Thursday, 2 August 2007

Morals, Part III: Impossible Moral Conundrums?

The Story Thus Far

As I begin to pen down the end of this three-part series of what is perhaps a difficult topic, I have, with stoic, quiet conviction, brainstormed about this rather thorny issue pretty much the same as a rookie soldier would to a trench hole with a half-assed rifle and a spade: Right from the start, I have admitted, or rather resigned, to the fact that I have always been a rather reckless sort of animal, one which does not regard morals of most kinds with nary a pinch of salt.

That said, I have decided to explore this contentious issue from an atheistic point of view: I feel that morals have always been the major weapon of mass deception in history: The Church as always been quite adept at claiming the high moral ground, and to a certain extent, the Muslims have learned from their catholic/Christian parts, even though all religious arguments in the name of morality have always been myopic and one-sided.

In part I, I dealt with the sheer ludicrousness and tribal favoritism practiced by the world's religions, and in part II I tried to argue for the transcendence from inane, one-dimensional, absolutist morals to a wider ethical perspective.

The Conundrum Of Morals: A Stubborn Insistence On The Rights and The Wrongs

If one is to equate morality as an in-born, humanistic guide to aid us in perceiving the rights and the wrongs of this very treacherous existence which we have all been borne into, irrespective to our objections or agreement, then morality can be equated to a camera with faulty lenses: Not only is our sense of morality flawed, it is, in a way, an evolutionarily biased trait.

Humans have a tendency to equate everything in black and white, which in a way is a good thing: We are better off at elucidating our thoughts with black and white, in the shape of the parchment of paper and the trusty pen, than our evolutionary cousins. This tendency to see everything in black and white, with little or no disregard for the differing shades of gray, means that we will always retain this infantile instinct to imprint an explanation, then dub it as "absolute truth" to justify our juvenile claims: The Sun must be a God because it provides it provides for all life on Earth, Thor is so wrathful that he is creating a stormy havoc with his lethal hammer, along with the tumultuous fury of Poseidon in the high seas. With stubborn, stoic conviction, we refuse to accept the "maybes", "perhaps" and the "we don't knows", that we should, in all humility, accept our failure in understanding the laws of nature. And that, in a nutshell is the way religious, obstinate humans perceive morality: In black and white, and no other shades of gray in between.

History is replete with ignorance compounded chiefly as a result of religion, and with deadly results: The plague was thought to be a curse from witches and the dastardly Jews by the anti-semitic Vatican, and dying a martyr's death, it seems, can grant the "lucky" agent of terror a shot at 72, immortal and eternal virgins.

The former led to the millions of deaths of Europeans from the bubonic plague, while the latter is still inflicting untold damage in the form of crazy, suicidal Muslims armed with nothing but their own lives in the shape of strapped bombs and charred bodies.

The Truth Behind Morals: The Good, the Bad, and The Strange

Far from being a rigid codified word of God, as expounded by the Religious Right, morals are fluid, comparative values we have learned to identify with since the advent of the human species.

Under ordinary circumstances, theft, murder and other criminal, despicable acts are considered "immoral" because of its detrimental acts to society: Thievery hurts the economy of someone's pocket, murder deprives the living of a chance at life, and so on.

Under usual, "normal" circumstances, these are the values we would attribute to being negative, potentially devastating acts of the despicable. Positive, moral prepositions, on the other hand, are greeted with applause and aplomb: Donating millions to charity, helping out a man in need, sticking by your comrade in his or her time of need, etc. The world thrives on, and feeds on such "good" deeds: Millionaires hold charitable balls as a means to flaunt their "acts of kindness" (And their wealth). We help our friends and next-of-kin on the basis of human relationships.

Yet, by some perverted twist of "fate" (or sheer probability), one could easily see the lob-sidedness in such potentially feel-good comparisons. Consider the following:

1. The Hezbollah is a charitable organization: It runs hospitals, social development programs and educational facilities for the Muslim community. Therefore, donating money is a good (some would say great) charitable deed.

2. An old man, upon being kicked, punched and knocked almost senseless by his unfilial son, insists on giving money to this undeserving motherfucker, as an ultimate "act of kindness".

3. A man tries to kill you, but your quick instincts gave you an unexpected edge. In the process of the struggle, you manage to grab a knife and kill him. You are therefore a murderer and an immoral brute.

4. You are trapped in a calamitous flood. With 6 kids in tow an a small boat, all 7 of you cling on to life in that dinghy little raft. You chance upon a seven-eleven store. It has obviously been abandoned. You break into the store and rob it of its life-saving food products. You have committed an immoral act, because, by all moral and lawful accounts, you have committed a crime, even though your intentions are great and life-saving.

Notice that, in all the above-mentioned instances, I have managed to turn the tables with regards to our standard quip on morality: A beautiful act of charity to an organization of terrorism can very well amount to a direct funding of terrorism, while a supposedly criminal act of theft can somehow manage to stand out as a gift of hope and joy for beleaguered children.

As humans, we live in a planet filled with a myriad of uncertainties: We can all wake up tomorrow and find a loved one dead, or a country buried under a barrage of missiles. Our actions and reactions are a direct response to our ever-changing environment; for morals to be of any relevance to our lives, it must always be compared to the circumstances of each and every incident.

In sum, morality is the comparison of polemic, contradicting values in any given situation: Through the study of ethics, we can further elucidate and clarify some of these polemic arguments, and even then, such moral conundrums cannot be considered clear-cuts by any means.

A Thorny Scenario

Consider this: You are a commander of a truck convoy in Iraq. Standing in your way, however, isn't an armored Russian tank, nor a bunch of terrorists armed to the teeth (Ironically, an armed enemy in this case poses a far less problem) Rather, its a bunch of scrawny, playful kids, all enjoying themselves and having a good game of hopscotch, juxtaposed by a barren landscape of bombed-out buildings and blackened corpses.

Suppose that there has been a spate of terrorist bombings, all carried out by indoctrinated children under the age of 10 in this danger zone. Your choices are simple, yet overwhelmingly complicated: Drive through the kids and get your men out of the kill zone, thereby effectively killing every kid on that dank street, or get down the convoy with your men to clear the way, whereby you and your men stand a good chance of being killed by a bomb or many bombs strapped and hidden under the innocent diapers of a child. Even worst still, there may be terrorists hidden in the burning rumble who might take aim at your men, as they carelessly expose themselves to open fire, in which case your men and the kids will die. How will you choose?

Moral conundrums of this kind often drive me into a state of mental frenzy: It would help, of course, if there were other recourses to any of these "options", which seem more like a "heads-and-tails" question, seemingly capable of being answered only with a toss of a coin. Suppose the convoy could reverse, or that the kids will respond to the screams of the troops?

In this scenario, try as I might, I cannot, in good conscience, denounce anyone who chooses to kill the kids by simply driving through the crowd. There are no right and wrong absolutes in scenarios like this, and if you think this as mere rhetoric, consider the erroneous positions of many American troops in Iraq who are faced with thousands of civilians on their tours of duty. Hidden beneath a clutch of burkha-clad beauties may be a hidden terrorist, hidden and covered in a deadly shroud of pure terror. Or a policeman who approaches a stolen vehicle, not knowing whence the criminal will charge out and open fire at him/her.

We live in a world which is fraught with dangers and uncertainties, and this profound fact cannot be addressed adequately through narrow-minded, unflinching world-views which we cannot, in good conscience, live by.


akakiwibear said...

I started with part 1 so my comments are not necessarily specific to any part.
I do find the question or morality and any link to religion interesting
The ability to discern right from wrong – most of us have it, do we use it or do we make the right decisions. Here I don’t refer to any absolute right or wrong, just that which we believe to be right or wrong. We tend to adhere to what common humanity would see as “good” rules during times on plenty. Here we are like herd animals.
The situation changes when we are threatened or faced with a scarce but important resource. Then new rules emerge and we fight or commit whatever atrocity suits our cause – perhaps not all of us and I wonder where the Milgram experiment ( ) fits in.
I would argue that from an evolutionary perspective I would expect us (i.e. human kind) to group together and wage war on those who threaten us or who have the resource (is this hind sight or am I actually thinking?). If this is the case then we appear to be driven by a morality which is centred on survival. If it is my interest to cooperate I will be “good” and do so. If that involves working with a small group or large group, working with other (outside) groups or killing them I will do so.
Let me propose a working reference point for ‘goo’d (that which supports the wider community) and ‘ba’d. (that which serves personal narrow goals at the expense of the wider community or another individual) – very loose but I need to start somewhere! Furthermore lets us postulate that doing ‘bad’ is immoral.
This suggests to me that driven by evolution we are inherently amoral, we have no morals. However we make up rules so that society can function smoothly and we adhere to the rules while it suits us. Concern about the global environment fits in with this – in a time of plenty we have the opportunity to look ahead and plan/worry.
I would argue that these rules are not morals – they do not pertain to right and wrong in any wider ethical sense (what is good for humanity). So my proposition is that we are amoral and left to our own devises it is not in our interest to become moral – we end up making personal sacrifice for the benefit of others.
I am not sure how to link this to religion. How about … We are amoral, so any morality we acquire must have come from an outside source – for now I will go with “spirit in the sky” SITS as the source of the morals for sake of a name. Does this relate to religion?
Religion is supposedly the human vehicle that links to SITS. So religious teaching should be moral if SITS is the source of religious teaching. But you have shown that religions or at least those who profess a religion can do things which are ‘bad’ and therefore immoral – at least to the depth of my argument - …. but if they had or knew of morals but ignored them when it suited that would make the religious people much the same as everyone else.
I could suppose that SITS has conveyed to the religion moral absolutes (e.g. 10 commandments) and if I stay with Christianity that Christ expanded on these or clarified them.
But I am left with a whole lot of religious teaching which may in fact not be helpful to building a case about morality in religion. If I were to say that the religious teaching should be separated into two parts – morals from SITS and rules for the society in which the religious live. This sort of fits with observation. Christ taught morality but did not teach that the inquisition would be a great way to make friends with Muslims. We have a clear dichotomy in religion between the rules of men (which are designed to reinforce the power base of the leaders of the religion) and the teaching of SITS (the morals). As an outside observer we would find it hard to distinguish between the man made rules and the morals – especially if the religious wrapped them up together.
The nice theory does not avoid the moral dilemma that you give as an example. A cute Christian answer would be the WWJD (what would Jesus do) approach. I need to think more.

L>T said...

religions conveniently set up their arguments for being the source of morals (by way of the external God)by first setting up the nature of man. The religions that adhere to the God of the OT first give human-beings a sinful nature that must be redeemed.

This sinful man of course could never come up with something so grand as morals on his own. These high ideals must of come from somewhere, else. & since the Christian church sees unredeemed man as embodying sin, that has justified all kinds of hate crimes on their part through-out the ages. Look at the justifications for genocide in the OT. Like someone pointed out over at Atheist Revolution blog there are 844 hate groups in the US & most of them are based on Christian beliefs!

You ever heard that bit of phathos Christian spout? "Love the sinner but hate the sin?"
That is such bull crap! Christianity theology does NOT separate the sinner from the sin.

akakieibear says at one point, This suggests to me that driven by evolution we are inherently amoral, we have no morals.

well, in my secular humanist way of thinking any morals we have come from us in the first place(along with any concept of God we have) therefore we are inherently moral.

BEAST said...

Hmm......what would Jesus do? How about....cursing fig trees because it was off season and not bearing fruit? Or Jesus casting demons into pigs, causing them to commit mass suicide, and ruining the livelihoods of the hog farmers and (gasp!) ruining some good ham gourmet?

I admit, Jesus was quite a genial man in the bible (in a way, considering Abraham and Moses were reallying outrageous characters), but he was a bit of a man whore, somewhat nutty, and simply going around with his stupid banter and rants against the Pharisees. If the bible is true, I can see where the hate came from.

Getting back to the subject of morals, I think it is far too simplistic to apply the "what would jesus do" concept into morals. By all accounts, Jesus's life was briefly summarized in a little over 500 words in the Gnostic gospels. Now, if you think about it, wouldn't the gospel writers want to amplify a little more about this queer character? Nothing was known about his life as a teenager, all we know was he was trained as a carpenter and born in a manger, and some other trivial stuff about wise men following intergalactic stars (funny thing is, if you do following the star you end up walking in circles. Try it for yourself).

The idea of subscribing to Jesus as a representative for morals is not only dangerous, it goes against the grain of common sense and ethics, which I think are essential survival tools that have transcended mere morals, which, as I have already elucidated, is more of a tribal alliance than a really emphatic look at morals.

L>T said...

to continue in the same vein... you say, We live in a world which is fraught with dangers and uncertainties, and this profound fact cannot be addressed adequately through narrow-minded, unflinching world-views which we cannot, in good conscience, live by.

I completely agree with that statement & also the idea in your comment that we have to transcend the idea of religious morality.

The secular person understands that cultures are processes of human self-creation. The secular person understands that humans effectively make themselves through their cultures. The secular person puts God into the equation of human development ONLY as a concept or a product of the evolving human mind. Therefore I feel secular people have the capacity to think more critically & develop better working moral sensibility's for the modern times that we live in then the religious person that refuses to move beyond their primitive " God of Abraham" & all that it entails.

I for one am ready to move on into a sane & secular future!

BEAST said...


You understand me perfectly.

However, my grouse is that even ethics may not be able to help us answer the most difficult moral questions. That said, I can't find anything at the moment to rival ethics and secular humanism.

Some would argue that we should extend this type of ethics to animals too. What do you think?

L>T said...

We do know that there are universals(or some common human ideals) pertaining to ethics & morality. As human consciousness moves forward away from antiquated religious beliefs more & more people will be able to think about these things clearly & maybe humankind can solve some of it's problems. Religion sure ain't doing it.

Ethics & animals. I haven't thought about it much. Just that if we humans would consider ourselves superior to the lower species we have a moral responsibility towards them. The American Indians had a great philosophy about this.

Marty said...

You bring up an interesting point with animal ethics. My mother-in-law recently did an Animal Ethics subject in her philosophy class and as a result became a vegetarian.
I do get somewhat uncomfortable when thinking of the dilemna of being a meat-eater. It's not a simple question either. The problem is, Man (as you mentioned earlier, a feeble animal with too much intelligence) is at the top of the food chain. The very intelligence that enabled us to start using tools and form communities is the cause of overpopulation and destruction of animal habitat leading to the loss of thousands of species as a result.
In a balanced ecosystem the number of primary predators (lions, leopards, sharks, killer whales) is relatively low compared to their prey. However man has overturned this balance. We now farm everything from vegetable and cereal products to cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry and even fish - and many of the methods used cause even more damage to the environment.
Yes, it is possible to live on vegetation alone, but goddamn it, meat tastes so GOOD. (And it's still the best source of protein and iron). Added to which, many species of food animals actually prosper AS a species even though most individual animals end up on the table.
The only answer I've been able to come up with - and it's not perfect - is to only purchase meat from organically or naturally farmed animals that lead stress-free lives within their herds, and which are humanely and painlessly (as much as possible) killed.