Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Moral Sense

The alternative, then, to the religious theory of the source of values is that evolution endowed us with a moral sense, and we have expanded its circle of application over the course of history through reason, knowledge, and sympathy. How can we tell which theory is preferable? A thought experiment can pit them against each other. What would be the right thing to do if God had commanded people to be selfish and cruel rather than generous and kind? Those who root their values in religion would have to say that we ought to be selfish and cruel. Those who appeal to a moral sense would say that we ought to reject God’s command. This shows – I hope – that it is our moral sense that deserves priority.

This is a passage from an excellent book called The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker. Though the book itself is excellent, this paragraph confuses “is” (statements of fact) and “ought” (value judgments) in so many ways that it proves nothing other than the extent to which a really smart guy will stop his thinking short of disproving his own theory. He is responding to the fear that, in the absence of any widespread belief if a demanding God, humanity will fall into a nihilistic pit. Not so, argues Pinker, because we've got our moral sense, and that is superior to any religiously inspired set of rules.

Pitting our moral sense against religion in a thought experiment is rather odd, because it presumes that the two are, or can be, at odds with each other, and it presumes that we can somehow choose right from wrong, which are two presumptions that are inconsistent with Pinker's own views on life. Try this thought experiment instead – there is no God that has any behavioral expectations from us; instead, by some strange roll of the dice, life and later man have evolved from inanimate matter. There are certain physical laws and we have progressed to the point where we can figure out some of these laws, and how these laws can explain how matter interacted to create an amoeba, how the amoeba progressed to the fish, and so on up to man. And we know finally that man has developed certain distinct traits – such as the concern for “right” versus “wrong”, which Pinker would attribute to a moral sense that has evolved to become part of our circuitry.

Now, choose between your moral sense and your conception of God? According to this materialistic view of life, rejecting your moral sense is as nonsensical as rejecting your kidney; whether you believe you have one or not, it is a physical part of your make-up. If there is nothing outside of this material world with physical laws governing everything, than the moral sense is something only to be explained. It is not something to be chosen over religion, because where it is observed to be present we cannot say that it was truly chosen; and where it is absent we cannot say that it was consciously rejected.

There is no choice, and under this view religion itself is something that requires explanation. Why has man developed conceptions of an imaginary God? No, let me rephrase that question – how did man develop conceptions of God? - because in a physical world without a God, there is no “why” that asks about underlying meaning, there is only “how” that asks about a physical process of cause and effect. What strange collision of atoms, what improbable mutation of genes, has led us to create God?

Either we have some autonomy to choose freely from among alternatives, to choose “right” from “wrong”, or we don’t. If we don’t, there is no “right” or “wrong” – there is no “ought”, there only is an “is.” The fact that Pinker sets up a choice between our moral sense and values rooted in religion is a contradiction. According to his view, religious views must have come into existence as a complement to our development of a moral sense. Where a religious view takes hold in a population that God wants us to be cruel and selfish, this seems to me indicative, in Pinker’s conception of humanity, of a set of persons for whom the moral sense has not evolved as it has for most. But even if such views have taken hold, in the absence of any God, by what authority can we reject cruelty and selfishness?


Kofi Annan, former corrupt and inept head of the UN, resigns and takes the US to task for abandoning its principles. To which one is tempted to respond - at least we had some to begin with - in contrast to him. But that would be conceding his point, which I refuse to do. His UN did everything it could to undermine its own sanctions against Iraq through the Oil-for-Food scandal; arguably those sanctions were in real danger of being lifted because of the economic goodies Saddam was dangling before the French and the Germans. Absent the US intervention, my guess is that this would have already occurred by now, and you'd have Saddam very active in rebuilding his stockpiles of WMDs.

Don't believe me? Watch what happens with Iran, a nation that is a clear threat to its region and the world. Anything that will have the full backing of the UN will only further enable Iran. Why? Because Iran has economic goodies to spread aplenty, and the bottom line is most of the countries in the UN care more about the potential for getting their share than for a peace that will not effect them directly. This is the frustrating thing about the UN - everyone has this conception that member countries magically leave their own interests out of the equation when dealing with the UN, and so we get this magical cumbaya assembly that hastens world peace. The truth is quite the opposite - for most countries, the existence of the UN and this false conception of its role by many in the West as some guarantor of peace allows them to successfully ply their interests in a way they never could without the UN.

This was as true under Annan as it has ever been. But he is that rare creature, much like Clinton - rather than being judged for actual performance in a position, the two are that rare breed of politician that has morphed into a celebrity on the world stage. Short of pulling an OJ, they will always be able to find a crowd of well-heeled sophisticates who have done more than just forgiven their past foibles; they've either completely forgotten them or never acknowledged them in the first place.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I never bought into the corruption of the UN. Sure, any orginization that size has corrupt members. But, I think oil for food can be better explained by the difference between what the UN is, and what it is supposed to be.

The founding concept of the UN is a world forum where disputes between countries can be mediated without war. I reality, it is all about preserving existing power structures. Never mind that Sad am was a no good tyrant that regularly abused his people, the UN and its member states will do just about anything to keep him in power.

The US likes to think of itself of this force for good (which I believe is largely true). But the US is the most radical country in the UN. Islamist terrorists are commonly seen as the radicals; but all they want is a return to the dark ages. America wants to see the end of the tyranny of dictatorships, terrorism, communism and fascism and equal rights for women. These ideas are very radical in most of the world. To further these goals, the US wants to break up existing power structures. This is seen as threatening to the status quo and the member states of the UN.

The UN has no real army thus cannot oppose US will with a military force. Thus, the UN will use all other means at its disposal, whether legal or not, to preserve the status quo. Once people understand this, Annan's US bashing speeches, UN condemnation of Israel, and sanction programs that actually prop up the tyrants they mean to topple, all makes sense.

4:29 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Sign up for my Notify List and get email when I update!

powered by