Over at David Marshall’s blog he has another response in our ongoing conversation about the origins of morality, modern perspectives on slavery, and the roles of Christianity in it all. In this latest reply he brings in a large amount of global history that I simply cannot comment on. I am not nearly as well read in those issues. However, this provides an opportunity to address another problem that comes up in many of these conversations: how do you deal with claims that you can’t track down yourself? Perhaps there is not enough time to track them down, or it is too technical for you to understand, or some other reason. I’ll deal with that issue at the end.
First, I want to comment on this from Marshall:
Brian argues at a lower decibel level.
Thanks! I’m not sure if everyone agrees that I operate at low decibel, but I do try to be civil (most of the time!).
Sam Harris thinks it is obvious that owning slaves is wrong. Brian Blais thinks it obvious that gay marriage is OK. I think it is obvious that both beliefs are formed in a particular culture due to that culture’s heritage, pulled in certain directions by particular lines of thinking, and would not likely take the same form in, say, Aztec or Wahhabi societies so readily.
Again, I draw a distinction between the cultural bias that each of us have and the more objective perspectives we can obtain through rational discourse.
There are two moral issues, here: (1) Why should we care about “increasing suffering” that is not our own suffering, or (a Confucianist may ask) of that of people we are intimately related to? (2) Why should we assume that in fact, these particular “evils” really do cause more suffering? (More than, say, pornography? Or growing up with Dad? Or abortion? Or intellectual arrogance?)
- If you read Sam Harris’ book, or see some of his lectures on this issue, he deals with it far more eloquently than I. In a practical way, we care about the suffering of others because it is directly tied to the suffering of us. Further, we must care about the suffering of conscious creatures because this is the moral thing to do. I don’t want to repeat all of Harris’ theses here, however.
- Why should we “assume” these particular “evils” do cause more suffering? Actually, we do not simply assume it. We marshal (no pun intended, David) the evidence for it. This is what separates a rational basis for morality and a religious one - there are no dictates from “on high”. I could be wrong about it, but from what evidence I can see, depriving the rights of a minority that most enjoy causes needless suffering. This applies to slavery and it applies to the rights of consenting adults to marry.
How does Blais know his own set of values is superior to all those others
I guess I don’t, except in cases where someone is making a moral claim and cannot justify on the basis of decreased suffering. It’s like scientific knowledge that way - how do I know that my knowledge is better than another? I don’t, until they make specific claims and I see their justification. I could be wrong about it. I could be corrected, and convinced of a perspective I don’t currently hold. I don’t see a problem with this.
Finally, one might argue, from a utilitarian point of view, that the Athenians increased total happiness by enslaving half their population, so that free men could sculpt, debate, write philosophy, and invent science. Might there not be a larger total sum of happiness in such a Republic, than among a people that is all free, but fails at such achievements? Or would the Athenians have increased the world’s total future happiness without those slaves?
This is indeed possible. No one ever said that the moral calculus would be easy.
But the Gospel does say, very clearly, that we are to care even for our enemies, return good for evil, and love our neighbors as ourselves. There’s nothing “vague” about that: it’s repeated hundreds of times, in different ways, and as eloquently as anything ever written.
It also says:
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.
But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them–bring them here and kill them in front of me.
The recurring problem is that there are good things there, but also bad things there. Given the history of Christianity, and the current divisions between different groups of Christians, I am not simply picking things out of context. Intelligent, well-meaning people draw opposite messages from the Bible. If this were, say, the works of Shakespeare I’d have no problem with it. We’d simply take the lessons we like, and call the rest of it anachronistic. This is what moderate Christians do with much of Bible. Even conservative Christians do it with at least the brutal dictates in the Old Testament.
Even the New Atheists are waging verbal civil war on one another, based on different ethical positions they take in regard to feminism.
Atheism is simply the label we give to people who are not convinced by the arguments of theists on the narrow question about the existence of God. After that, there needn’t be any agreement. That atheists disagree on feminism is perfectly fine. If they disagreed on the existence of God, then there would be a problem.
But I don’t think educated Christians are so starkly divided, compared to the various schools of atheism.
Really? You think that, say, educated Baptists and Catholics really agree on core interpretations of the divinity of Jesus? What about with Universalists? These are divisions about core beliefs, not tangential topics like feminism.
Dealing with claims beyond ones ability to check
In Marshall’s post, he says
My impression is that it is also rather hard to find early reform movements within Hindu culture that challenged caste. Mohandas Gandhi came at the tail end of reform inspired by outside forces (Christian missions), as John Farquhar shows in Modern Religious Movements in India. In China, while some ethnic groups refrained from binding the feet of women, like the Hakka, it took an outside agent – Christian missions, again – to challenge it inside the Han Chinese culture as a whole.
I don’t have the expertise in history to really comment, nor can I make an authoritative judgement on it. However, I am skeptical of it nonetheless. Why? If someone makes a claim about the rise of Napoleon, beyond my ability to confirm, I will tend to believe them - unless I suspect that this claim supports some other strongly held belief of the person. In that case, I would be skeptical of it.
In the case of this description from Marshall, it sounds too much like the claim that started this discussion, that somehow Christianity was the source of “separation of church and state”. A claim that I believe is biased in the direction of Marshall’s personal beliefs in the tenets of Christianity. It seems, although I can’t demonstrate it conclusively without a lot more work, to be of a similar flavor. I ran into the same problem with UFO sightings. I can't investigate every single UFO claim, but every one that I did have time to track down turned out to be mundane. The same with faith-healings. This one deals with the force of history, and I simply don't have the time to corroborate the facts, but I am still left unconvinced.
Perhaps that puts this conversation at an end, with all of the issues pretty much on the table for others to read and react to. It has certainly been an interesting and challenging exchange.