Cover of "The Last Superstition"
The Last Superstition: A Grab-Bag of Objections

Chapter 5: Universal acid

Here Feser continues his earlier theme, listing more alleged problems caused by modernism. This is a grab-bag of philosophical problems, and while a lot of them are interesting in and of themselves, for the most part they have little or nothing to do with atheism — New or otherwise — and seem to be included here primarily so that Feser throw up his hands, declare these problems insoluble, and run back to aristotelianism. So I’ll be skipping a lot.

The problem of skepticism

In Aristotelianism, when the mind thinks about a thing, that thing’s essence exists in the mind. That is, when you think about a triangle, there’s triangularity in your mind. But if there’s no such matching of like to like (the universal triangularity impressing triangularity on your mind), how, Feser would like to know, can there be knowledge? Without universals, presumably there can be only representations.

I’m not sure I see a problem. This seems to be like asking how NOAA’s National Hurricane Center’s computer models can “be about” hurricanes without wind and rain in the data center.

Personal identity

In Feser’s view, a human being is a composite of soul and body, and a blastocyst is as much of a human being as Desmond Tutu or Terry Schiavo. But if we don’t start with these premises, then we have to figure out what constitutes a person. For instance, does the Star Trek transporter kill a person each time? (That is, it destroys one body and creates an identical one some distance away.) Various non-aristotelian approaches create paradoxes, or gray areas, or conclusions that Feser doesn’t like (e.g., that our lives have as much value as we give them), so they must be wrong.

Free will

In aristotelianism, there’s a significant difference between considered, voluntary action and involuntary action; between, say, proposing to your girlfriend after thinking about it for a year, and a hiccup (bold face added):

The formal and final causes of the action – that which gives intelligible structure to the movements – is just the soul considered as a kind of form, and in particular the activities of thinking and willing that are distinctive of the soul’s intellective and volitional powers. The action is free precisely because it has this as its form, rather than having the form, say, of an involuntary muscular spasm. [p. 208]

whereas under materialism,

human behavior differs in degree but not in kind from the behavior of billiard balls and soap suds. [p. 209]

This seems to be a case of mistaking the simplicity of the model for its purpose. That is, a person might say that the mind is ultimately deterministic, and bring up a model of a deterministic system that’s simple enough to be easily understood (billiard balls) by way of illustration. The other person thinks, “minds aren’t simple like billiard balls! This model must be wrong.”

But beyond this, I don’t see that aristotelianism really solves anything: Feser’s summary, above, seems to say that an action (like the decision to marry) is free if it has the Form of a free action. That sounds, well, arbitrary. How can we find out which actions have the Form of free actions? That is, how do we define “free action”? I’m sure there’s an interesting discussion to be had, but it’ll have to do with where to draw the boundary between “free” and “not free”, and I don’t see how casting this in terms of Forms or essences helps.

Natural rights

In Feser’s model, humans are rational animals by virtue of having human DNA, and we’ve all been given the same purposes: to know God, to reproduce, and so on. Thus, we have a right not to have those purposes interfered with.

But if you don’t start with Feser’s model, morality becomes messy and complicated. Not only that, but people come to different conclusions about what is and isn’t moral than they did in centuries past (Feser doesn’t say which, but I’m guessing he means gay rights). So he will have none of it.

Morality in general

This section boils down to, “How can we figure out what’s right and what’s wrong without being able to check our answers in the back of the book?” He throws in the usual conservative arguments about how if morality isn’t objective, then everything is just a matter of personal preference and whim:

Nor does [Hume] really have anything to say to a group of sociopaths – Nazis, communists, jihadists, pro-choice activists, or whomever – who seek to remake society in their image, by social or genetic engineering, say. [p. 213]

I like to point out that while the statement “life is better than death” is subjective — and you can find people who would disagree with it — the statement “the vast majority of people would rather live than die” is objective. And if we’re trying to come up with a set of rules that allow us to get along as best we can, then “don’t kill people” is a good one, since it’ll line up with their desires 99.999+% of the time, and they in turn won’t try to kill you back, which almost certainly lines up with your own desires.

Yes, a lot of the details, and even many of the broad strokes, are messy and uncertain. But I think we can all see a difference between, say, life under the British Parliament and life under the Taliban.

Well, maybe not all of us:

This attitude [acceptance of the “social contract” — arensb] has largely prevailed, though by no means completely, which is why modern Western civilization is only largely a stinking cesspool, and not yet entirely one. Give the Humeans and contractarians time though. [p. 215]

Thank you for that ray of sunshine.

Series: The Last Superstition

Cover of "The Last Superstition"
The Last Superstition: No Kinky Sex!

Chapter 4: Natural law

We now get to the section on “natural law” morality, which Feser begins by telling us that New Atheists and secularists hate “traditional morality”, by which he means homophobia, and insinuates that Richard Dawkins is, if not a pedophile, then at least an apologist for pedophilia.

He starts by going back to final causes, applied to organs: eyes are for seeing. And it’s not wrong to wear glasses, if you need them, because they help you to see, and seeing is what eyes are for.

He tries to preempt the “being gay is natural, and has a genetic component” argument by comparing homosexuality to having a clubfoot or a predisposition to alcoholism: harmful genetic defects that impart no blame to the victim, but also conditions that we are expected not to wish for:

Even amid the depravity of modern civilization, most people realize that the life of an alcoholic is simply not a good thing, even if the alcoholic himself thinks it is and even if he “doesn’t hurt anybody else.” We know in our bones that there is something ignoble and unfitting about it. […] We all know in our bones that someone obsessed with masturbating to pictures of naked toddlers is sick, and not living the way a human being ought to live [p. 134]

If you’ve spent any time discussing gay rights, you know how this dance goes: pedophiles are icky and bad, zoophiliacs are icky and bad, necrophiliacs are icky and bad. So what about gay people? Well, homosexuality is defined by buttsex, which is icky and thus, by induction, bad. To which the obvious rejoinder is that if you don’t like buttsex, don’t engage in it.

Feser tackles this argument thusly:

Now I realize, of course, that many readers will acknowledge that we do in fact have these reactions, but would nevertheless write them off as mere reactions. “Our tendency to find something personally disgusting,” they will sniff, “doesn’t show that there is anything objectively wrong with it.” This is the sort of stupidity-masquerading-as-insight that absolutely pervades modern intellectual life, and it has the same source as so many other contemporary intellectual pathologies: the abandonment of the classical realism of the great Greek and Scholastic philosophers, and especially of Aristotle’s doctrine of the four causes. [p. 135]

In other words, homosexuality and any other icky sex is immoral because of the ick factor, and the ick factor is a reliable guide to morality because Aristotle, even if you fools are too foolish to recognize his brilliance.

Feser then explains, at length, that living beings have an essence, and conforming to this essence helps them to live in a way that promotes health and well-being. Sex was designed for reproduction, and “Mother Nature very obviously wants us to have babies, and lots of them [p. 142]”, and it’s immoral to choose to go against what nature wants.

Now if there really are Aristotelian natures, essences, final causes, etc., then the lesson of all this for sexual morality should be obvious. Since the final cause of human sexual capacities is procreation, what is good for human beings in the use of those capacities is to use them only in a way consistent with this final cause or purpose. This is a necessary truth; for the good for us is defined by our nature and the final causes of its various elements. It cannot possibly be good for us to use them in any other way, whether an individual person thinks it is or not, any more than it can possibly be good for an alcoholic to indulge his taste for excessive drink or the mutant squirrel of our earlier example to indulge his taste for Colgate toothpaste.

This comes across as a variation on the naturalistic fallacy (which, it amuses me to note, is often used by crunchy-granola hippie types whom Feser would, I’m sure, abhor), combined with condescension, with Feser in the role of the parent telling his child, “No, you can’t eat the entire bag of cookies. You may not realize it, but it’s bad for you. Trust me.”

Unfortunately, he fails to explain why the sorts of sex acts he doesn’t like are bad for you. He just says that they’re not in line with what nature intended. He also repeats his earlier mistake, of thinking that there are only two possibilities: either everything has an Aristotelian final cause, or nothing does.

But lest you think that he’s simply a prude who doesn’t want anyone having fun in bed, he magnanimously concedes that there’s more to sex than merely delivering sperm to a vagina;

All sorts of lovemaking might precede this. It does mean, though, that every sexual act has as its natural culmination [dare I say “climax”? — arensb], its proximate final cause, ejaculation into the vagina, and that the man and woman involved in such an act cannot act in a way to prevent this result, nor act to prevent the overall process from having conception as an outcome, whether or not that outcome is what they have in mind in performing the act, and whether or not that outcome would be likely to occur anyway even in the absence of their interference. It also means, partly for reasons evident from the foregoing, that they may indulge in this act, in a way that is consistent with its procreative final cause or natural end (understood in the broad sense of not only generating children but also rearing them, with the need for stability that that entails), only if they are married to one another.


In other words, blowjobs are immoral. Hand jobs are immoral. Frottage is immoral. Hell, go to your favorite porn site, click on “categories”, and cross out everything except “creampie”.

Feser’s moral code is remarkable in that it seems to take little or no account of what a person wants; it places a fairly low value on personal freedom. You shouldn’t use your sex organs just for fun because someone else designed them for reproduction:

Nature has set for us certain ends, and the natural law enjoins on us the pursuit of those end. [p. 147]

It’s also remarkable how many hoops he’s willing to jump through to justify doing the things he likes, while condemning the things he doesn’t like: on one hand, he considers slavery to be immoral, as we all do. But Aristotle, on whose ideas he basis his moral system, endorsed “natural slavery”. He gerrymanders his way out of this dilemma the same way that so many apologists do, by saying that slavery as endorsed by Aristotle (or Old Testament Hebrews, in the case of other apologists) was very different from that practiced in the antebellum south. In other words, it’s not intrinsically wrong to own another human being as property; it’s just that Americans did it wrong. (See p. 147 and endnote 9.) Ditto polygamy, which permeates the Bible, on p. 151.

If the penis is meant for ejaculation, and you’re only supposed to use organs for their intended use, then that would make peeing immoral. He gets around this by saying that the penis is designed for both ejaculation and urination, and that it’s only immoral to act against one of these functions (for instance, I’m guessing, by having a vasectomy). But then, that would imply that it’s not immoral to, say, have oral, non-procreative sex with your partner, as long as you retain the ability to have procreative sex at some other time. (I’m guessing that similar reasoning allows him to use his ears and nose to hold up his glasses without having to say penance.)

It’s also not immoral, he tells us (p. 148) for a sterile couple to marry, as long as their sex always ends with semen in a vagina. And no kinky stuff!

Finally, we get to his opinion on gay marriage:

The $64 question in recent years, of course, is: “Does natural law theory entail that homosexuals can’t marry?” […] they can marry someone of the opposite sex. What they can’t do is marry each other, no more than a heterosexual could marry someone of the same sex, and no more than a person could “marry” a goldfish, or a can of motor oil, or his own left foot. For the metaphysics underlying natural law theory entails that marriage is, not by human definition, but as an objective metaphysical fact determined by its final cause, inherently procreative, and thus inherently heterosexual. There is no such thing as “same-sex marriage” any more than there are round squares. Indeed, there is really no such thing as “sex” outside the context of sexual intercourse between a man and woman. Sodomy (whether homosexual or heterosexual) no more counts as “sex” than puking up a Quarter Pounder counts as eating; […] For if “same-sex marriage” is not contrary to nature, than [sic] nothing is; [p. 149]

In other words, reproduction involves sex, so Feser decrees that nothing you do with your genitals aside from trying to conceive counts as sex, and further defines marriage as being for sex. And this definition must on no account be changed! In short, Feser has come up with a rationale to pretend that his prejudices and opinions are objective facts.

There’s a bright side to the above: if nothing other than semen-in-vagina counts as sex, and if pornography is a depiction of sex acts, then nothing outside of the aforementioned “Creampie” category counts as sex, and whatever you masturbate to ouside of that category isn’t pornography.

Series: The Last Superstition

Cover of "The Last Superstition"
The Last Superstition: Black and White Morality

Chapter 4: Reference: My ass, personal communication

For the most part, Feser’s opinions are private, harmless affairs: whether he thinks that all things have final causes, or only some; or whether he thinks things have “essences” “neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg”, as a famous person once said. But then he uses these opinions to advocate policies that cause unnecessary suffering:

Again, the soul is just the form of the human organism, so it is necessarily there as long as the living organism is. Hence it “leaves” only when the organism dies; and that means death, not severe brain damage, and not a person’s lapsing into a “persistent vegetative state.” […] abortion necessarily counts as murder at any point from conception onward, and whatever the circumstances of the conception, including rape and incest […] if you do agree that every innocent human being has a right to life, then you cannot consistently fail to take a “pro-life” position and thus favor outlawing all abortions (and all forms of euthanasia too) just as you’d favor outlawing any other form of murder. [p. 130]

The reason he mentions “persistent vegetative state” is Terry Schiavo, whom he mentions several times in the book. He argues that both she and a fertilized egg have “rational souls”: neither one is rational in the sense of being able to think or speak, but both have the potential to do so: ova by developing into adult humans, and Terry Schiavo by, presumably, recuperating.

This, of course, makes a mockery of the word “potential”: Schiavo had massive brain damage, and couldn’t possibly have recuperated without the sort of miracle that, elsewhere (p. 128, if you’re curious), Feser rules out in considerations of what “potential” means.

So in practice, when Feser says that X has a “rational soul”, this means little more than “X has human DNA”. And to the extent that he does this, he weakens the argument that the presence of a rational soul, by itself, makes it immoral to kill a being. Is it really murder to terminate an ectopic pregnancy? Or to help someone suffering an incurable disease to end their suffering?

We can all agree that it’s wrong to kill people. We all want to enjoy life, and to have more of it; and by the same logic, we can see that everyone else does, and we’ll all be happier if we don’t go around killing each other, and stop people from killing others. But as we consider cases further and further away from this simple, ordinary case, we can run into cases where the assumptions that led to the initial conclusion no longer hold, and thus the conclusion may no longer be the same. But it looks as though Feser wants a world of black and white morality.

Well, it’s nice that he wants that. And people in Hell want ice water, as a friend of mine used to say.

Series: The Last Superstition

Nigerian Scammers Are Good People

Via Slashdot comes an IEEE Spectrum article about a new scam from Nigeria. In brief, instead of asking you for money directly, they redirect your business email. They wait until someone orders something from your company, then rewrites the bank routing numbers and such so that the client sends money to the scammers’ account instead of yours.

So far, so bad. Technically interesting, ethically very bad. The moral of the story, as always, is be careful where you type your password, and if something looks hinky, think about it.

But then there’s this part:

Bettke and Stewart estimate the group they studied has at least 30 members and is likely earning a total of about $3 million a year from the thefts. The scammers appear to be “family men” in their late 20s to 40s who are well-respected, church-going figures in their communities. “They’re increasing the economic potential of the region they’re living in by doing this, and I think they feel somewhat of a duty to do this,” Stewart says.

Let’s just toss that on the pile marked “Religion doesn’t make people more moral”, shall we?

The Blaze: Does the Bible Really Condone Stoning?

A while back, but you’ll forgive me for not posting this earlier because I’m lazy, the Glennbeckistan Times posted an article with the provocative title, Fact Check: Does the Bible Really Condone Stoning?.

Spoiler alert:

Theologian R.P. Nettelhorst added that capital punishment is seen in the Bible for a variety of offenses: Murder, adultery, rape, Sabbath breaking, disobedience to parents, witchcraft, and idolatry.

That answers the question posed in the title: yes, the Bible does condone stoning. Glad we’ve cleared that up. Oh, wait, did someone have any excuses theology to offer? (Emphasis added)

Rabbi Aryeh Spero, author of “Push Back: Reclaiming Our American Judeo-Christian Spirit,” told TheBlaze that the Bible speaks openly about stoning, however he said that the Judeo-Christian texts differ greatly from “the procedures we see today in Islamic countries.”[…]

“Any Biblical death penalty procedure had to be accomplished in one instantaneous stroke,” he explained. “For while the death penalty may have been administered, it was not done in a way to prolong agony or suffering, nor in a manner of public humiliation that degraded the human being created in the image of God.”

Okay, so the Bible condones stoning for a number of offenses, but not the way the Taliban does it, so that’s okay.

Back to Nettelhorst:

“The laws are applied equally to all members of society.  There are not different laws for different classes,” he told TheBlaze. “Second, the laws were intended to be proportional. The lex talionis ‘eye for eye, tooth for tooth’ was designed to limit punishments to being no worse than the offense.”

Proportional? Really? This is the guy who said that the Bible prescribes the death penalty for things like adultery, Sabbath breaking, and disobedience to parents.

Which of these merits the death penalty? Show me the kind of aggravated premeditated first-degree Sabbath-breaking that warrants death. Here’s what Nettelhorst gives us:

“An individual who breaks the Sabbath (by gathering firewood on Saturday) shortly after the Sabbath was instituted by the Ten Commandments, is soon dispatched after a brief consultation with God.  It is the only instance in the Bible of someone being executed for violating the Sabbath.

The article provides several more instances of this: cases in the Bible where people weren’t execute for trivial crimes. So the argument seems to be “the law is rarely enforced, so it’s not a bad law.”

What else?

He also detailed 2 Kings 10:18-28, noting that, while it appears that God’s blessing is upon Jehu, who gathers servants, priests and prophets of Baal and executes them for worshipping other gods, this may not actually be the case. After these deaths — and a coup against the former king and royal family — God seemed anything but pleased.

So Jehu does what God wants, as far as he can tell, and then it turns out that’t not what God wanted after all. I’m not sure what the lesson is, here: that God sucks at communicating his desires, maybe? At any rate, if this explanation is correct, then how can you be sure that anything you do has God’s blessing? With your finite human brain, you might be misreading things entirely.

Anything else?

For those who struggle with the notion that everything in the Bible is God’s word and should be taken literally, Spero explained that the Old Testament includes certain societal practices and occurrences that were meant to — and have — changed as mankind has matured and evolved.

Ah. This is a Jewish variant of “oh, but that’s the Old Testament!” Spero probably goes into more length in his book, but in this article, he gives no reason to think that he hasn’t just pulled this excuse out of thin air. Especially since the problem with divine law seems to be that it can’t be changed.

Just recently, for instance, we’ve learned about a ring of Jewish kidnappers: under Jewish law, a couple can only get divorced if the husband okays it. So a woman could give these guys $70,000-$80,000 and they’d kidnap her husband and beat him up or torture him until he agreed to the divorce. It would be far better for everyone to just change the law so that the husband’s consent isn’t mandatory. Except that if it’s God’s law — or perceived to be God’s law — then the law is very hard to change. (And if you can’t even repeal stoning, then what chance is there of repealing God’s no-cheeseburgers rule?)


The contradiction, the theologian [Nettelhorst] says, might be rooted in the notion that there was a disconnect between what ancient Israelites thought God wanted verses what the Lord really requested of them.

So to sum up, yes, the Bible condones stoning people to death for minor offenses, but it’s okay because:

  • It wasn’t done for fun.
  • It was intended to be a quick death.
  • It usually wasn’t enforced.
  • It’s the Old Testament. Nobody does that anymore.
  • It may not have been God’s law to begin with.

Have I missed anything? Because it looks to me as though pile of apologetics doesn’t address the central problem, which is that THE BIBLE CONDONES AND EVEN COMMANDS STONING FOR TRIVIAL OFFENSES.

Did it used to be okay to stone people for breaking the Sabbath, but now it isn’t? Then God’s moral law isn’t absolute, but changes over time.

Did God’s law change, but God forgot to edit his rulebook to reflect this fact? Then he sucks at communicating his wishes.

Was that not God’s law to begin with, but mere humans’? Then there are probably other mere-human laws in the Bible as well. How do you know which is which? (And if we can’t tell them apart, why bother consulting the Bible to begin with?) And why didn’t God make it clearer that he’s opposed to killing people who break the sabbath?

This reminds me of Bryan Fischer’s commentary on slavery in the Bible. He uses a lot of words, but it basically boils down to “the US did slavery wrong”, the obvious implication being that there’s a right way to do slavery: by following God’s rules and regulations for how to correctly own another human being.

One irony here is that I think this sort of thing is more of a problem for liberal, enlightened theists than for knuckle-draggers. The crazy Taliban types will just accept that God condones stoning, or slavery, or whatever. They’ll nod and do these horrible things.

A Christian can look at the Koran — or a Muslim can look at the Bible — and say “Meh. That’s clearly not a consistently-good set of moral rules. I’ll just ignore it and seek enlightenment elsewhere”.

But it’s the liberal Christian who looks at the Bible, sees that it condones things that are clearly immoral; but it’s supposed to be God’s word, so you can’t just ignore it; who then has to spend time and mental effort trying to reconcile what’s right with what’s in the Bible.

Congratulations, Matt and Tracie

Matt Dillahunty and Tracie Harris hosted the last episode of The Atheist Experience. Most of the show was taken up by a caller named Shane, arguing about morality.

Shane claimed that since he’s a human sinner, his moral sense is unreliable, which is why he follows God and God’s perfect morality. Tracie asked how Shane came to the conclusion that God is good, if Shane’s moral sense is unreliable. This led to the following exchange:

As Tracie correctly points out, if there is an omniscient, omnipotent, omni(or even just reasonably-)benevolent god out there, then every time there’s a rape, that god either causes that to happen, or stands by and allows it to happen. Shane starts saying that the victim in this case is as evil as the rapist (I’m pretty sure this is an instance of the “all have fallen short of the glory of God” doctrine, by which it doesn’t matter whether you’re Albert Schweitzer or Adolf Hitler: both are scum in God’s eyes), and Matt hangs up on him, calling him a “piece of shit”.

Anyway, congratulations to Matt, Tracie, and the whole Atheist Experience team, since this got picked up by Raw Story, AlterNet, and even Glenn Beck’s The Blaze.

I thought the exchange was pretty much par for the course: they’ve had lots of theist callers who make despicable claims like this. So I’m not sure what happend this time, but hey, the show deserves all this attention and more.

At any rate, I went looking through the comments to see what the Beck fans (is there a name for people who read The Blaze? Surely not Blazemongers) had to say.

Posted on January 10, 2013 at 2:55am

The first thing a Christian has to come to terms with is the fact that he or she needs to be saved from the wrath of a Holy God. People who merit God’s mercy, of which there are none, do not need to be saved.

Posted on January 10, 2013 at 2:28am

No son of adam is innocent . ALL deserve death and HELL. If God in his justice leaves men to what the deserve – who are you to question him.

Posted on January 10, 2013 at 7:45am

Human beings make distinctions between sin, God does not. In God’s eyes, all sin is sin.

This seems to repeat Shane’s point: that the rape victim is evil, and deserve’s God’s wrath. I rebut it thus:
Flipping the bird

john vincent
Posted on January 10, 2013 at 12:26am

God did not direct a plane into the twin towers; He did not light the match which caused a house to burn down, killing all inside; He did not order young Adam to kill children in a Conn. school; […] He certainly did not order a raping.

Posted on January 10, 2013 at 11:24am

The caller got it wrong. God does not interfere with mans free will. Therefore, if a person rape or does evil to another, God will not stop the act because he loves us so much not to interfere with our free will.

God may not have directed the 9/11 attacks, or the rape in question here. But if he exists, he did sit by and allow them to happen. This is Tracie’s point.

Posted on January 10, 2013 at 8:22am

The hosts presented a false choice: God either sends rapist or stands back and does nothing. Implying that God is not good who would do either. What they ignore is that God didn’t create robots but moral agents who he gave the choice to obey or to do evil.

This is the old “God won’t interfere with free will” apologetic. The problem is, if you see a rape being committed, the rapist wants to exercise his free will to rape the victim, while the victim wants to exercise her free will to just go about her day. Whether you interfere or not, someone’s free will is being violated.

Posted on January 10, 2013 at 9:54am

all the evil actions of men, as well as every good action, was foreordained by God so that everything that happens on this earth has a good purpose behind it.

So child rape serves a greater good, so God sitting back and watching it happen is somehow the right thing to do. But neither God, nor this commenter, can be bothered to explain what this greater good is.

Posted on January 10, 2013 at 1:09am

I think it’s laughable that an atheist promotes the idea of child rape as being evil. It just so happens that social evolution has engineered a construct that pretends child rape is immoral … but if child rape could be shown to improve human survival, the atheist is stuck.

Posted on January 10, 2013 at 10:42am

Whoever ‘Shane’ was, he was no Christian. Christians don’t think like that.

Ah, good old No True Scotsman. I’ve missed him.

Posted on January 10, 2013 at 7:53am

I’m really getting sick of this whole argument. God does not just break in and stop crime and evil. If miracles happened everyday then they would not be miracles.

I wonder if we should apply the same principle to the police: “You can’t expect the cops to try to solve every crime they hear about, because then law enforcement wouldn’t be, you know, special.”

I’m not saying that all of these comments are representatives of all theists. But Tracie is right: either God causes bad things to happen, or stands by and allows bad things to happen, despite both knowing about them and being able to prevent them. If anyone else did that, they’d be acting immorally. But the running theme in these comments is that God has to be good, so they come up with excuses for why our usual moral reasoning or standards of civilized behavior don’t apply in this case.

And once again, congratulations to The Atheist Experience. I have no idea why this particular segment was picked up by so many sources all of a sudden, but I hope it helps spread the word about a good show.

Hookers and Blow and Trimmed Sideburns

Somehow, by pinballing over the Internet, I ran across a post entitled Sexual Immorality and Five Other Reasons People Reject Christianity. It’s a rather odd list; if I were to make a Top Six list of why people turn away from Christianity and become atheists, it’d look very different from this.

At any rate, the last reason he cites is:

Now for the big one. Of all the motivations and reasons for skepticism that I encounter, immorality is easily the most common. In particular, sexual sin seems to be the largest single factor driving disbelief in our culture. Brant Hanson calls sex “The Big But” because he so often hears this from unbelievers: “’I like Jesus, BUT…’ and the ‘but’ is usually followed, one way or the other, with an objection about the Bible and… sex. People think something’s deeply messed-up with a belief system that says two consenting, unmarried adults should refrain from sex.” In other words, people simply do not want to follow the Christian teaching that sexual intercourse should take place only between and man and woman who are married, so they throw the whole religion out.

The easiest way to justify sin is to deny that there is a creator to provide reality with a nature, thereby denying that there is any inherent order and purpose in the universe.

Yes, I admit it: the real reason I’m not a Christian is that I want to have endless sex with depraved floozies while bathing in a swimming pool full of cocaine, and not trim my sideburns. What can I say? I have a weakness for cotton-polyester shirts.

I’ll add that I love to eat bacon, which is why I’m not Jewish. And I like to wash it down with hot tea with a splash of wine, which is why I’m neither Muslim nor Mormon. And having thetans turns mere masturbation into an orgy, which is why I’m not a Scientologist.

Hopefully these examples illustrate what’s wrong with Johnson’s argument: he’s arguing from the assumption that behavior X — in this case, various unspecified sexual practices — is bad because someone in authority arbitrarily decided that it was bad, and that the reason I reject that authority is that I like doing X too much.

Which is, of course, nonsense: if you’re like most people, you enjoy a cup of coffee or tea, or drink more caffeinated soda than your dentist would like, and this has nothing to do with your opinion of Joseph Smith, or any rejection of Elohim. Rather, it’s simply that drinking caffeinated beverages doesn’t do any real harm, and the benefits (including simple enjoyment of the taste) outweigh the downsides.

If you have, say, a shellfish allergy, then it certainly makes sense for you to stop eating shellfish, and maybe even to ask the people around you not to eat shellfish in your presence, depending how severe your allergy is. But saying that nobody should ever eat shellfish because my friend Lucille says not to is an unjustified imposition on people’s freedom. A moral rule should be based on the welfare of humans and other sentient beings — e.g., the enjoyment derived from eating a plate of scampi, the possible health benefits or drawbacks of eating shrimp, the pain of the farmed shrimp, and so on — and not simply “because Someone In Charge said so”. Accepting moral fiats from above is just lazy thinking.

(For more about Lucille, see the extended clip.)

If Johnson wants to argue that certain sexual behaviors cause harm to the well-being of humans or animals, and can back those arguments up with solid facts, I’m willing to listen. Heck, I can name a bunch of behaviors pleasing to the id that I don’t engage in, and I don’t think other people should, either. Rape is a no-brainer: no one wants to be violated, to be forced to do things against their will, and whatever pleasure the rapist might get is vastly outweighed by the victim’s desire not to be coerced. Cheating on one’s SO involves lying, which erodes the trust between people.

But a lot of Biblical moral rules are just given by fiat: why shouldn’t you eat clams? No reason. God just said so, that’s all.

Even when it gives a reason, as in Exodus 20:9-11, that reason is bogus: you should rest one day in seven because that’s how God did it. But hey, humans aren’t God. Maybe one in four, or one in eight would work better for humans. Too bad; that’s irrelevant.

I’ve run into the “you just want to sin” argument — or, more broadly, the “you reject my religion because you want to break its rules” argument — pretty often. Whenever I see it, I think: here is a person who hasn’t figured out a better basis for morality than “do what you’re told by the person in charge”.

No, Mr. Johnson. The reason some of us commit what you consider sins is not that we’re id-driven hedonists. It’s that we’ve looked at your system of morality and found it lacking. We can do better. Someday, I hope you’ll see that for yourself.

Why Is Universalizability a Good Thing?

Back in 2010, Greta Christina wrote about liberal and conservative moral systems. At the core was a set of studies showing that while everyone shares the same core values — fairness, minimizing harm, authority, purity, loyalty, and a few others — that liberals and conservatives prioritize these values differently: liberals tend to put a higher value on fairness, for instance, while conservatives tend to put a higher value on authority.

She then argues that “liberal” core values like fairness and harm-reduction are better than “conservative” ones like purity and authority, because the liberal ones are universalizable: they aren’t parochial, and apply to every human being (and possibly animals and extraterrestrials) equally.

That explanation is okay, but I’m not quite satisfied with it. I kept asking why the fact that a value applies to everyone is a good core value. And that led me to the open marketplace of ideas.

And to do that, let me step back and look at the open marketplace of, well, markets.

Everyone in a capitalist society understands why, say, $3.79 is a fair price for a bag of chips: thousands of sellers pick prices at which to sell their goods, and millions of buyers make decisions as to whether to buy at that price or not. Of course I’d prefer to buy chips for a nickel, and of course the store would rather charge me twenty bucks. But I understand that that wouldn’t cover manufacturing costs, the store understands that if their price is too high, I won’t buy it, and out of many such interactions, of people either buying or not buying, a consensus emerges: $1.00 is too low, $10.00 is too high, and that something like $3.50 is a price that everyone can live with.

There are also times when prices can be tilted to favor or penalize some group of people or set of goods, such as “Buy American” campaigns or boycotts, or when a designer like Louis Vuitton convinces people to pay extra for goods that have a particular logo on them.

Over time, we will act as both buyer and seller, comparison shopper and haggler, and can appreciate at least the rudiments of everyone’s views.

Now, since morality is a way of regulating interactions between people (if it weren’t for the fact that we live together, we’d have no need for morality), I claim that a similar calculus takes place: that we are constantly negotiating The Rules in a corner of the marketplace of ideas.

Just as the store would love to charge me $20 for a bag of chips, I would like for everyone to call me “Your Highness” and let me skip ahead in line at the store. The problem is persuading people to treat me that way.

I also know that if someone else wanted to be treated that way, I’d resent and resist it. Nor can I come up with a convincing argument for why I should get special treatment, one that I would accept if the shoe were on the other foot. And so collectively we negotiate a compromise that we can all live with, in which nobody gets called “Your Highness” and we wait in line in first-come, first-served order.

And gosh, it sure looks as though this sort of free negotiation favors those rules and compromises that everyone can agree on. That is, universalizable values.

Now, unlike the economic marketplace, where I will by turns take the role of buyer or seller, in the marketplace of moral ideas, I will never be a woman, or Asian, or left-handed, or gay. But I do interact with people who are. Even if we ignore for a moment the effects of sympathy, and consider that everyone just wants the moral rules that most favor themselves, men will argue for rules that privilege men, and women will argue for rules that privilege women, and over time, they ought to compromise on something that isn’t what anyone wanted, but that everyone can live with, like equality.

In this analogy, asking why one group gets special privileges is like asking why one brand costs more than another. Sometimes there’s a good answer (“Brand L jeans are more durable than brand X”, “You should give up your subway seat to older people because they need it more”), and sometimes there isn’t (“Brand A costs more because we just redesigned the label”, “Men should be in positions of power because they have a Y chromosome”).

And yes, this process takes far longer than anyone would like, partly because (for the vast majority of people) it’s not a conscious process: we don’t set out to figure out what moral rules are best for us, for our loved ones, for the rest of society; we just sort of go along with what’s around us, and either complain when we don’t like something, or adapt when other people complain about our behavior. There are many other complicating factors as well.

But on the whole, this semi-conscious marketplace should favor those values that apply to everyone with a voice, or at least an advocate. That is, things like fairness and harm reduction.

Cooches Are Filthy and Disgusting. Who Knew?

The BillDo is up in arms again. This time, he’s unhappy about a piece that aired on The Daily Show a few days ago about the right’s War on Women, contrasting it to the War on Christmas™. And specifically at a bit where Jon Stewart suggested that, to prevent unwanted government intrusion into their sex life, women could protect their vaginas by placing mangers in front of them:

Vagina manger

It’s hard to tell what exactly it is about that image that has given poor Billy the vapors. He’s called it “obscene” and “vulgar“, “Stewart not only made a vulgar attack on Christians, he objectified women“; an “unprecedented assault on Christian sensibilities“, “anti-Christian and grossly misogynist“, even “What Jon Stewart did ranks with the most vulgar expression of hate speech ever aired on television“; “so indefensible—putting a nativity scene ornament in between the legs of a naked woman—that no one save the maliciously sick would even try to defend it“.

So he’s clearly in a tizzy, but doesn’t say exactly what the problem is, or why this comedy bit should warrant such over-his-usual-over-the-top rhetoric, which means that I need to guess.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has been working on a theory of morals, studying what people find to be moral or immoral. This is from a psychological standpoint, not a philosophical or ethical one. That is, he’s not interested so much about figuring out what’s right or wrong, as much as he is in finding out how people think about right and wrong.

One of his categories is “sanctity/degradation”, which concerns purity and contamination: an action is immoral if it contaminates the purity of the person or community. Thus, for instance, I’m guessing that most people would object if someone brought a dog turd in a clear Ziploc bag onto a subway train, because (in people’s minds, at least) dog turds are filthy and disgusting, and the subway car and its passengers would be in a sense contaminated by its presence.

As far as I can make out, this is the explanation that best fits BillDo’s reaction: he feels that manger scenes are pure and holy, and photoshopping one in proximity to a set of ladyparts contaminates it with, I don’t know, cooter cooties or something. Which leads inexorably to the conclusion that Bill thinks vaginas are filthy. I wonder how Mrs. Catholic League feels about that. Or maybe Bill feels this way because he’s gay. Dunno.

At any rate, this seems like his personal hangup. And maybe, until such time as he can get over it, and realize that a vagina is no more dirty than any other body part, especially once it’s been thoroughly washed, ideally by a willing showermate, that he should just fuck off.

(Psychological analysis brought to you by the Institute for Advanced Psychological Research and Bajingo Jokes.)

Who Needs Morals, Anyway?

The most-often-asked question when debating morality with theists is, “but where do you get your morals?” Of course, if the theist says “I get my morality from the Vedas/Quran/Bible/Dianetics”, that doesn’t help, since it just raises the question that Matt Dillahunty posed at his debate at UMBC: let’s say some being comes along and says, “I am a god. Here’s a book with my moral system”, then so what? How do we decide whether the system in the book is any good?

I thought I’d step back for a moment and ask, what if there were no morals?

Maybe there are no rules, or no one to give them. Maybe there are rules, but nobody knows them. Maybe the rules are known, but they’re ignored, and there is no mechanism for enforcing them, not even a twinge of guilt. What then?

I don’t think anyone has any trouble imagining this sort of world: theft and lying are rampant, people will kill each over a can of beans and not feel remorse. In fact, there wouldn’t be any cans of beans, because the industry required to produce them couldn’t exist without some kind of stable society and the ability to form long-term associations. A world where you’re constantly looking over your shoulder, lest your own child stab you in the back.

Okay, so this vision may not be accurate. Maybe some combination of game theory and psychology can show that there might be amoral societies where life doesn’t suck as much as what I described.

But I think it’s safe to say that the vision of a world without morals that I described above, or the one that you imagined, represents our fear of what would happen without some sense of morality.

If you’re with me so far, then presumably you’ll agree that then morality is a way of avoiding certain Bad Things: living in fear, being killed or seeing your loved ones killed, and so on; and also of being able to get some Good Things: establishing trust, assuring some level of stability from day to day, and so forth.

We may not agree on anything. You might want to security cameras on every street corner, to make the risk of being robbed as small as possible, and I might feel that the feeling of not being watched all the time is worth the occasional mugging. But if we can agree in broad outline that certain outcomes (like being killed) are bad, others (like knowing where our next meal is coming from) are good, then morality reduces to an engineering problem.

That is, it’s simply(!) a matter of figuring out what kind of world we want to live in, what rules will allow us to get along, and how to get there.

Obviously, this is a thorny problem. But nobody said this was going to be easy. Well, nobody who wasn’t trying to sell you something. As is the case with every engineering project ever, not only are there conflicting requirements, but they change over time. Everyone wants to put their two cents in, and everyone thinks their personal pet cause is the most important one of all. Finding a solution requires political and diplomatic negotiation, and convincing people to give up something in order to strike a deal. It’s enough to make your head spin.

But this strikes me as a huge problem, not an intractable one. We can tract this sucker. We have enough history behind us, and enough data collection methods, that we can see what works and what doesn’t, which sorts of societies are worth living in and which aren’t, and try to figure out how to get where we want.

Saying “I get my morals from an old book” is a lazy cop-out. It’s the response of someone who doesn’t want to look at the problem, let alone try to solve some part of it. And if you’re not going to help, the least you can do is stay out of the way of those who are trying to fix things.