Friday, March 21, 2008

Blowing Down the House of (Tarot) Cards

Greetings, Rhology! Thank you for your alacritous and engaging response, which demands rebuttal. I get the sense you still do not fully understand my position vis-à-vis morality because, when scrutinized, the “contradictions” you cite disappear quicker than ghosts do in the presence of skeptics. I hope, with this composition, I can provide definitive clarification. And despite my well-established tendencies toward unrestrained, self-indulgent verbosity, I shall be succinct.

“I recognize our collective moral ignorance, and a relativistic view flows naturally therefrom.”

Rhology: But the relativistic view is a view in itself. You claim ignorance about the topic and then go ahead and take a position anyway. Why not just eschew any and all moral statements about everythg if you really believe that?

Nihilist: Although it is true that moral relativism constitutes a view, it contains no inherent contradiction, at least in the formulation to which I adhere. Interestingly, you articulate precisely the same argument as was made by Sam Harris in “The End of Faith.” Harris argues that moral relativism is self-defeating because, if one declares tolerance “better than” authoritarianism, one is advancing an objective moral principle, which would be inconsistent with relativistic thinking. However, I am doing no such thing. Rather, I have patiently argued that neither tolerance nor authoritarianism could be judged moral or immoral in any objective sense. Because there is no known way to prove a moral statement or code, our ignorance on the moral front is manifest and inarguable. Recognizing this ignorance, there is coherent behavior and incoherent behavior. A relativistic stance is coherent, whereas an authoritarian stance is not. Why? Because it makes no sense for one to be coercive with respect to things about which one is ignorant.

Let me be unequivocal: I am meticulous in my avoidance of making moral statements, assuming that, when one says “moral statements,” one references claims of moral fact. I make myriad moral judgments, but each is merely my opinion.

“inflict their arbitrary moral opinions on those around them.”

Rhology: There's inflicting and there's inflicting. Surely you won't be so blind as to compare sharia law with laws banning the sale of sex toys!

Yet that's what you seem to be doing. That's one of the things that amazes me about these comparisons to Islam. You miss the forest for the trees. You can apparently hardly bear to NOT take a swipe at Christianity and so you miss the presence of the huge threat of people who want to blow you up.

Nihilist: I already have explained that, contrary to your assertion, I never compared suicide-bomb attacks (or imposition of Sharia law) with Alabama’s infantile ban on sex-toy sales. My comparison is of the morally authoritarian mindsets of Christofascists and Islamofascists. “Morally authoritarian” references the pathology that some pastor or ayatollah’s arbitrary opinions should affect other people’s rights and liberties. When American pastors and Iranian ayatollahs are satisfied with charting their own moral courses—whilst leaving everybody else to chart their own—I shall withdraw my objection. And, to be clear, such religious figures are not behaving immorally in any provable objective sense, but rather incoherently in the face of their moral ignorance.

“However, if that truly is your stance (and I hope it is), then you must join me in condemning the Alabama law to which I am opposed....If Bible-inspired statutes, such as the one in Alabama, are applied to Christians and non-Christians alike, religious freedom is retarded.”

Rhology: B/c I believe in religious freedom? That doesn't follow. There is also public morality to think of. I won't support the free exercise of a religion that includes committing 4 murders a year as part of its pietistic exercise, for example.

I'm not saying I do support the law, but it's not for that reason.

Laws limit freedom, you know. You're not permitted to murder someone just for the heck of it, and that can retard religious freedom. We must ask "Which freedoms can be justifiably restricted?" rather than "Should religious freedom be restricted?"

Nihilist: My claim is not that pietistic exercise must be unrestricted. Rather, I contend that, in a country with constitutionally enshrined freedom of religion (and its negative, freedom from religion), it makes no sense for laws to be religiously derived. Only in theocracies are laws traceable to, or inspired by, religious doctrine.

In the face of our manifest moral ignorance, governmental attempts to legislate morality—at the federal, state or local level—also make no sense. Many people seem to forget that laws need not appeal to moral considerations; in other words, illegal acts need not be deemed intrinsically immoral. Although people have multifarious ideas about the purpose of government in contemporary society, most of us agree that it is tasked with promoting individual liberty and preserving societal stability. That is pretty basic stuff. Government can enact laws that enable it to fulfill its tasks, without any appeal to morality. An act—such as murder, rape or kidnapping—can be deemed illegal because it deprives people of their liberty or has the potential to create chaotic instability. One can make those conclusions without reading tea leaves about what acts are righteous and which are wicked.

Wallowing in the swamp of what is “moral” or “immoral” is a waste of the government’s time—not to mention incoherent. Wearing a suit and working in Washington does not cure one’s moral ignorance.

“unconventional sex is sinful”

Rhology: Rather, sex that is harmful or outside of marriage is that which is sinful. Nothing in the Bible really refers to sex toys.

Nihilist: Thanks for the clarification, although I am sure some Christians would beg to differ vis-à-vis sex toys. I would inquire as to the sinfulness (or moral acceptability) of marital felching, but I cannot, considering this is a family blog.

“If I lived in that state, I would be an atheist in name and belief, but would have to be a de facto Christian if I wanted to avoid legal harassment.”

Rhology: Do what you want, but Alabama is not Saudi Arabia. Seriously, stop acting like it is! You're making yourself look foolish and missing the bigger threat.

Nihilist: I never equated Alabama with Saudi Arabia; I equated two authoritarian mindsets. Neither Christians nor Muslims are willing to keep their arbitrary moral opinions to themselves, and that is the basis for the comparison. [Religionists need not hold their opinions silently. Behavioral incoherence only arises when pathological, wrongheaded attempts are made to inflict one’s factually bankrupt moral opinions on others. Analogously, you may say green is the best color and I may say the same of red; if, however, you attempt to impose your color choice on me, incoherency has arisen.]

“Is the latter cell ‘less evil’ than the former?”

Rhology: On your worldview, neither is evil at all.

Nihilist: In my opinion, both cells would be quite spectacularly evil. However, I could not prove it. Recognition of moral ignorance does not forbid formulation of moral opinion.

“Just ghastly.”

Rhology: On your worldview, it's not ghastly. It's just painful. Pain is, pleasure is, neither is moral nor immoral. I'm going to hold you to your professed worldview even if you won't.

Nihilist: It is ghastly in my opinion. Its ghastliness cannot be proved as a matter of objective fact because there is no known way to prove a moral statement or code. But again, recognition of moral ignorance does not forbid formulation of moral opinion.

“you subscribe to a religion in which wives are supposed to submit to their husbands’ headship.”

Rhology: And, I shouldn't be surprised, you neglected (again) to mention anythg about the husbands' obligations and responsibilities. Pretty typical, though I have come to expect a little more than that from you.

Nihilist: My concern is not related to the specifics of the inequality but rather to the inequality itself. You condemn Islam’s “mistreatment” of women but, when one looks at Christianity, it is quite clear that women and men are not treated as absolute equals. True, your religion might preach equality in god’s eyes, but, on Earth, one gender clearly seems meant to dominate. One need only remember the commandment addressing covetousness, which lumps thy neighbor’s wife in with that same neighbor’s ox and ass. For the writer, it is quite clear that women are a kind of property, not entirely unlike slaves and livestock.

“It seems to me that, in your mind, your beliefs need not conform to popular wisdom, modern mores or even common sense.”

Rhology: Since popular wisdom is so often wrong, yes. Common sense is far from infallible as well.

As an example, just look at how long your moral relativism has lasted throughout your own post! You didn't make it 3 paragraphs before contradicting yourself.

Nihilist: I see no contradictions. I articulated numerous moral opinions, but made no claims of moral fact.

Consider the following quotes from my post (italics added for emphasis):

  • “…looking at the period when both institutions were behaving badly (according to my confected standards, that is), I think it is rather a waste of time to talk about which was more horrible.”
  • In my opinion, murder is horribly evil.”
  • In my view, torture is anathema to civilized existence.”
  • In my judgment, donating $1 million to underprivileged children is morally righteous.”

Which of those is a claim of moral fact? The answer: None is. I simply have articulated my moral opinions, baseless though they might be.

“Bearing that in mind, what if Jesus had explicitly preached that women should walk ten steps behind men, or that they never should show their faces in public, or that they never should shake hands with men?”

Rhology: I'd submit and conform to it.

Of course, that's not what He preached.

Again you spend time sniping at Christianity when you should be focusing on Islam. No hypotheticals needed there - they DO teach this stuff!

Nihilist: I am not sniping at Christianity, but rather illustrating the hollowness of your critique of Islam. You rail against Muslims for their treatment of women, but, if your 2000-year-old text had instructed you differently, you admit you would treat women in precisely the same manner you now condemn. This is not a “clean break” from the Islamic misogyny you excoriate. Your own views on women’s rights could have been entirely opposite, had different people written Jesus’ lines.

“There is no known way to prove a moral statement or moral code; as such, we are left only with opinion.”

Rhology: Very well. Serious question - why then make all these moral statements, as if someone else should hold them? Why not just hold all moral judgments to yourself?

Nihilist: It seems to me that, at base, you are asking why I bother articulating my opinions when those opinions are not factually proved. The answer to this question is simple: I am an opinionated individual who enjoys throwing my voice into the discussion. And I do not opine exclusively on matters of religion and morality; I enthusiastically express my opinions about all subjects in which I have interest. For example, I am a huge fan of the cinema and, every year, I compile a Top 10 list of films. My annual list does not touch on objective, absolute truth; there is no known way to prove that one film is better than another is. My list simply reflects my opinions. A man can strongly present his opinions without deluding himself into thinking those opinions are facts, and without forcing others to conform to his opinions.

“I would be willing to bet a large sum that, at the height of the witch-hunts, the aforequoted passage was recited more than once.”

Rhology: As if misuse of a passage of text means the text is to blame.

Obviously if I murdered 10 people and then appealed to this very blogpost in court, saying that I took your meaning to be that you were God and you commanded me to murder them, the judge would not and should not hold you responsible for that, right?

Nihilist: The standards for the Bible are a little bit different, in that Christians claim that tome was directly inspired by the omniscient creator of the universe. Presumably, when that verse was written, god knew quite well that some of his followers would misuse it in the context of hysterical hunts for witches (and assorted other heretics and blasphemers). Knowing that god is also omnibenevolent, it stretches credibility to think such a bizarre passage would make the cut; a judicious stroke with god’s ethereal red pen probably would have prevented a lot of the torture and butchery to which I previously referred. But, perhaps the whole omniscient-inspiration notion ought to be thrown out. After all, it is not even clear from the Bible whether the creator of the universe is aware of Australia.

“by ‘witchcraft,’ you apparently are referencing adults who indulge in children’s folly.”

Rhology: Not all of that stuff is simple parlor tricks. But I'm not a naturalist, so I attribute at least a small amount of that stuff, including miracles in other religions, to demonic activity.

Nihilist: Ubiquitous demonic mischief notwithstanding, tarot cards and Ouija are trinkets, played with by children and those with under-developed minds. Have you an example that is not out-and-out piffle?

“(a) torture was used not to punish people for their 'crimes' but in order to secure extravagant confessions, and (b) the charges oftentimes were jaw dropping in their ludicrousness.”

Rhology: Well, of course I wouldn't support those gross abuses.

And again, not that treating suspected "witches" this way is morally wrong on your worldview, let's remember to clarify. I assume, since you want to be consistent, that you're just asking for educational, informational reasons.

Nihilist: I never claimed that torturing “witches” was morally wrong in any objective sense. My condemnations are mere articulations of my opinion, which is not factually proved. Once more, recognition of moral ignorance does not forbid formulation of moral opinion. Remember, I compile a Top 10 film list every year, despite the fact that the carefully crafted list is mere opinion.

“exemplifies nothing more than pathetic cravenness.”

Rhology: Again, not that pathetic cravenness or the threatening people with hell is morally wrong on your worldview, let's remember to clarify. I assume, since you want to be consistent, that you're just asking for educational, informational reasons.

You just can't seem to live up to your own worldview! Since you fit yours so badly, it's the least I can do to offer you one that would allow you to justify making moral claims like you keep doing, namely Christianity.

Nihilist: I never said cravenness was morally wrong (either objectively or subjectively). I said it was pathetic—an assessment by which I stand. I also never said threatening people with hell was morally wicked (either subjectively or objectively). I said it was the weakest possible way to attempt to convert me and, to be frank, nonsensical. As I wrote, drawing from my knowledge of biology and the workings of the human body, I know pain is a function of the nervous system, tissue damage and other physical factors. I have seen no evidence that a wispy, incorporeal essence could be made to feel pain. Even “emotional pain”—the kind that keeps people awake at night—is traceable to brain activity. A wispy, incorporeal essence possesses no brain of which to speak. I equate attempts to torture a “soul” with trying to make the helium in a balloon wail with agony (to say nothing of weep and gnash its teeth). Can nitrogen suffer anguish?


Blogger John Morales said...

Rhology asks the same questions and gets the same answers.

It's amusing.

7:12 PM EDT  
Blogger The Jolly Nihilist said...

Hi John,

Thanks for the links; some interesting reading there.

You are absolutely correct in your contention that atheists are not monolithic. There are atheistic communists, capitalists, libertarians, socialists, conservatives, liberals, objectivists, relativists, etc. Atheism gives no indication of one's positive beliefs.

Trying to lump atheists together is unwise. People are not united by beliefs they mutually lack.

9:13 PM EDT  
Blogger Tommy said...

Not only that, but we also change our political leanings while retaining our atheism. For most of the Nineties I alternated between conservatism and libertarianism. It took the Bush administration to turn me into a liberal.

10:25 PM EDT  
Blogger Richard said...

It really has nothing to do with what party you belong to. If your an atheist you must hold to evolution or naturalism, Yes ? It is this worldview that we attack and judge. As for atheists being objectivist, explain how please...? moral realism fails,

5:39 AM EDT  
Blogger John Morales said...

Ah, Objectivism!

6:17 AM EDT  
Blogger Tommy said...

Richard, I am not bound by your definition of what an atheist is supposed to think.

Tell me Richard, are the vast majority of those of us who are proclaimed atheists engaging in acts you would find morally repugnant like murder, rape, selling illegal narcotics to kids and so forth? I think that people like you wish we were because it would make your argument easier.

But since we are not like that, the only thing you have left is that we are guilty of thought crimes. The universe was created by a being of immense power (and given how much we have learned about how vast the universe is, any intelligence that might have created it would be powerful beyond reckoning) and the worst offense in this being's eyes, according to you, is that some of us don't bow down in craven submission before it.

And that is really the crux of our dispute, isn't it? When you desire a society where everyone kow tows to the divine authority, it is the ones who refuse to kow tow that upset the apple cart.

8:57 AM EDT  
Blogger The Jolly Nihilist said...

Atheist : An individual who lacks belief in god or gods.

There is no other factual statement to be made about atheists as a whole.

5:53 PM EDT  
Blogger Rhology said...

Hi JN,

Found the time to answer you.

It'd be better for everyone if you'd just come out of the closet - you HANKER to impose your moral will on someone, but talk like you won't. Maybe you should join the ranks of the witch hunters. It's not so bad after the first few goblets of blood! :-D

4:22 PM EDT  

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