Tag Archives: Morals

Guns, Death and Compassion

24 Dec

Here’s yet another comment on the Newton school massacre.

This time from me.

And this is the thing: I genuinely don’t understand why we have so much news coverage, so much focus on the victims, so much consideration of how to avoid such an awful event in the future, so many statesman-like speeches and commitments to “do something”.

My question is: what is special about this event?

When yet another child is killed by a US drone in Pakistan (178 in the last 7 years and counting) do we see weeping parents? Do we follow the memorial services and hear messages of condolences from the local politicians and imams? Do we consider what went wrong and how to avoid the same terrible things from happening again? Do we open up ourselves to understanding what it would be like to be in their shoes, to be the grieving mother or the orphaned child?

Do we bollocks. We call it collateral damage. Or even “bug splats”. People say it’s just something that happens in war, something out of our control, they don’t put such a high value on life… or so the ludicrous post-hoc justifications go.

More than 30,000 people are killed by guns in the US every year. Over half of these are suicides. More children have been killed by accident every year than all the mass shootings over the last couple of decades put together. What about these deaths? Why don’t we pay more attention to these?

After September the 11th, I was again shocked at the furore in the media and western societies. “But what about the recent Rwandan genocide“, I thought? When we had a 2 minute silence at the office I found myself wondering: “Why are the people who suffered and died in America so important? We didn’t have a silence for so many other tragedies.” At the same time as the terrible events of September 11th, the holocaust in Democratic Republic of Congo was going on. Between 1997 and 2003 well over 5 million people were murdered, not to mention the rape, torture, and other horrors. I didn’t even read about it until 2002 and I read the papers daily over that period. I’ll just mention that statistic again – 5.4 million people were killed. A familiar sounding figure – close to the number of Jews killed by the Nazis. I’m not making crass comparisons for the sake of a competition here – I’m pointing out that these heart-rending atrocities merit equal attention.

When all those Japanese people died in the 2011 tsunami I felt awful for them. That this story was suddenly eclipsed by the story of the nuclear power station was again inhumane. No one died from radiation poisoning. But once nuclear power got involved, I stopped seeing any mention of the 20,000 people who died from this horror, not to mention the hundreds of thousands more affected by it all. Why was that? Perhaps it was something to do with the fear of nuclear power being stronger than the sympathy for the victims?

When I raise this point, most people realise the greater context, understand the unhealthy media bias, and show some empathy with others in horrendous situations around the world. However, worryingly some small-minded people actually accuse me of being heartless. Is it heartless that I feel some measure of pain, not just when a nice middle class white person dies, but when an impoverished person is killed far away from me in a culture of which I know little? Surely this is the antithesis of heartlessness.

People are people, regardless of where they happen to have been born.

I once read that ‘good and bad’ are defined as how things affect oneself, whereas ‘right and wrong’ are the affects of one’s actions on another. The latter category is also known as morality.

Could it be that people make more of a big deal of issues that affect people who are closer to them in culture, colour and proximity?

I’m no psychologist (and wouldn’t like to judge the motivations of others in this regard) but it’s pretty easy to label this as a selfish attitude.

I wholly understand the underlying fear, but personally, the fear of such things happening to me takes second place to empathy for other people.

As such, I’ll go so far as to say that the current media obsession with the minutia of this particular tragedy actually demonstrates a lack of moral values.

This powerful article, in which I read the above comparison, describes these issues well. At the end of the article a commenter said:

Our Professor told us one day that a newspaper had approached him to commission a piece of research to let them quantifiably determine how newsworthy a story involving fatalities would be. He just told them to divide the number of deaths by the distance in km to the incident. No, I am not joking.

So in conclusion, let’s have some more empathy. And let’s apply that empathy with a bit more equality.

Criticising Religion – Why Not Let Them Be?

27 Nov

The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.

– George Bernard Shaw

People sometimes ask me why I criticise religion. They ask me why I don’t just take the attitude of live and let live.

Because of nasty shit like this and this and this and this and this and this and this and especially this and certainly this. And that’s just taking one version of one religion.

Because religions are just stories and they can be criticised like any other stories.

Because religions are ideas and they can be criticised like any other ideas.

Because religious prophets, messiahs, gurus and the like are just people and what they say can be criticised like anything said by any other person.

Because religious people seem to think they can impose their ideas and “morals” on society, on government and on children.

Because religious people persecute others who don’t hold to their views.

Because basing your life on a book crammed full of heinous immorality is neither good for a person nor for society.

Granted most religious people I know largely cherry pick the nice bits from their religion, but most carry at least some nasty views, and the more fundamentalist types take the whole thing literally. Most religious people are moderate but they pave the way for extremists when they say that faith is a good thing, that believing in something with no evidence is a virtue. This is a toxic idea.

Some of the religious explain away the more ludicrous stories – such as magic fruit and talking snakes – as metaphorical, and they try to ignore the nastier ideas in a similar vein, claiming they’re allegorical, or by arguing that they only apply in a limited context (a fun demolition of the contextual approach is here). The problem is that this pick and mix approach is not taken by all adherents and many do take these ideas literally.

For example the islamic holy book says infidels should be killed; some people will go ahead and do it as their faith in the sanctity of their holy book means they must.

Then the christian holy book says gays should be stoned to death; some people will go ahead and do it as their faith in the sanctity of their holy book means they must.

And I couldn’t leave out the jewish holy book which repeatedly advocates genocide; some people will go ahead and do it as their faith in the sanctity of their holy book means they must.

This assumption that religion provides us with morals – as well as being absurd – is pernicious and dangerous for society.

There’s an assumption floating around these days that saying something about religion is angry, extreme or militant because we have this unwritten social rule that we don’t criticise religious belief. But it’s not, because when you listen to the criticisms it is actually logical and rational to say that religion is silly, and further that it should have no bearing on our moral decisions.

As one brave atheist said: “When I realized that there was nothing out there to redeem me, or tell me how to live, or that I needed to obey, I began to take true responsibility for myself. I sought to examine my thoughts and actions more carefully, and established a morality based on reason and humanity.

Stephen Fry passionately said: “We must remember that the church is very loose on moral evils because – although they try to accuse people like me, who believe in empiricism and the enlightenment, of what they call moral relativism, as if it’s some appalling sin whereas what it actually means is thought – they, for example, thought that slavery was absolutely fine, absolutely okay and then they didn’t. And what is the point of the catholic church if it says ‘oh we couldn’t know better because nobody else did’. Then what are you for?!

Education is a big one here. The religious continue to try to indoctrinate children in one third of state funded schools in the UK. This is bad for children and society on so many levels. It encourages segregation. It stifles healthy learning and development. Children should be taught critical thinking and logic in a secular and rationalist environment. They should be taught to ask questions, to be critical about every idea they are taught. They should not be taught what to think but how to think. Anything less is to abrogate our responsibilities to children. Yet astoundingly the UK government is encouraging more of these schools, where it’s okay to dismiss a teacher if they don’t conform to certain beliefs or based on their marital status, where it’s okay to refuse a child on the grounds of whether their parents believe in a fairy tale, where homophobic attitudes are aired and where healthy sex and relationship teaching is withheld. Still, at least in this country they think it’s okay to educate kids, unlike others.

Then many countries are introducing new laws against blasphemy. Blasphemy is essentially criticising, or not showing enough respect for, a religion or a religious figure. There are far too many atrocious examples of such laws being used. Many even want the UN to impose an international law against it. After all, the bible dictates death to blasphemers.

The idea that a being with supernatural powers is so sensitive to criticism that it needs such ludicrous laws is obviously very silly. More seriously, the sensitivity of the religious to criticisms of their beliefs, and the ends to which they will go to silence critics of their views, is on its own reason enough to justify my critical position.

Many people argue that I should ‘respect’ people’s religious beliefs. This is ridiculous as I patently have no respect for religious beliefs, but that doesn’t mean that I cannot respect a person. One must separate respect for a person from respect for their beliefs.

So in conclusion I defend religious freedom but not religious privilege. I defend the right of anyone to hold a view and discuss it in public, but I will not stand by when views I consider wrong are imposed on others. And I stand up for my right to criticise views with which I disagree.

Why We Believe What We Believe – Andrew Newberg

2 Nov

I’ve read a lot of good books describing how the mind works and this one is near the top of the list.

Andrew Newberg describes – with fascinating examples and studies – how we create our view of reality. Or to put it another way: our beliefs. This isn’t just about religion, though that is discussed in detail, but about how we create, adapt and persist our belief system and how that then shapes our perception of the world.

There’s some fascinating developmental stuff in there, such as how babies up to a certain age don’t believe an object exists when it’s outside of their perception.

He shows how a baby has twice as many neurons than an adult but way fewer connections. And in fact puts a positive light on the fact we lose brain cells as we age: we make too many connections as we grow, and pare away the ones that are not useful, resulting in a brain that can function better.

He discusses stages of belief such as how a child doesn’t have a moral dimension at first, understanding the difference between good and bad, i.e. as their actions affect them, but not between right and wrong, i.e. how their actions affect others – this is learnt roughly between the ages of 6 and 10, significantly influenced by the stories they are told, through which they learn to empathise.

Amusingly telling parents some of these things can result in an irrational response – “my baby recognises me”, “my baby is good and thoughtful”. But then we don’t like having our beliefs challenged, which is something he comes onto later in the book, discussing cognitive biases and how to become aware of the influences our beliefs have on our perceptions and corollary beliefs. This is also a good example of how we project our beliefs and way of thinking onto others, with an anthropomorphic bent,  a bias to which we are particularly prone.

So our view of the world is not a passive observation. We filter and process information according to our beliefs, which are acquired through nature, nurture and so on, and we actively create our view of reality.

His discussion of transcendent states is just brilliant. He covers nuns in prayer, Buddhists in meditation, Pentecostals speaking in tongues and an atheist meditating on God. These all bring excellent insights into how we can change our view of reality, suspend some of our belief systems, and become more open to, and aware of, other possibilities.

In Buddhist meditations, for example, we see an increase of activity in the pre-frontal cortex, the part that “monitor[s] our ability to stay attentive and alert, helping us to focus on a task… and in planning and executing a task”. Most interestingly there is a diminution of activity in the parietal lobes, those areas responsible for self image, and perception of space and time. That means that people do – in their perception – transcend their bodies, space and time and are able to be “in the moment”. Great insights can come from this mind state, as well as increased peace and well-being. Also these practices can reinforce a person’s view of the world as any things experienced in that state are usually used to confirm ones belief system, and if you think on a belief for long enough it becomes real.

Speaking in tongues (glossolalia) has a rather different effect: there is decreased activity in the frontal lobes and a “surrender of conscious will” (practitioners talk of a surrender of control to God). It therefore allows the person to think in new and creative ways, to see things from a different perspective, and is a useful mind-state in changing beliefs, in transforming oneself. Interestingly, glossolaliacs have an increased activity in the parietal lobes implying they have a greater sense of personal self, although as they tended not to practise for as long as the meditators, this may change if they practise more.

Newberg talks of these transcendent experiences as giving a feeling of oneness with the universe, or a connectedness with everything. With this will come a sense of peacefulness, and clarity of purpose. This was described by the atheist who meditated.

One of his closing comments is a challenge to which I continue to aspire:

Becoming a better believer is a difficult task to undertake, for re-wiring the brain requires patience and time. But if we succeed, to some small degree, then we will be better able to recognize our limitations, as well as our strengths. For this reason, I hold the deepest respect for those people who have had the courage to question and challenge their beliefs, for these are the individuals who have enriched our world through their creativity and willingness to grow.

Defining Evil

28 Sep

Nothing is easier than to condemn the evildoer. Nothing is harder than to try and understand them.

– Fyodor Dostoevsky

Following from the previous post on Evil, here are some efforts trying to pin down a definition of evil, most of which I heard on a radio program about the subject:

Professor Alain Turain says that with “evil what is at stake is the destruction of the subject“. He says “pleasure is one possibility, also cruelty, it’s destroying your capacity to be a subject, as an animal, as a thing. A notion of degradation and destruction or the integrity of another.

David Mollet writes “The flaw in the discussion is the product of various assumptions about what an evil act is. It seems to focus on the act itself rather than the attitude of the person committing the act. I would offer a different definition of evil: some people do bad things but don’t think that they are doing a bad thing. These people are not evil. True evil is doing a bad thing while knowing that it’s bad.

What about the sincere person that think they are doing their duty, e.g. Anders Brevik? They would not be called evil by the intention definition, nor would the Nazi camp guard that thinks he’s doing his duty.

So by this definition “Brevik is not evil as he didn’t gain enjoyment from the killing, whereas Che Guevara is quoted as enjoying making the order to fire on his enemies.

Some would then conclude that “pleasure is not a necessary component.” which means we can say that both an intention and an act can be separately categorised as evil.

Also we talk about a distinction between violence and extreme violence.

Smith: “We want to know whether something is just very bad behaviour, gross moral turpitude, or do we need an extra category of evil. It’s definitely something to do with magnitude.

A useful question is: “is there a bigger pattern, a bigger system that corrupts your morality” – pushing towards Zimbardo’s conclusions?

Young: People can “try to ground a notion of evil by appeal to human rights. Human rights is not just a set of laws but part of a universal culture.

Professor Barry Smith suggests: “a separation between act and intention: what are evil intentions? Our intuitions are good at figuring out what an evil act is.” I disagree; it’s interesting that many people share the idea that there is evil but that they don’t agree on what it is.

I say that morals are obviously relative from which it follows that evil must also be relative. This explains why there is not a succinct definition on which people can agree.

Peter Young, a Professor of Criminology, says people often fall back on the holocaust when relativism is brought up and most agree that this was “evil”. But there were then, and are now, some people who think otherwise, thus it is still not an absolute.

Young says that “criminologists also don’t like to talk about evil. Using evil is a way to get away from relativism.

Michel Wieviorka (a Professor of Sociology who recently published a book called Evil) discusses the example of Anders Brevik who killed 79 people in Norway. “In looking for an explanation, we look to sociological factors: the political discourse of muslims and immigration, etc. But this is not enough. Then we look at psychological factors: let us understand the psychologies of the person involved, but of course this is still not enough.There is some mystery in what we try to understand. In the same circumstance one will commit a murder, another will not, and we try to understand this.”Young said “people try to stop the explanation by saying look, that’s just evil.

To understand you have to express empathy. Is this a limit to social science?

Wieviorka: “the more you help, the more you explain, the more you can help to fight against crime, it means that how will you fight something that you don’t explain? How do you fight racism for instance if you don’t try to understand why people become racist. You are not born racist you become racist. So if you don’t try to explain, maybe you need some empathy to understand the people that are racist, but because you understand does not mean that you don’t want to fight.

So is evil even a useful concept?

Wieviorka says “evil is not a concept readily adopted by sociologists. This is because religion gets in the way. It’s not a sociological category. It’s a non-explanation – it’s moral, political, religious. Not a tool to use in order to understand better, but an object in itself. Using evil becomes saying it’s something in itself, it’s not a human issue, it’s nature or its genes.

Laurie Taylor: “it’s useful as something to express extreme intolerance of certain types of behaviour but not nail it to a particular type of phenomenon. So do we need this category? Yes, we do want it, but it’s the target of explanation, not the explanation in itself. It’s a mish-mash of ideas and definitions. We can say the behaviour is what we want to explain.

A more useful paradigm than evil here.

Evil

14 Sep

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

– Aristotle

When somebody does something bad, say killing a child, genocide or rape, people tend to call them a monster or “evil”.

It doesn’t explain anything; in fact it is used to shut down any effort at explaining such behaviour.

It’s as if giving them this label explains everything. The implication is that there’s something intrinsically wrong with the person that has committed this act.

I say calling someone evil is a cop out.

It implies they’re just made that way so they will never change and we should just do away with them. It’s saying that punishment and vengeance is the only way and there is no point in trying to understand and hence rehabilitate the person.

There’s a dangerous de-humanising element here. And this means it sets them apart from the rest of us.

There’s an issue with empathy: it’s not easy to understand why someone has done something that on face value seems heartless and goes against our deeply held moral codes. But why this fear? It requires a level of empathy that not everyone is willing to use.

To empathise is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and to try to think what they thought, and to feel what they felt. To empathise is to consider yourself committing that act.

And this is the problem.

It’s a sign of maturity that a person can hold someone else’s point of view in their mind without agreeing with it.

To empathise also means to admit that you could commit the same act. To accept that we all have a side that we don’t like. The thing is, we are all capable of heinous acts. Study after study proves this to be true. People think “oh no, not me, I couldn’t possibly do something like that, I’m better than that”. Alas that’s just wishful thinking.

Psychologists Professor Philip Zimbardo and Doctor Stanley Milgram have clearly shown how “normal” people can be made to commit “evil” acts. If you find this difficult to accept, read about the infamous Stanford Prison experiment or the Milgram experiment.

If we accept that in some situations, with certain influences, we are all capable of very bad acts, then the question is what are those situations and what are those motivations, and how do we protect against them? To do otherwise is simply idiocy.

The good thing is that there’s a corollary to this conclusion. Zimbardo describes the ways in which people can be influenced to do “good” things against these forces, people he calls heroes. In fact, Zimbardo has set up a project in America and is doing some great work educating people “to overcome the natural human tendency to watch and wait in moments of crisis” so they can “act heroically on behalf of those in need“.

More evil in the next post.

Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche

4 Sep

I love Nietzsche’s ideas, and he doesn’t fail to shock and impress in this book.

He says that these ideas are not for everybody and he’s certainly right on that front. A lot of people I know wouldn’t be able to take on board some of his ideas as they push at our notions of right and wrong, society, power and fairness. Not to mention his strong sexism and stereotyping of nationalities. That’s not to say there is not truth in his ideas simply because they push against what is considered right and wrong in our current moral framework.

This version, translated a century ago by Helen Zimmern, is difficult to read. Logorrheic sentences that last a whole page mean the text is hard to comprehend. The way French, Latin and other languages are thrown in willy-nilly also detracts from an easy understanding. I’d be surprised if there’s not a better translation out there.

Here are some of his ideas that really struck home:

Morality is about maintaining power. People say that the morality of the average Joe Bloggs tends to be more democratic, more meritocratic, and so on, whereas those with power and control see this morality with disdain, almost don’t comprehend the point of it; their morals lead them to maintain their position. The morality of both parties is about increasing their power.

It’s all about one of Nietzsche’s favourite concepts: Will To Power. We talk about fighting for freedom (as currently seen in the Middle East), but it is often the case that freedom is a synonym for power.

He is scathing in his attacks on philosophers and, I presume by ironic extension, on himself. He says that philosophers have ideas, prejudices and beliefs and their philosophy is less about finding truth, and more about proving their own truth, more about finding justifications for their views. He goes on to say their philosophy is a confession, or an unconscious autobiography.

One of his more shocking assertions is worth quoting directly “The falseness of an opinion is not for us any objection to it: it is here, perhaps, that our new language sounds most strangely. The question is, how far an opinion is life-furthering, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps species-rearing, and we are fundamentally inclined to maintain that the falsest opinions (to which the synthetic judgments a priori belong), are the most indispensable to us, that without a recognition of logical fictions, without a comparison of reality with the purely IMAGINED world of the absolute and immutable, without a constant counterfeiting of the world by means of numbers, man could not live—that the renunciation of false opinions would be a renunciation of life, a negation of life. TO RECOGNISE UNTRUTH AS A CONDITION OF LIFE; that is certainly to impugn the traditional ideas of value in a dangerous manner, and a philosophy which ventures to do so, has thereby alone placed itself beyond good and evil.

And here is a taster of his apophthegms:

Woman learns how to hate in proportion as she forgets how to charm.

What is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil” i.e. any moral framework goes out of the window when love is the motivation.

I could go on. Suffice to say, a recommended read for those able to take such a strong questioning of many fundamentals.

God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

19 Apr

This is a good book to explore some of the arguments around gods existence, the nature of religion and its effects on people.

The reader is left in no doubt as to his view given the subtitle of the book: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Not as good as watching the Hitch debate live mind. If after reading the book and watching him talk you can remain religious then you clearly must have a screw loose (I recommend the second link – he summarises the book in 10 minutes).

The Hitch (PBUH) calls himself an anti-theist rather than an atheist; a distinction I enjoy.

I heartily agree with most of what he says. I’ve noticed more and more the egregious lack of morals in the biblical stories and the principles espoused therein. Although most Christians (by necessity) cherry pick the nice bits and close their ears to the downright nasty bits, I think it’s important to point out the fact that it condones slavery, selling your daughter, rape, genocide, ritual slaughter of animals, human sacrifice and torture; whether that be to appease god or to punish non believers for all eternity. Indeed the idea that we have the choice to follow god, and then choose not to take that option then deserve the eternal damnation that Jesus first introduces, it is scandalous to claim the christian god is all loving, all powerful and all knowing. Further, if he already knows the future and the choices we will make, he has therefore created us knowing that we will make that choice. Pretty immoral.

And so if people truly do follow the claims of the belief system, and believe the bible to be the word of god, i.e. get a bit fundamentalist, then we’re in for a rough ride.

He argued that putting threats of eternal punishment behind these religious moral exhortations rather devalues them – surely we should do it out of a better motive.

And then christians can somehow claim that the morals and laws in society come from religion. (Granted some come from the church trying to maintain power and control.) In fact, in the fourth century, when christianity was being codified, they borrowed largely from the Stoics. I would argue that most decent laws come from our natural instincts as humans to figure out rules to work together as a society, i.e. we have a moral society not because of religion, but in spite of it.

I think The Hitch could have pushed this point more strongly in his book; he does this to great effect in his debates.

That said, most of the arguments were great, and added to the already big armoury of anti-christian arguments that are fairly obvious to anyone that takes the time to read even a small part of the bible with an open mind. He does it with wit and erudition without getting ranty and so it is an enjoyable and educational read.

His treatment of the assertion that atheistic regimes can also be pretty abhorrent (Russia, Cambodia, Nazi Germany et al) could have been stronger; he draws parallels between the ideologies of these regimes and religion and shows that religious people and organisations didn’t condemn then, and even supported them. He could have done a lot better than that, for example mentioning that Hitler was a christian and his interpretation of christianity was a central motivation for his antisemitism. He could have also used an argument that I prefer: mentioning that Hitler was a vegetarian and by the same ‘logic’ could say therefore vegetarianism leads to evil. Or he could have just shown this cartoon which says it nicely. “Saying that you believe in atheism is like saying you believe in maths. Hitler and Stalin didn’t go to war in the name of atheism, much like they didn’t go to war in the name of fractions or prime numbers.

Again, in his debates he puts forward the excellent two questions:

First, you have to name for me an ethical action or an ethical statement or moral action or moral statement made or undertaken by a believer that I couldn’t undertake or say, I couldn’t state or do. I haven’t yet had an example pointed out of that to me. In other words, that a person of faith would have an advantage by being able to call upon divine sanction. Whereas if I ask you to think of a wicked act undertaken by someone in the name of God or because of their faith or a wicked statement made, you wouldn’t have that much difficulty, I think, in coming up with an example right away. The genital mutilation community, for example, is almost exclusively religious; the suicide bombing community is almost exclusively religious; there are injunctions for genocide in the Old Testament; there are injunctions, warrants for slavery and racism in the Old Testament too. There’s simply no way of deriving morality and ethics from the supernatural. When we come to the question of the absolute, well, the most often cited one is the Golden Rule, the one that almost everyone feels they have in common. The injunction not to do to others as you wouldn’t want them to do to you. This doesn’t in fact come from the Sermon on the Mount or from Christianity, or it doesn’t originate with it. It’s certainly adumbrated by Rabbi Hillel, a Babylonian rabbi, and it’s to be found in The Analects of Confucious, too.

It almost seems like he rushed the latter part of the book. Most though was very good and stuffed full of great arguments and quotes. I particularly loved “if triangles had gods their gods would have three sides”.

Suffice it to say that if you are in any doubt as to whether to pursue the believers route, or have the misguided view that religious values are somehow good for society, then have a read and be disabused of those notions.

%d bloggers like this: