Archive for Ethics

Further Thoughts on Ethics, Post Jesus

Posted in Ethics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2008 by carriedthecross

When I was a Christian, I would oftentimes become frustrated while attempting to understand a moral sentiment put forth through biblical text.  Why in the world would God make absolute morality so ambiguous?  When Moses wrote, “thou shalt not kill,” did he mean “thou shalt not kill” or did he mean “thou shalt not kill without just cause?”  What about abortion? War? Poverty? At times a golden nugget in Scipture would pop out that seemed to make things clear, but there was always a level of ambivalence that I felt was never fully appreciated by the mass of Christianity.

Upon looking to my struggles through developing a proper hermeneutic of Scripture to find a moral system fair to the text, and the supposed author of the text, I cannot help but laugh.  Wading through the waters of religious dogma to discover an absolute morality seems so much easier than developing a moral system beyond a conception of a divine transcendent being which by necessity decrees certain actions “good” and certain actions “bad.”  When I left Christianity–in fact, in my preparation to leave Christianity, even–I recognized that I would somehow need to construct (or not construct, perhaps) a new moral system.

So where to begin? Well first I had to assess if in fact there was morality.  Without Christianity, is moral nihilism the path to go?  Or perhaps there is morality, but it is subjective.  Maybe there is still some sort of objective morality existing independent of humanity.  What a mess!  As I collected my thoughts and began to sift through the arguments and counter arguments, I found myself most convinced by the though of Spinoza (there is nothing that is inherently ‘good’ or ‘evil’), Hume (moral values simply correspond to our social engrained sentiments and passions) and more recently Bernard Williams (actions are described as “good” or “bad” not in a universal sense, but through individual passions and social construction).

In other words, no objective morality exists.  Continue reading

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Heroes of Humanity #1: John Wesley

Posted in Heroes of Humanity with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 9, 2008 by carriedthecross

It occurs to me that far too often we define ourselves by what we are not.  The old “A/not A” problem. If I tell you what I am not (not A), then you will know what I am (A).  Unfortunately, the world doesn’t operate under an infinite number of dichotomous relationships.  The opposite of Republican, believe it or not, is not Democrat.  The opposite of Christian is not atheist.  The opposite of dictatorship is not democracy.  There are incredibly complex systems at work that define who and what we are.

In particular, atheism does not provide a comprehensive description of who I am.  It simply proves an individual descriptor of one category I do not fall into: religious belief.  I have read the writings of many atheists and agnostics, and know several personally.  What strikes me is that there may be common threads, but we are not all the same. 

And so, it is in this effort to not simply describe myself by what I am not that I want to take some time and talk about those individuals who have helped to shape me as a person, my “Heroes of Humanity,” if you will.  These are the individuals whose stories and ideas have helped to shape me as a person.  Many of them are atheists, some of them are not.  Some are devout Christians.  Some are liberals and some are conservatives.  Some are American and some are Burmese.  Some are alive now and some are long gone.  Men and women, philosophers and psychologists, dictators and activists. 

So who first? What individual should be the first to receive my praise? I’m going to go with John Wesley.  For those of you who do not know, Wesley was the eighteenth century founder of the Methodist movement.  He was a zealous Christian who is accredited with a great impact on English society.  It is perhaps odd, then, that I recognize him as having a profound impact on the course of my life, eh?  Though I disagree with many of his conclusions (and hypothesize that perhaps had he been born two hundred years later that many of them would be different), I value many of his principles, and resonate with many of his characteristics.
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Re-evaluating Policy as an Atheist #3: Abortion

Posted in Ethics, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 7, 2008 by carriedthecross

Abortion. Perhaps the most hot-button issue among evangelicals.  You don’t have to walk past many cars at my college to see an “Abortion is Murder” bumper sticker.  The Honors Seminar at my school last year did a session on abortion.  The students taking the seminar were required to read a pro-life and a pro-choice article before listening to a speaker on the topic.  One problem: only one side of the issue was honestly presented.  The speaker was an avid and open pro-lifer.  The pro-life article was well written and substantiated.  On the other hand, the pro-choice article looked like it had been ripped out of a 6th grade civics class.  A blatant straw-man, the pro-choice article they chose was filled with spelling and grammatical errors and full of poorly defended claims. 

Why do I mention this?  Because evangelicals are almost unanimously opposed to abortion.  Even the most liberal among them.  When asked about abortion by Barna Group, 94% of evangelicals and 73% of born-agains took the position that abortion should either be illegal in all circumstances or in all but a few special circumstances. 

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For much of my time as a Christian, I was firmly planted in the pro-life camp.  As a high school student, I remember railing against abortion as the greatest attack on the sanctity of life since the Holocaust. During college, I became more sympathetic to the pro-choice movement.  It seemed to be an oversimplification of the issue to claim that all abortions were morally wrong.  Most of the arguments I heard from Christians were from the breed of ad populum (in one class, a group presentation once included photos of aborted fetuses; while these photos did little to substantiate their case, it did rile up like minded pro-lifers in the class).

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Re-evaluating Policy as an Atheist #2: Torture

Posted in Ethics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 6, 2008 by carriedthecross

In the past year in particular, the notion of torture has held an interesting place in American politics. This ambiguous tactic (what exactly is torture, anyway) resurfaces from time to time in American politics. Opinions on the topic of torture have very serious implications for ethics and public policy. As a Christian, I found the idea of torture appalling. Completely repugnant was the idea that a civilized government (or non-governmental organization) would employ the tactics of torture on citizens or foreigners for any reason. Something that still surprises me to this day, I was in the minority opinion (to the best of my knowledge) among my fellow Christians.

So what is torture? Article 1 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture define it this way: “Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.” (emphasis mine)

As a Christian, this issue seemed simple. Under no circumstances would torture be acceptable. The utilitarian concept of using any individual as a means to an end, in this instance, seemed unacceptable. If human life is sacred, after all, under what authority would any man be justified in demeaning that human life? Since I have lived in America my entire life, it is normal form me to interpret issues and events through the paradigm of my national identity. As an American, it seemed almost unpatriotic to surrender the moral high ground and employ those tactics which I might expect from a terrorist abroad.

When I first left the faith, my opinions on this issue did not immediately change. The idea itself is still reprehensible. But utilitarian ethics make more sense to me now. Individuals seem to have potential value rather than innate value. The danger here is that this can become very subjective, but in my eyes Hitler surrendered much of his own rights, liberties, and indeed human value. In much the same way that I believe a nation-state can surrender its rights to sovereignty, I believe an individual can surrender their rights, even to life. Perhaps.

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Ethics, Post-Jesus

Posted in Ethics with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 2, 2008 by carriedthecross

One of the key issues I had to deal with while I was in the process of becoming more psychological amiable to the idea of embracing atheism was the question of morality without God. The issue of morality without God seems to have been beaten to death, and so I don’t want to discuss it per se, but I do want to put down some thoughts on morality that does not stem from objectivist religious authoritarian ethics.

The basic dichotomy seems to be between whether morality is objective (morality as an entity that exists in itself, a moral statement is objectively true whether anyone believes it or not) or subjective (morality is an entity that exists only in the mind, there is nothing beyond the moral opinions of persons that make normative judgments true).

As a Christian, the latter notion was frightening, and perhaps with good cause. As Ravi Zecharrias, Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell and other ‘Christian Generals’ would have their audience to believe, without God there is no way to develop morality without relying on personal whims. If morals are subjective, if the ‘goodness’ of an action depends on the acceptance of an individual or culture, than the Holocaust was logically moral from the perspective of citizens of Germany during the Third Reich. As a Christian, I was taught time and again that subjectivism leads inevitably to moral nihilism, the view that no moral values are better or worse than others and that there is no true ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’

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