to a relationship - is possibly the worst kind of bullshit of them all. It allows people to say “but I love you” to their partner while not looking up from a computer game on their partner’s worst day.

This isn't to say that all measurement is good measurement however. It may be that we need to remind ourselves that somethings can't be measured in a monetary amount or in grams or decibels or in any one set of standardized distinctions. My goodness may not be your goodness; my love may not be just like yours. It’s always a very legitimate question to ask as to whether or not something is being properly measured.

It's also important not to be seduced by a measurement that is easy to obtain. It is easy to measure hits on this blog and much harder to measure what inspiration and information my writing provides for readers. The latter is more important to me though. It's true that when we are bombarded by a simple measurement we can take for granted that is the one we should use.

However these concerns shouldn’t lead us to permit concepts that can’t be measured at all. That is effectively the removal of “How much?” or “To what extent?” from our language. These are distinctions that ought to matter. People who want those questions removed are either charlatans or are unwittingly paving the way for charlatans. If they try to sell you something of immeasurable worth, pin them down and ask them the measure of it. If they warn you of immeasurable danger I wouldn't buy their lucky charm.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Raising a person.

The other day I was explaining Buddhism to my four year old child. It was a follow up discussion to a visit to a local Buddhist monastery. I said “Buddha means awake. Buddhists believe that we are still sleeping even when we wake up in the morning. Buddhists also believe it is actually possible to be awake fully. They call someone who wakes up like that a Buddha.”

My daughter said “I don’t believe in that. I believe in God.”

I chose not to say you could possibly believe both. Instead I said “I guess you’re not a Buddhist then,” with what I hope was absolutely no hint of my own preference in the matter.

Then I mentioned something I’d been wanting to express for a while, “I don’t really believe in God myself. At least I don’t believe God is a person that we can talk to or anything like that.”

I’m not exactly sure if that’s how I expressed myself. I was quite nervous actually. My partner and I have been discussing the need to have this conversation soon. We don’t want my daughter to be shocked by my beliefs. We both feel she ought to know why I don’t go to church with her and her mum. We both feel she needs to know the pastor is not the God-expert dispensing God-facts which her Dad should learn.

But she’s four; She doesn’t need to divide the world into the arguments of adults. The last thing she needs is the idea of God as a way of being right or wrong in a contest with others.

My daughter looked at me with eyes that were full of figuring out and said “But God is everywhere.”

I don’t want to fight a theological statement like that from my child. I blew her a kiss and reached out my arms. We started a swinging hug. All kids are whirling dervishes.

I just recalled to her the nice Buddhist we met and then I recalled to her her awesome Christian Godmother. Tickle torturing her collapsing form I pointed out that a person could be a nice person whether or not they were a Buddhist. I think she agreed amongst her squeals.

That night I helped her say her prayers because she asked me to.  

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A dialogue on Eeeevil.

My last post discussed "The Problem of Eeevil". My brother Simon wanted to reply to the topic but as his reply exceeded the word limit he published it on his own blog. My reply to my brother was also too long for any comments section so here it is as its own post.

It's always very exciting to discuss these issues further. It lets me clarify my thinking even if only for myself. I hope that's not too self-indulgent for any other readers.

I also get to spell out that I'm not really trying to set a logic trap for God, I think the problem of evil is a problem for objective morality ultimately. Further I think there is no easy solution. As my brother points out subjectivity has its own problems too.

Lastly one thing that lies outside both my and my brothers positions is the idea of a plurality of Gods which aren't absolutely Good. Basically we're both pretty much throwing the Pagans in with the non-theists in these posts based on our definition of theism. Ummm...sorry?


I am prepared to accept that the definition of evil is opposition to a perfect Good whom many including yourself (I think) call God. I realize I’m paraphrasing you here but it’s to relate it back to my post.
I don’t think this means that evil’s existence ceases to be a problem. The problem becomes where does “the will to oppose god” come from? Is it our invention? Did we think it up with our imagination? Does it issue from a rival God like power? Or paradoxically from a perfectly Good God themselves?

You see my question isn’t just why does God permit opposition to Good (evil) but how do we understand its source. How we can say that opposition to Good/God comes from a source other than Good/God and also say “God created everything without any competition and God continues to govern everything without any rival.”?

To express all this in a way you might be more familiar with, it is sometimes said that "our heart" is the source of our opposition to God. But is our heart capable of originating anything, of actually coming up with something new on its own? Is it a source? Or does everything only have one source in God?

Now firstly I need to say this isn’t and can’t be a fight between theists and non-theists. I make the cheeky and sneaky claim that once a non-theist moves away from moral subjectivity to moral absolutism then they have become a kind of theist (pantheist or deist). They can question the existence of evil but they also have to answer it. I also say that if a theist accepts that God doesn’t control the unfolding of history except through us then they have the kind of theism than a non-theist shouldn’t be bothered objecting to. I could also go further than I have and say that if the supreme rule of the universe (God) is not a moral character then they become a bit like physics and less like theism. Such a God is morally at least uninteresting. Let’s test them with science and be done with it. These are all bold claims but designed to show that these two opposites (theism and non-theism) essentially meet around the resolution of this issue. But where they meet is at different points.

To the body of your post… I think you are playing a bit of sleight of hand with the concept of free will. Perhaps it would be better to use the word “choice.” We do only hold people accountable for actions if they have made a choice.

So if we concede that people have choice then I set out how Good/God’s sovereignity is compromised by that in two ways. First by the internal nature of our relationship to Good/God;
“At the end of time all of us may be singing God’s praises regardless of our free will (choice). However, free will (choice) would still mean that at least two possible choices exist - we chose to be there or we were compelled.”
Note I have given God more power here than you seem to have. You seem to suggest that God’s sovereignty is unchallenged due to their capacity to hold us to account for evil choices but that is only power after the fact and only to punish. In such a situation we humans could radically change the end of history by all choosing to go to hell to spite God.

Secondly I raise what God’s sovereignty means to us – that our fate is in God’s hands. This is at stake if evil is a choice. If we believe God has ceded control to human choice even if only temporarily then our position is experientially no different to someone who doesn’t believe in God. Good/God is absent and cannot be relied upon to save us.

I do state that there are solutions to these issues. I am not proving God is impossible here. In fact I pretty much give a nod to a position I don’t hold but admire; that absolute goodness (God if you will) is deeply present in the world but not directly powerful.

As to God’s goodness the question I’m posing isn’t so much about why is God permitting evil as whether or not God is authoring it.  Did Hitler and co. come up with the idea of the holocaust in opposition to God’s plan for the twentieth century (and God wept) or did God come up with it? If the Nazi’s came up with it independantly of God then, at least in terms of those affected by it, God is not the only creator of human history. If God came up with it then God’s goodness is weakened considerably.

Now you may say that God’s goodness is unweakened by their being the author of the holocaust because our standards of good and evil can’t be thrown at God in that way. In which case you are standing in the middle of the nazi crowd yourself unable to say this is evil; the position you put me in actually.

Now the other bold claim I make is to say that even just calling Good essentially logical (or common sense) is to put non-theists in the same predicament as theists re: the problem of evil. It is perhaps wrong to say that this leaves them with only moral subjectivity as a solution. I could possibly come up with as many varied answers as I did for theists.

However it is precisely the realization that it is possible for educated, well fed, church going citizens to stand in the midst of a nazi crowd and call it good that caused Western philosophy to acknowledge the terrible truth of moral subjectivity. What was even more heartbreaking for atheistic left wing intellectuals were the horrors of Stalinism. Nobody wants to believe that their moral opinions are the consequence of their crowd but it’s historically evident that they can be. This is why I continue to plead for empathy over any moral system of statements about what is true evil.

Basically Simon I agree you stand on firmer ground when you believe that moral statements are discoverable facts. It allows you to "know" that all manner of things are either right or wrong. Perhaps you even feel that matters of degree such as how much we give to charity or spend on our luxuries have a morality that is a discoverable fact as well. It certainly indulges our instincts to feel that way. The alternative is a self-questioning shaky ground.

As you rightly point out it is a place with many problems…to quote you;
“…Why fight evil if it doesn’t really exist? Why do I feel that evil and right and wrong does exist if it is just an illusion? Am I comfortable with the idea that my concept of evil may just as well be good in a different time or place or culture? If there is no God then where is there any hope that evil will not win? If there is no God where is there any hope that evil will one day be fully dealt with?”

Once we see that our moral objectivity may just be a tempting illusion that’s exactly the rough road ahead .

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The problem of Eeeevil.

The “Problem of Evil” is how to explain the existence of evil in a world presumably under the control of an all powerful, all knowing and all good God.

This problem is different to the problem of suffering. Not all suffering is “evil”. In fact the easiest answer as to why there is suffering in the world under an all loving God is to recognize that suffering can be good. For example, we feel pain as a means of avoiding harm. Situationally that might be unhelpful but generally we’re better off with a nervous system.

The “Problem of Evil” is not really a challenge non-theists can throw at theists. Evil, the noun, is not a meaningful part of the non-theist’s language. In fact to accept the existence of evil, the noun, is to accept the existence of a morally positive reality against which evil can be recognized. That reality wouldn’t be an unusual concept of God. Even a diffused pantheistic God, if they are still able to make moral judgments from the perspective of absolute truth is exhibiting standard God-like behaviour.

Non-theists can readily use evil as an adjective. However, it then becomes a bit of a silly question to ask “Where does evil come from?” The adjective evil obviously just comes from any judging mind, including the non-theist themselves. Indeed evil only ever exists in the judging mind (like garishness). Hitler is evil because we think he is, because we deeply dislike his ideas and actions, because he has radically opposed values to our own. There’s no deeper reality to his evil.

Most theists however do have to grapple with the existence of evil, the noun. This is because they have a fundamentally completely good noun, God. From a theistic perspective Adolf Hitler* is not just subjectively evil, they are objectively evil in relation to God who is objectively good.

This opposition between Hitler and God has to be explained because God supposedly created Hitler. God created everything without any competition and God continues to govern everything without any rival. That would be fairly orthodox theology for Judaism, Christianity and Islam at least. So from whence did Hitler’s Evil come?

The classic answer to this question is “free will”. By saying that Hitler is free to choose, independently of his creator, to be good or evil, God is relieved of responsibility for Hitler’s decisions. Free will is ultimately a creation of God’s and ultimately a good thing (like our nervous system) although in Hitler’s case it wrought terrible consequences. Creation is still generally good so God’s goodness is preserved.

The concern that springs from this answer is that free will essentially says that we are rival creators of the world. God is no longer completely in charge because Hitler’s choices determine such things as whether there is a holocaust or not. At first this doesn’t seem like a huge problem; God can still intervene decisively in the last days to render all our evil works for naught. God’s control may be only suspended. However this actually creates two significant problems for theism.

The first problem is how free will creates an existential challenge to God’s sovereignty. At the end of time all of us may be singing God’s praises regardless of our free will. However, free will would still mean that at least two possible choices exist - we chose to be there or we were compelled. Even though the external look of the outcome of history can be God’s choice a free human will would determine the internal nature of the situation beyond God’s control.

For some people if God isn’t absolutely sovereign then they can’t be God. Essentially such a person is saying there must be an ultimate law of the universe and they will worship that, whatever it is. If God doesn’t overrule even free will then God won’t get their worship. I think there is something shallow and self-serving about sucking up to the winner of the universe. It would be more dignified surely to worship a useless idol if that was all there was in the goodness corner. But for these people who must worship the “true” (as in actual not only rightful) king, free will is untenable. The existential challenge to God’s sovereignty from free will obliges them to deny it.

Unfortunately with free will no longer present as a solution to evil then it is God’s goodness that becomes weakened. If everything from the holocaust to child abuse becomes a part of God’s plan then God’s goodness becomes inexplicable (and not dependable).  This places God beyond goodness and evil by any normal reckoning of the words. They end up in a conceptual space I think of as just Godness. Again I struggle with any reason for worshipping such a God. I feel indifferently towards them.

The second problem of free will is the loss of the comfort that theism is supposed to provide. The world, not just its ending, is supposed to be happening according to God’s will. That means that when you are holding your breath in an attic while the Nazis search for you, you should be able to suppose that your fate is in God’s hands. That the world is being shaped by the loosed free will of humanity is not reassuring. It can give the impression that God is absent which is essentially not theism at all.

This problem can be resolved by an understanding of God’s presence where evil is, but not in a powerful or controlling way. This is the theology that God suffers when we do. If they respond to evil it is through us. In its extreme form such a God has the sort of presence that a non-theist wouldn’t necessarily be able to take issue with. They are not determining events so much as sharing in them.

What the theist has over the non-theist in this situation is the faith that eventually and subtly their God will win; that even in the midst of evil we can expect good’s victory. This is based on the idea that humanity has been created to fulfill a good purpose and that therefore evil is contrary to how the world “works”. Our own efforts only work when hooked into that purpose by following the good God. The non-theist can’t say that Hitler is fundamentally un-natural as easily. The non-theist doesn’t have a moral created order to compare Hitler to.

This doesn’t entirely leave the non-theist with the belief that Hitler is the embodiment of just a different rationalism or even what nature orders. There are ways to say the Nazis were ignorant of a practical reality or acting illogically. This can give the non-theist the same hope that the theist has that the ideals of Nazism are unsustainable and doomed to fail.

To the extent they do this, the non-theist has developed something akin to an impersonal God. They have become a little bit pantheistic, even moving towards deism. From this perspective they must grapple with the problem of evil almost as if they were theists. Once underlying reality has any kind of moral character, moral terms become something more than subjective descriptions. The non-theist must then ask why does evil occur if goodness is logical and practical?

In the Western world, this faith in the evidential nature of goodness had a crisis precisely because of Hitler’s’ regime. Who could believe that human progress is supposed to be self-correcting when an advanced and cultured country like twentieth century Germany could commit such atrocities? For that matter, what about the modern crimes of the U.S.S.R or the U.S.A.? Pessimism about progress has also received support from an awareness of our planets environmental damage and more recently the slow collapse of capitalist prosperity in the West. This has resulted in a retreat for Western non-theism from moral objectivity.

There are recent signs of a recovery from that retreat, particularly in New Atheism. We are seeing more comfort with logical if not moral absolutes. It’s not clear though that this is a claim to the inevitability of Atheism’s success or just to Atheism’s rightness. It is the linking of the two that would indicate a fundamental moral order to the universe. That would suggest a new understanding or a forgetting of our post world war two lessons about evil.

Personally I don’t think we can rely on the universe containing any logic that will ensure evil’s demise. I think it is even up to us to say what is evil. It may be effective to pretend we are speaking for an underlying reality or logic or even a God when we name what is evil but I suspect we probably aren’t. For me evil is ultimately a subjective term. Hence I don’t have faith that good will win, just hope.

*I wonder if there are other lovely people with the name Adolf Hitler whom I obviously am not referring to. You know who I mean. Also if you don’t consider the Adolf Hitler I mean to be either subjectively or objectively evil (or even just really bad) this might not be the blog post for you.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

It's O.K. to kill.

To kill is OK. It is almost universally permitted, sanctioned and even rewarded. Even outside of war. Even without any genuine self defence. Death can be cruel and prolonged if that’s what it takes. Convenience is the only concern.

What’s interesting is how some minds effectively leave the room in complete disinterest when I explain what I mean by this. Objectively we have to consider that one possible reason for taking the door of disinterest on this issue is a flight from responsibility. That alone should cause us to pause to justify ourselves. Yes, I am trying to keep you reading by insinuation here, but I am also referring to myself and my motivation for writing this post.

The killing I am describing in my first paragraph is the killing of mice. I’ve killed mice, you’ve probably killed mice. We kill mice routinely and in droves merely in order to protect the large scale farming of grains that sustain our concentrated human populations. So unlike whales and cows and pigs even vegans and vegetarians are responsible (albeit indirectly) for killing mice.

Because of our general complicity “Is it actually OK to kill mice?” is probably not going to be a popular question to ask, but it is a pertinent one. At least, it is if we are interested in doing what is right, being good and all of that.

To begin, we should probably establish if it is wrong or right (or anything moral) either way to kill anything. This really isn’t that easy to do in a strictly logical fashion; death comes to us all after all. It’s absolutely impossible to call good or bad in terms of broad effects the death of all the people in the world trade towers in 2001, in the tsunami of 2004 or of smoking related diseases in the last week. No matter how profound each persons dying was, once we leave our solar system or our century the ripple of those deaths vanishes. While we gauge from empathy that those deaths were probably bad for them (the dead) and for their families we can’t really say they were bad in an absolute permanent sense. This is one of the ways consequentialism has always failed me as a moral system. Take a long enough or wide enough view and any actions consequences are swallowed by sand.

How much more so when we think of the death of mice, which reproduce so rapidly that to kill two hundred in a plague is to make a sword cut in the wind. There really seems to be a negligible impact only one year on from whether we kill a single mouse. The universe doesn’t shudder. Nobody eulogizes another nameless extinction. But if consequentialism is useless when applied to humanity I can’t see why it is acceptable when applied to mice.

Ethical systems make more sense when they elevate to a greater than numerically deserved significance the effects of an action on an individual. This is still consequential but not eternally so. Instead we stop our chain of consequences at the person whom we declare to be an end and not a means. The issue we have here is whether we stop only at human persons or if the mouse is a “person” in the same regard. If the former is the case then killing mice is only an issue in its effect on humans. We have then rejected all language to say why the slow torture of a mouse, the gleeful killing of mice or the extermination of all mice might be wrong. When we say morality assumes humans as the only moral end then all bets are off regarding the non-human mice.

Yet there is no clear reason why any difference between a human and a mouse renders one a moral end and the other a mere means. Whatever differences we draw between us and mice it is obvious they are merely self-serving. Mice are less intelligent than us but only if we define intelligence so that it is represented by our own strengths like symbolic representation. If we measure intelligence by maze solving then many humans are dumber than mice. Further, within the human population we consider degrees of intelligence (however measured) to be unrelated to whether you are a moral ends or a means. It is therefore just a convenience to apply this distinction to mice. There’s certainly no easy logical connection.

One attempt to make a logical connection between a human type of intelligence and moral personhood is in our ability to reflect on and be “spiritually” affected by our suffering. That is to say that we have the capacity to feel degraded, humiliated, or otherwise wronged by the thought of being killed by another human. A mouse merely feels they will be dead. I think this makes for a very interesting moral philosophy. I think if we follow it carefully it leads us away from any distinction between killing people and non-people into a distinction based on different types of killing. Consider a human that is killed by a lion versus a human that is betrayed by a friend. Both victims have the moral status of people and both are killed but only one is actually “wronged.”

One problem is that we are completely presuming that we are incapable of “wronging” the mice. Basically we are claiming to be able to be “moral lions” to them. That would be fair in as much as we do nothing to encourage a theory of mind in the mouse regarding us. However what if we don’t? What if the mouse is a pet or a lab mouse that we feed?  Could such a mouse feel betrayed by us?

Furthermore whatever the mouse believes, we know that we are not lions. We have a theory of our own mind. It seems to me that once we actually allow ourselves to voluntarily occupy the position of a wild beast without moral guidance then we are no longer in possession of a morality at all. Unless we retain moral responsibility for acting amorally (which negates the amorality of that state) then we are essentially “moral lions” at all times. To have a morality is also take responsibility for switching it off.  Then we still have to decide why we can become lions with mice and not with people.

When I’ve posed the question of “Is it OK to kill mice?” people have often struggled to answer (no doubt unaided by me giving them no warning). Generally they have reflected my own sheepish feeling that we stand on shaky ground around this issue. The most confident responses have been unsurprised by the lack of any neat systematic justification for killing mice but not humans. For them this is an unremarkable consequence of what morality actually is.

Indeed our problems answering this question are a good argument that morality isn’t any kind of system at all. By system I mean something where each law within it reinforces each other law in a logically consistent way. Instead morality looks like something hobbled together to suit various agendas; an improvised social contract. In such a picture our own genetic interest is at the core. This puts our children first, followed by the rest of our species, followed by those animals that are useful to our species. Morality only pretends to have universal laws because such pretence is more effective propaganda for itself. Essentially it is O.K. to kill mice because we are not mice. If that doesn’t sound like much of a morality to us it’s because we are aiming for a false standard of absolute moral truth.

I agree with this assessment however I also believe that morality is something else at the same time. This something else helps us to explain why sometimes less efficient social contracts are more appealing to us than others, and why morality includes many rules which don’t seem to benefit our species directly. It also helps us understand why any part of us might consider killing mice wrong in contradiction of our self-interest.

There are ways of seeing that cannot be reached by study or argument but that come out of ways of doing. This can raise the suspicions of a rational and empirical mindset which prefers to evaluate statements in an objective fashion. However there’s nothing miraculous in this idea. What we fret over when we are anxious is rarely removed as effectively by discussion as it is by cutting down the caffeine and getting some sleep. What we see when we are depressed may be altered by company and exercise and a willful rejection of self-loathing thoughts. It is seldom altered by a depressed person just thinking from their depression.

Perhaps due to our general utilitarian culture we tend to think in terms of X leads to Y. This would be a mistake when we think of how ways of seeing and ways of doing relate. We don’t just do in order to see like buying a pair of glasses. We don’t just relax in order to cure anxiety. That’s kind of impossible. We can only relax because it is the natural expression of having given up on anxiety already. You can’t do differently except from already seeing differently. Then your actions lead to seeing differently then back to doing differently and so forth. It’s an all-involving process.

Ways of doing that lead to and from ways of seeing have often been called “spiritual disciplines”. Buddhists call them practices. A practice may be meditation. A practice may be making a regular donation of income to charity. A practice may even be abstaining from killing mice. It is not right or wrong to meditate in any absolute sense. It is merely consistent with cherishing immediate reality. It is not right or wrong to kill mice either. It is merely a practice consistent with declaring a mouse a moral means.

Now I kill mice. I am however attracted to ways of seeing where a mouse is a moral end rather than a means; something with the status of a person or at least a kind of person. If I want to see in that way clearer then I have to treat the mouse as a moral end. There isn’t any other way to properly do this. I either occupy that vantage point or I don’t. A moral prescription regarding killing mice is simultaneously both the means to and path from such a sight.

Why is the way of seeing that doesn’t kill mice attractive to me? I’ve been pondering lately our search for intelligent life. Our efforts to find intelligent life in space are for me justified simply by the hope of marveling at it. It doesn’t need any further justification. It certainly isn’t justified in terms of benefit to my own genes. Yet it seems to me we should worry that we are not equipped to find our peers in space. Unless they are also human we are going to miss them.

Meanwhile we are potentially surrounded by such “persons” as magnificently different to us as the usually imagined creatures from outer space. If I want the delight of marveling at those persons I have to treat them as such. If I want to see them instead of continuing to miss them, I need to do as seeing them would entail. I wonder what considering other animals as more my moral peers might bring. I’m not sure this means that I mustn’t kill mice. That might even be impossible to avoid indirectly. But trying to avoid killing them when I don't even need to seems like a small start.

I’m going to leave it to you to consider how viewing morality as a practice might help illuminate other issues of killing. Obviously our attitude to killing mice can relate to our attitude to killing other animals whether for food or sport or to protect our lifestyle. I also think most discussions of the termination of a pregnancy or euthanasia have suffered for viewing morality as a system of consistent laws rather than a spiritual discipline. Indeed not just killing but all moral choices can be understood as ways of doing which take us to and come from ways of seeing.