And the compelling reason-based argument for why their lack of empathy is irrational is…?
At the extreme level, perhaps… But that’s a description of how others will respond, not an argument for why they’re irrational. So what about lesser degrees? Say, not actively murdering people but refusing to help them specifically because you believe they’re inferior. I’m thinking about, for instance, the ethnic nationalist sectors of the alt-right. From an evolutionary perspective, they appear to be motivated by empathy for some subset of genetic relatives to reduce the competition for resources from more distant relations whom they consider inferior. They think doing so is heroically preserving the future of human civilization. I think they’re absolutely wrong, yet all the outside denunications of amorality and pyscopathy seem to have done little to persuade them of the irrationality of their views. From a Biblical perspective, they are necessarily wrong because every human is equally valued as bearing the image of God. From a secular perspective, why are they wrong? You can chip around the edges by pointing out false statistics or historical reasons for certain disparities, for instance, but what is the fundamental irrationality, from a secular perspective, about a member of a species wanting to favor preserving members of its own sub-group that could theoretically eventually diverge into a separate species, when that is all that evolution has ever successfully done? (This is actually something I’m fairly concerned about in our post-Christian cultural era, and I would love to hear more compelling responses to the alt-right than I’ve derived thus far…)
Ok I do remember thinking that line of thinking was Harris’s strongest point, that everyone has an incentive to encourage the general kind of society they would want to live in… Now I need to think through the tension between the way you would want other people to treat you and the reality that everyone won’t and how that plays into your motivations for how far to extend your circles of concerns depending on your worldview… Getting into game theory territory…
In the abstract, yes, but in practice we don’t behave equally, right? Aren’t we all willing to spend more resources and make more sacrifices for our own children than for our distant relatives, and still more for them than people we don’t know? Is there a tension between the abstract equal value we want to assign to all human beings and that drop-off in our level of willingness to expend resources for wider circles of concern? Christianity at least seems to promote an ideal of valuing your neighbor as much as yourself, on the basis of shared image-bearing, however difficult it is to achieve that in practice. I guess humanists promote the same ideal as well, on the basis of empathy / shared consciousness.
The word, atrocity, conjures up different emotions in people depending on when and where they live and upon their own particular experiences. As a teen ager I fought Hitler’s Nazi Germany. For me, exposure to the death camps provided one unassailable example of an atrocity. Since much of my ancestry is German, I had (and still have) difficulty in imagining how a ‘civilized’ society could be complicit is such evil acts. But other events during that same period made things even more complicated. When do Acts of War become atrocities?
As an infantryman ‘dogface’, chosen as scout most often because at 19 I was the most expendable, I thought I had a rather poor chance of surviving the war. Thus I was in favor of carpet bombing German civilians who were essential to the Nazi war machine. However, when the war was just about over, the Allies fire bombed Dresden, which was almost untouched till then because it had little of military value. Did the ~50,000 civilian deaths shorten the war? Much later I heard a first-hand account from a scientific colleague who was a childhood survivor of that raid. I now consider it an immoral Allied atrocity.
In Jan. 1945 a fragment from a rifle grenade put me out of commission and earned me a coveted ticket back to the States. No longer need I worry that in surviving the European theater of war, I would still face the same fate in the Pacific. But my buddies did. So I feel that ‘good old Harry Truman’ made the right (and moral) decision to atom bomb Hiroshima. But perhaps the second bomb on Nagasaki, was unnecessary to make Japan surrender. Then IMHO the matter of that constituting an atrocity is debatable.
I have been most fortunate in having several Japanese colleagues as close enough friends to discuss matters of war guilt, etc. They all expressed guilt (not as an atrocity) at how Japan attacked Pearl Harbor without warning–just as I expressed regret at how we interred American citizens of Japanese descent in ‘detention camps’. Not that it is a big enough sampling for an opinion poll, but they also expressed the likelihood that the atom bombs in ending the war may well have saved Japanese lives as well as American. Perhaps surprisingly, Prof. Toshio Fujita, who is my age, agreed with me that the Hiroshima Horror Factor may have helped avoid World War III whereas a ‘demonstration bomb’ on an unoccupied atoll would not have. The fire bombing of Tokyo, Dresden and Hamburg killed and maimed far more than the Hiroshima bomb. Some wartime atrocities seem more acceptable than others.
It’s not game theory, per se. It is our sense of justice and fairness. We also recognize, through empathy, that other people want to live their lives as they see fit just as we do. It is the interplay between personal freedoms, interactions between people within society, and fairness that informs much of our morality. Society will always struggle with balancing concepts such as security within society and personal freedoms. We will also struggle with the sovereignty of other nations and their right to forge their own paths.
I personally don’t see religious beliefs as a necessary part of this process, but we live in a society where people are influenced by their religious beliefs and I am just fine with that. I think we all should have a voice at the table, and by fairly and critically looking at ideas, be they religious or secular, we can find a moral and governmental system that works for everyone.
No one said that we are perfect.
As the old saying goes, perfect is the enemy of good. We will never have a perfect society, so we should do our best to limit the worst of human character and do our best to amplify the best of human character. Yes, we will make mistakes along the way, but that is no excuse for making those mistakes in the first place.
There have also been other religious and philosophical beliefs that also strive for seeing the worth in other human beings, even those that don’t belong to our family and society. We atheists tend to think that religions are man made, so it doesn’t surprise us that human morality makes its way into these religions. However, this is our view and we certainly don’t expect everyone to adopt it. It also makes us scratch our heads a bit when theists act as if they are completely incapable of judging morality for themselves, as if they would be amoral machines if it weren’t for believing in God. Atheists tend to believe that theists are more than capable of figuring out morality for themselves, even if some theists may not believe that.
Yeah, I get all that to some degree, regarding the stuff where humanists and religions like Christianity are compatible. I guess I’m just thinking more of other folks that don’t share that vision, whether it’s ethnic nationalists or the greedy wealthy or whoever… I mean, they’re essentially already living as if Christianity’s not true, but unlike the humanists they don’t seem too interested in overall human flourishing… so while it’s self-evident that non-religious folk can arrive at “high” moral values it’s also self-evident that they don’t necessarily, and I guess it just seems to me that if you agree with Christianity’s metaphysical propositions, the Christian version of morality is also necessarily true, and it’s just not persuasive because they don’t agree with the religion’s truth claims, but even though they agree with the humanist’s metaphysical propositions, their morality just doesn’t seem that compelling or persuasive to those sorts of people… Maybe I’m conflating something somewhere, or I’m just not as familiar with ‘humanist evangelism’ as ‘Christian evangelism’ efforts…
I think we can both agree that morality isn’t easy to figure out.
Looking back through American history, and modern Western history for that matter, we do see a continual effort by the general populace to fight against corruption caused by greed, with some ups and downs. We have improved labor laws and a minimum wage. Teddy Roosevelt fought against monopolies to prevent the uber rich from exploiting the poor. We think these are good ideas, IMHO, because they are good ideas. In a representative government like those in the West it is the majority voice of the people that has influence instead of the immoral voice of the few.
You guys have been pretty well over this, but I’ll still throw my 2 cents in ( what a shocker )
Why are we talking about rationality? I thought we were talking about morality. Two kettles of fish. More below
So what about lesser degrees? Say, not actively murdering people but refusing to help them specifically because you believe they’re inferior.
I’d give the same answer I did before. This is going to be viewed as immoral and even inhuman behavior, from a moral perspective.
I’m thinking about, for instance, the ethnic nationalist sectors of the alt-right. From an evolutionary perspective, they appear to be motivated by empathy for some subset of genetic relatives to reduce the competition for resources from more distant relations whom they consider inferior.
FWIW, I don’t agree with this kind of reasoning. It seems to seek to force facts into a simplistic evolutionary perspective. I’d say that group identification is part of our particular nature as social animals. For whatever reason, such people seem inordinately possessed of this characteristic of human nature. Jonathan Haidt is a excellent read in this area.
They think doing so is heroically preserving the future of human civilization. I think they’re absolutely wrong, yet all the outside denunications of amorality and pyscopathy seem to have done little to persuade them of the irrationality of their views. From a Biblical perspective, they are necessarily wrong because every human is equally valued as bearing the image of God. From a secular perspective, why are they wrong?
From a humanist perspective, because every human is equally valued.
You can chip around the edges by pointing out false statistics or historical reasons for certain disparities, for instance, but what is the fundamental irrationality, from a secular perspective, about a member of a species wanting to favor preserving members of its own sub-group that could theoretically eventually diverge into a separate species, when that is all that evolution has ever successfully done? (This is actually something I’m fairly concerned about in our post-Christian cultural era, and I would love to hear more compelling responses to the alt-right than I’ve derived thus far…)
You’re focused on this idea of rationality or irrationality, but our morality is far more deeply rooted in the psyche than that. When people do apply rationality to make moral assessments, they don’t use this kind of criteria either, that somehow seeks to mirror the kinds of things done in the evolutionary process. I’m not sure where that idea is coming from. You mentioned Sam Harris, and he has spoken about something that people do do, which is make assessments based on harm and well-being. We possess a strong understanding of how our actions or lack thereof affect others, and in my view an unavoidable corresponding moral responsibility.
Sure, but none of this necessarily impacts on what is generally considered to be morality. Is it immoral for me to help my children more than a random stranger? I think I heard Matt Dillahunty speak recently about the difference between morally virtuous and morally abhorrent behavior. There’s more of a moral imperative not to hurt others than a necessity to help (though this may not be totally in line with Christian ideals?) Pushing a random stranger out of the way to allow my child to pass would be much more of a moral issue, surely.
Christianity at least seems to promote an ideal of valuing your neighbor as much as yourself, on the basis of shared image-bearing, however difficult it is to achieve that in practice.
It’s admirable, but not always a moral imperative, as I’ve said.
I guess humanists promote the same ideal as well, on the basis of empathy / shared consciousness.
Yes. Empathy and humanist ideals in general.
Here’s the thing–no one has to believe or subscribe to Christianity. The truth of it is a matter of belief. So it’s not only a humanist vision that may not be shared. I think we’re in the same boat here ultimately. Also, it’s not evident to me that religious folk necessarily arrive at high moral values.
Hi Al, I think I agree with everything you say there. Certainly some calculus is at work. A blanket application of the purest moral values could lead to a society being overwhelmed and even destroyed in a conflict situation. Surely also, there is an imperative to help prevent others from being destroyed if one is able. Regardless of one’s overall view of the morality of harmful acts in wartime, I think it’s reasonable to reserve the word atrocity for acts which don’t do enough or anything to achieve such positive ends, and you give several good examples. I think it would be difficult to rationally justify such acts, which is the whole point in a way. Many situations will lie in gray area, and the implications have to be worked out.
As you point out, John, the difficulty arises because there are so many grey areas. My personal conscience was not offended when my societal conscience (the U.S govt.) asked my to kill German soldiers who were upholding a society which clearly committed atrocities. But I had No control over the decision of the Allied high command that ordered the fire bombing of Dresden. To me that was a societal sin that rose to the level of atrocity.
The situation in Viet Nam was even more muddled. I would like to think that if I had been in Company C at Mai Lai, I would have disobeyed Lt. Calley’s orders and tried to stop the massacre. But would I? More than once Company C had taken enemy fire from the V.C. dressed in civilian clothing. Would I have the bravery shown by the helicopter pilot, Thompson, who did take action to stop the massacre/atrocity? Only when living the actual moment can one say that one’s personal conscience would win out.
E. O. Wilson makes a good point that for millions of years evolution has favored the species that live in strong societies–insects providing a prime example and is genetically driven. Small and weak as individuals, they form nearly invincible societies. Mammals that possess some degree of awareness form effective societies, such as wolf packs, elk harems, or orca pods. Their societies are built based on both genes and learning. Justification (?) of these societies lies entirely with the effectiveness in promoting their survival. We cannot fault them if they are so effective that they drive a favorite prey into extinction.
Homo sapiens is unique. By sharing information at an unprecedented scale, they have formed societies that dominated the planet–societies that are NOT genetically driven. So, what should motivate human societies? Jesus answer quite plainly in Matt 12:31 “love thy neighbor as thyself”. This has been known for 20 centuries, and is currently discussed at length on Facebook and Instagram. Why has this Christian message not caught on? Why do our elected officials stress how they plan to increase our Gross National Product rather than how they plan to relieve the suffering of our more unfortunate brethren, and care for the long range future of our precious planet? They must know what we really want.
In Jesus’ time it was difficult for a Jew to consider a Samaritan, who lived only a few dozen miles away, as a neighbor. Technology has shrunk this Earth so we can now suffer alongside the oppressed and starving people of South Sudan or Bangladesh. Many a U.S. politician has won elections claiming to live by Christian Principles. Why don’t we call them to task for not voting that way in office?
Long ago in another venue I made a invitation to the atheists with whom I was engaging in dialog, Propose a non-theist morality that everyone could agree upon and I and other believers will support it. It seemed that they would have to initiate the proposal, be4cause I w3as not trying to sneak God into the situation.
The response I received was basically negative. Some rejected the invitation, because they said it was a trap, which it was not. Others did not want to commit themselves. The closest we got was, “Do no harm,” although I think that this is Wiccan. I pointed out that they simplest way to do no harm is to do nothing, which is not moral.
A morality that does not depend on invoking God which should be acceptable to all is the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” which comes from the Bible although it is said that it can be found in other places also.
In my book, Darwin’s Myth, I issued a challenge for non-believers to work together on morality and ethics, and I am issuing it again. It seems to me that the example terrible ethics of the White House, Syria, and the Kremlin should startle us all to unite and speak out against lying and other gross amorality.
While most of us believe that we know what is moral and what is not, on closer examination we find that that knowledge goes back to our religious tradition. Thus we cannot say that it is from us, but is from God. Again I am very open to a viable morality that can be shared with people through out the world of all traditions.
Wiccan!? …what, and this isn’t a thoroughly Christian (and Muslim, and empathetic humanist…) doctrine as well? These things aren’t divied up so that these various groups must fight for exclusive ownership over cherished values. And of course by itself it is inadequate --we are supposed to actively love; you are absolutely right. But it doesn’t make “Do no harm” a bad value to have, just an incomplete one.
I would put forth empathy, logic, and reason as the pillars of how we determine morality. The tough part is figuring out how those concepts interact in specific situations.
And the Bible comes from human authors.
Religions come from us, so I think it is unfair to claim that everything in religions come from a supernatural deity when it is humans who write the scriptures, humans who devise the theology, and humans who push traditions forward in subsequent generations.
But you are right that no matter our view on religion, we should all strive towards having honest and critical discussions on morality. In the end, our culture and society affect all of us, regardless of creed.
Muddying the waters up a bit more here … (is that a Christian thing for me to be doing?)
Listening to the news a day or two back, I hear about a special, extremely expensive drug that allows hemophiliac children to live at least somewhat normal lives. Multiple companies make the drug, but the principle of competition has utterly failed to show off its capitalistic magic. Maybe it’s because it is so expensive to research, develop, test, market, and make? No doubt all those things are true, …but… that (by itself) is not what is keeping the price so uniformly and atrociously high! Here was the jaw-dropping (and yet also totally unsurprising, once revealed) explanation for why this was, given by none less than a drug company rep himself, I believe. Drug companies will charge what the market will bear. If parents were having to pay out of pocket, this would not last long of course. But they don’t. Insurance companies choose to pay the full price! And as long as insurance companies cough it up, drug companies will happily charge it! Why do insurance companies pay so much? Because (as the drug rep being interviewed explained) … no insurance company wants their company name being in the headlines as the reason that little Timmy bled to death because the insurance company refused to spring for the meds. [Despite all this being cold-bloodedly logical, I now have a new ranking for pharmaceutical companies that is morally somewhere well below muggers and maybe just above Satan. They could choose to do the right thing and stop raping the system (all of us) … but if one of them ever did have a twinge of conscious, he would be quickly fired and replaced.
But (tirade aside, and my blood pressure hopefully subsiding here in a bit) … here is the real ethical dilemma we all have here that I don’t think anybody (religious or humanist) has really got any kind of handle on yet. So we all pay [scratch that — those who can still afford to pay] for the skyrocketing insurance premiums do so. And we get the satisfaction of patting ourselves on the back that little Timmy got to enjoy another day on the playground with his friends. What we don’t talk about is all the others (now shut out of our health care system!) that we were willing to throw under the bus to accomplish this.
Now this is cold-blooded logic too, you may object (and maybe rightly so!) How dare anyone pit Timmy’s well-being against other priorities no matter how important they may be. If Timmy was my child I would probably have choice words for myself right about now. There is something we all slightly approve of about a parent who is willing to burn down the world to save their child. There is also something to be said for a society (as lovingly as it can) setting some boundaries and saying … ummm no … sorry about your child, but at some point we have to think of the rest of the village too. But general increased welfare does not make headlines like little Timmy does.
This is one area that I think nobody has yet offered any good answers for. The [easy] Christian response is to react with horror that anybody could even think of depriving any one person of a life-giving elixir — the whole leaving of the 99 to sacrificially save the 1 bit plays in our minds. But the parable tells us nothing of how it should play out if many of the 99 are lost while we devote resources toward rescuing the one. It is a cold-blooded calculus that we rightly recoil from I think. But drug companies have perfected this calculus into an exacting art and are happy to play our emotional sensibilities against each other while they rapaciously carry on, laughing all the way to the bank. Is there any way for citizens to begin self-advocating on behalf of their own community as a whole in the face of being pitted against each other by wickedly profiteering powers that want nothing more than to keep draining our communities dry?
I fully agree. It is flat out disgusting. Politicians like to talk about the wonders of free markets, but those markets fail when the product is something that people can literally not live without. This is why states regulate the price of utilities like electricity because if there was a free market then they would charge as much as they could during cold months when people literally need electricity to survive. If we can do it with electricity, we could do it with drugs. There is no reason why we couldn’t, and a lot of reasons why we should. The government could decide that any drug patent is null and void if it is in the public interest, and that includes drug patents. If politicians grew a backbone they could threaten big pharma and hopefully scare them back onto a more moral path.
If by “we” you mean Americans, then no, we don’t. However, you only need to travel to the country to our north to find a much better and arguably more moral health care system that treats all of its citizens and doesn’t leave anyone out in the cold. Oh, and they spend half as much on health care as Americans do.
Mervin, we have taken this subject so far from the original thread that the editors may wish to put it in a new thread or stop it altogether, but IMHO it is a crucial example of how Love of Neighbor is what is best evidence of humankind’s uniqueness and of God’s existence. Isn’t that the reason Collins gave for writing “The Language of God”?
Since joining the CADD research group in 1968, I have had close contact with the pharmaceutical industries drug design scientists and limited contact with their management personnel. At least for the balance of the 20th century, I had the highest regard for these people and was pleased to see that they held to the highest of moral standards. Their researchers adhered to a work ethic that was obviously motivated by a desire to alleviate human suffering. That has not changed. But economic reality has. Our competition-driven free market economy, requiring costly TV advertising for a company to stay afloat, has twisted priorities so that expenditure on research–so necessary to bring life saving drugs to market–has now taken second place. Now our boob tubes consistently prod us “to ask your doctor if IXINITY (or HARVONI) is right for you”. You don’t want to die from hemophilia (or hepatitis C) ? Then insist your doctor prescribe our (overpriced) medicine for you (in spite of this long list of possible adverse effects.). It’s not in their ads, but a year’s worth of HARVONI at ~$90,000 is still cheaper than a liver transplant, sometimes the only alternative way of staying alive.
Mervin, your view of the pharmaceutical trade as being led by Satan is the most popular here in the U.S. When are we going to see that the rugged independence of our pioneer forefathers must be gradually replaced with a society more aware of morality? Bernie Sanders was preaching to the choir in 2016–not able to reach enough liberal democrats to be effective. I must admit that in the countries of Northern Europe that have been more effective meeting this problem have Socialist governments and yet have decreasing numbers of professed Christians. If this statement is true, is it not a matter of great concern to BioLogos?
Thanks for your balancing words of wisdom. Indeed even if big pharma miraculously decided to stop it profiteering tomorrow, the problem would still not go away … because it really is incredibly expensive for them to research and secure those patents. In some cases, even selling the drug at cost + modest profit would probably still amount to huge loads on society. It just galled me that they would choose to take advantage of vulnerable parents by going far beyond what even a reasonable profit would demand.
Thanks for starting an interesting discussion. Thanks, too, for the links to the videos.
For me, the best argument for belief in God is the way in which the belief itself opens up pathways for relationship with God.
Relationship with God in turn opens up all sorts of other pathways many of us didn’t know were possible.
Relationship with God helps us build relationship tools that affect all our other relationships: tools such as patience; empathy; listening skills; insight skills; pursuit of meaning and purpose in the face of hardship and suffering; humbleness; humour; and acceptance of each other’s differences.
Our brains are strange and curious places, where we have the power to triage and discard vast amounts of data, simply because the data doesn’t align with our own prior assumptions. (Some might call this “denial.”) But there’s no doubt whatsoever, based on recent neuroscientific research, that what we choose to believe – and what we choose to do with those beliefs – is correlated with our brain architecture.
So if you choose to believe in a loving and forgiving God – the God Jesus taught us about – you’re telling your own brain you want to pursue pathways about what it means to love and what it means to be in relationship with God. So your brain starts to change its filters and its priorities to match your new belief. And voila - eventually you start to notice at a conscious level how good it feels to be in relationship with God, with other people, with yourself, and with all Creation (Mark 12:28 -34).
Because of the powers of neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, you can also manage to shoot yourself in the head if you choose to believe in a cruel, vengeful, unloving God . . . but that’s another story, and it’s not the story Jesus taught us.
You can also confuse your brain mightily (and create biological software and hardware conflicts) by telling it repeatedly that relationships with other people are good but relationship with God is nothing but a stupid, imaginary, gullible conceit. Some parts of the brain (System 2 networks) see the eminent logic in rejecting a belief in God. But other parts of the brain (System 1 networks) – the networks linked to empathy and morality and intuition and forgiveness and conscience – find it natural to work with non-Materialist traits (e.g. love!). So when you tell your brain you’re absolutely certain there’s no God, you’re also telling your brain to stop paying any attention to all the niggling mysteries and creative ponderings that spring from deep within where we can hear our own inner wisdom and God’s continual guidance. (Jesus called this place “the Kingdom.”) You can certainly force your brain to rewire itself to ignore its own System 1 input . . . but the question is, do you really want to?
So, in short, (though I know I wasn’t very short here), the best argument for belief in a loving God is that such a belief helps you build – or perhaps more properly _re_build – your own hardwired potential to love and forgive as Jesus taught us to do.