Thursday, August 30, 2012

On the wolf and the sheep

Liberty is a concept that I visit often here, despite my essentially atheistic theme. This is due to a variety of factors, one of which is that there is a cult of Liberty, which I refer to as capital-L Libertarianism, that runs a course throughout American history and is quite the problematic feature of it at present, and this particular cult of Liberty is at least quasi-religious, if not outright religious, around the central doctrine that liberty, as they define it, is the highest possible ideal, taken to such an extent as to outstrip the well-being and suffering of sentient beings, which I have taken from Sam Harris (author of The Moral Landscape, a landmark piece on moral philosophy) to be the foundational conceptualization of salient morality (see link for clarity on this matter, as compared against various relativistic conceptualizations of morality).

This problem, as indicated, is not a new problem in any respect. Indeed, it was such a prevalent problem a century and a half ago, at the beginning of the end of the American slave business, that President Abraham Lincoln sought to clarify the debate about liberty, or Liberty, in his "Address at a Sanitary Fair," in Baltimore, Maryland, on the eighteenth of April, 1864. Of course, Lincoln's speech is directed at the abominable practice of slavery (a practice from which we could throw quite the pot-shots at the One True Faiths, if we wanted), called by Harris one of the "easiest moral questions," and one we got quite wrong (as did the Bible--New Testament and Old--and the Qur'an). Lincoln said after a characteristically short preamble,
The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatable things, called by the same name———liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatable names———liberty and tyranny. 
The cult of Liberty that winds through American history and that rears its head now, even while denying the charge, is of the latter type. Then, it sought to hold men in literal bondage, forcing tremendous labor in return for not a bit more than meager subsistence, all the while condemning men, women, and children to be chattel, able to be bought and sold for a price on the here-ironically named "free" market. Now it seeks to glorify the corporate structure and the C-suites behind them as a veritable Golden Calf, allowing increasingly challenging working and living conditions--including pay structures, benefits traps, disastrous housing situations, and lack of regulation that takes away from all by modifying the food supply and poisoning our very environment--that, while far from slavery, funnel money and opportunity upward while slamming those doors on the fingers of those below.

Lincoln went on, articulating what may be one of the clearest metaphors on the matter that has ever been provided--one the Bible would have done very well to have included, though in this it also failed. It is on this topic that I will elaborate.
The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails to-day among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty. Hence we behold the processes by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage, hailed by some as the advance of liberty, and bewailed by others as the destruction of all liberty. Recently, as it seems, the people of Maryland have been doing something to define liberty; and thanks to them that, in what they have done, the wolf’s dictionary, has been repudiated. (emphasis his)
This metaphor is telling, and hopefully it will allow us to make some sane and balanced commentary on the question of quasi-religious Libertarianism, the philosophical libertarian position underlying it, and the reality of a world that is deeply changed even from Lincoln's time (jumps to his prophetic "corporations have been enthroned" quotation are, evidently, inappropriate as that quote is potentially spurious).

The challenging part of looking at the matter from the perspective of this metaphor is that, clearly, only the most foolish mind would accept the proposition that wolves are to be destroyed. Indeed, it is rather clear to any thoughtful person that wolves have a "right" to live in as much as do shepherds a right to raise sheep for human purposes and thus to defend their flocks (n.b.: the idea of "rights" is another complex topic for a later post). That wolves have a better chance of living if they are able to pick from the shepherd's flock, then, raises the question of where the line must be drawn to create an effective societal balance between our wolves and our sheep. Indeed, for the purposes of this particular metaphor, it is essentially best to assume that there are no other food sources for the wolves, and thus that the shepherd's defensive actions directly impact their "right" to live. (Indeed, here, if we see profit-driven corporations as the wolves, consumers as the sheep, and regulatory agencies mostly in the form of government as the shepherd--which is not a perfect analogy--not only do the wolves have a "right" to live, they very well may serve a profoundly important function to the entire dynamic system.)

Note on the shepherd and the sheep: The shepherd as government is only an appropriate analogy in terms of its protective function in this particular metaphor. In reality, of course, the shepherd makes his living off slaughtering the sheep, which he has an economic interest to protect from the wolf but not from himself, which is not an entirely apt metaphor for governments that act as an extension of the people. I realize in going with this that it gives the anti-government Libertarian crowd a certain amount of ammunition to try to create anti-government red-herring arguments, but for that reason, I state plainly that the role of the shepherd in Lincoln's metaphor is solely one of being a protectorate of the sheep. Indeed, calling the people sheep, despite the popular meme, is not entirely appropriate either, but it matches Lincoln's metaphor and makes the entire picture a bit more visceral than does the collection: opportunists, consumers, and regulatory agencies.

If we agree that there is an essential "right" for the wolf and the sheep to each be able to have livelihood in some measure, and note that the situation may not be quite as dire as the metaphorical one, then we are left having to negotiate a social contract between the various entities (these, in fact, are likely not the only sorts that apply in such a metaphor, if we are seeking completeness).

A working social contract, of course, is what the Libertarians seek to deny, or at least fail to understand, in their glorification of capital-L Liberty, deified and taken as a good unto itself, self-evident in its goodness (beyond evidence or argumentation). That is simply because a social contract is a model in which people in a society willingly abrogate some of their own rights, via behaviors termed as "responsibilities," in order to support the general rights of other people. Capital-L Libertarians see responsibility as taking care only of oneself and those people that one purposefully chooses to care for, essentially breaking the reciprocal nature of abrogating rights for the purpose of allowing others to have their own without some caveat emptor qualification required. In other words, Libertarianism seeks to establish an "interacting individualist" contract as opposed to a true social contract, which parametrizes a society. That is to say, the Libertarian believes that there should be no sheep, based upon the rather morally repellant idea that if nature had intended for sheep to be able to withstand wolves (individually or in packs), something more than their herd mentality would have been granted to them, i.e. that the sheep rather have it coming to them, unless they will become wolves of a kind themselves.

The outcome of this state of affairs is that Libertarians act in practice, however lofty their ideals, as though they want their ability to exercise their own rights to be secured while affording no such guarantee for anyone else, essentially hiding behind "all men are created equal" while embracing a survival-of-the-fittest mentality that shouts "except that they are not." Instead of wanting to level the playing field in order to ensure that Liberty can shine her blessings on all as equally as reality allows--in accordance with the fact that literally no one chooses the circumstances of their births and can thus hardly be held accountable for those lucky or unlucky accidents--they want to dwell in the natural order that indicates that those who can will while those who can't... oh well. The supreme irony, of course, is that this creates something of a societal entitlement that provides for the Libertarian for no better reason than that he can, as he is, now, due to whatever strokes of luck and efforts applied in that context. Never mind the possibility that almost anyone can get the peanut butter off the shelf with the help of a small step ladder.

This phenomenon can be blamed on a lack of understanding of emergent phenomena, that when any two entities interact, there is immediately a third entity involved: the relationship between them. This creates a very complicated matter very quickly since meta-relationships exist ad infinitum, accounted for in reality by the fact that each meta is of sufficiently diminished impact on the dynamics of the system as to suggest strong convergence (going well beyond the description given by Orson Scott Card, who touches this concept by noting that among three individuals, there are at least 7 entities).

Capital-L Libertarianism, or any other cult of the exalted individual (esp. Randian Objectivism, something of the socioreligious engine of Libertarianism in the modern era) seems to be insufficiently sophisticated to recognize this very complicated phenomenon that defines people not only as individuals but also in relationship to each other, to groups, to the relationships between themselves, people, and groups, and so on. Since these emergent ideas are ephemeral, however societally meaningful, they are relatively easy to deny in favor of the exalted individual, who is here, concrete, solid, and easy to imagine as being profoundly alone against a complex and hostilely indifferent world. That the full complexity of the emergent phenomenon of even a small society is vastly beyond what we can fully understand, it is even more easily dismissed (or simply missed) by insufficiently careful thinkers.

The metaphor, indeed, can be informed by mathematical understanding of population dynamics, though in a limited sense. Usually, simple population models are presented via a Lotka-Volterra model, though more complicated factors, such as predator control, can be introduced. In fact, these models have returned information that suggests that "upper-trigger controls," meaning that predator populations are nipped whenever they are estimated to exceed a particular value, provide the best return of investment and reduce prey extinction likelihoods the most. In Lincoln's metaphor, then, we might be able to suggest that the Libertarian laissez faire economic model, in which wolves can do what they will, is hardly optimal. Indeed, given limited resources from which to draw, top-end regulation of wolf behavior seems to be the best choice approach. Certainly, by adding in the conception that the "wolves" here aren't merely predators but are also functionally contributing to the overall success of the enterprise, we might see that these kinds of controls of excesses are the most appropriate, a lesson with which history would agree, as we saw in the strongest days of American prosperity, achieved following the New Deal Era after the Great Depression--which we nearly revisited by taking the leash off the wolves again over the last few decades.

Note: Lowercase-l libertarianism is not devoted to the worship of Liberty to the exclusion of a reasoned understanding of the rights of others or the social contract that binds us but merely to the assumption that people (and sentient beings) are essentially provided liberty balanced by responsibility to others: the duty to do what one ought is intimately connected to the right to do as one will. This difference is of profound importance, as is the fact that capital-L Libertarianism exists (is not simply a straw-man) and is even gaining momentum rapidly at present, mostly via the Tea Party Movement. Lowercase-l libertarianism would say, in the context of Lincoln's metaphor, that the wolves have the right to do as they will so long as they don't unreasonably infringe upon the rights of the sheep, i.e. that they would agree that some regulation of predatory practices is not only important but critical to the maximization of total liberty in the society, as captured by the social contract and made concrete by the legal structure that makes it explicit.

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If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Religious self-debasement and related economic troubles

It is a particularly disgusting feature of the Abrahamic religions (the One True Faiths, as I refer to them in God Doesn't; We Do) that they hold self-debasement almost as a centerpiece, something I would expect is common to essentially any religion that worships gods of sacrifice, perhaps especially when those are angry or jealous gods, particularly gods of battle. Yahweh (a.k.a. God, a.k.a. Allah) is one such example--much of the Old Testament of the Bible, which serves as the foundation of the One True Faiths, is an extended treatise on the rites of sacrifice to Yahweh required in a multitude of circumstances. The New Testament offers no respite from this as it is based entirely upon a story of a human (or deity, depending on one's theology) sacrifice, an act meant to appease Yahweh ultimately in the direct sacrifice department. This appeasement, of course, is not absolute, however, because of the immense list of sacrifices allegedly required of Christians ever after in terms of wealth, time, behaviors, and even certain kinds of thoughts. Islam offers a strengthening of, not a respite from, these sacrificial values, and so it is no surprise that self-debasement before a perfect, if imaginary, standard is a central psychological feature of adherents to these sorts of religious beliefs.

The origins of this rather curious and unfortunate behavioral and psychological pattern seem to be in the superstitious wildernesses of the infancies of our cultures. We can see one branch of the roots of this behavior by generalizing from B.F. Skinner, who was able to demonstrate that pigeons can be induced to be superstitious in the 1940s. It appears, following Skinner, that sentient beings with limited knowledge of their circumstances will develop superstitious behavior surrounding those circumstances, apparently via a simple reward-and-punishment conditioning. This occurs psychological upon the perception of a reward or punishment, not an actual reward or punishment, distinguished by the intention of the operator. In Skinner's experiment, the operator was actually randomly controlled and, key to this, indifferent to the pigeons. This is the same as nature with all sentience, including humans.

To see that ignorance of the circumstances is essentially the core of the development of these superstitious behaviors is rather simple without even having to leave our swivelling desk chairs. A simple thought experiment is quite convincing. Here, we will replace the pigeons with people.

Imagine, if you will, a person (or group of people) placed in a sealed room with no contact to the outside. Everything for the comfort and needs of the person is provided according to the condition that food is delivered to the room through a trapdoor by means of a conveyor belt, and it occurs at completely random intervals, determined by a remote computer. Then, the person's behavior is simply monitored over the course of a significant period of time.

If we follow Skinner and many of the observations that we have all had in life, even in this modern world, say with sporting events, we can assume that it is likely that the person in the room will soon begin to associate particularly lucky or meaningful behaviors with the arrival of foods, particularly choice foods to that person's liking. Indeed, given enough time, it is fair to expect that simple or even relatively elaborate rituals, of sorts, or at least certain patterned behaviors will take place with some expectation that food will arrive through the trapdoor. Confirmation bias, of course, will strengthen certain aspects of these rituals, and it seems fair to assume that disappointment, on the other hand, may cause a motivated individual to double-down on the seriousness of the behavioral patterns (i.e. self-debasement in the face of perceived failure a la "I must not have tried hard enough or done it well enough!"). Of note, if these intervals are chosen to be, on occasion, sufficiently far apart to induce significant discomfort or even worry in the person in the room, then the effects are likely to be drastically exaggerated. Indeed, I would contend that they would also be inflated significantly if the person in the room believes he is being watched or monitored from outside--from whence the food arrives.

Imagine this experiment running for sufficiently long (ethical issues duly compensated, of course, in the subjects), perhaps a month or more. Now envision what would happen if the bubble of mystery were burst. Say that the actual protocol of food delivery were announced via loudspeaker or a note with the food: "Food delivery intervals are determined at random by a remote computer and are not in any way affected by your behaviors at any time." What would happen?

I can see two significant scenarios arising:
  1. The rational human being, at this point, would give up on all rituals and simply try to make the best of the situation, doing whatever entertaining things happen to be available and going on about his business. The rituals, seen behaviorally and psychologically useless, would cease, probably immediately.
  2. The sufficiently conditioned human being would see the note or announcement as a lie and would likely double-down on the ritual behavior again, or at least retain it for psychological comfort. This effect may be diminished over time as it becomes more and more apparent that the intervals are, indeed, independent of behaviors (i.e. that more and more evidence for the veracity of the notice accumulates).
To push the matter further, though, imagine two identical rooms with similar people in them. In one, the person is not informed of the random food delivery method, and in the other, she is. In this case, it is unlikely that the person who is aware of her circumstance will ever adopt superstitious rituals, as the real mechanism is known, and it is further unlikely that those rituals will ever result in the self-debasing behavior of feeling as though a perceived external arbiter had not been satisfied. Grudgingly or not, the person who suffers in knowledge will simply weather her condition while, like Skinner's superstitious pigeons, we might expect all manners of uncanny behaviors out of her ignorant counterpart.

This, of course, is exactly the situation that pre-scientific man found himself in. He was a sentient being subject to the indifferent forces of a universe he did not possess any significant understanding of, and simple confirmation bias alone, ignoring even the tendency of humans to personify circumstances, would be sufficient to create a ritualistic superstition. The utterly indifferent brutality of nature, alternately bringing storm and drought, withering heat and ice, crippling disease and bounty, abject famine and gluts, and brutal defeats and victories, would set the stage to strongly reinforce these behaviors and psychological patterns, and they would almost certainly lead to a doubling-down on almost anything that seemed to bring success while warding off failure. Once nature becomes personified via knowing gods, a jump to attempting to appease them by any means necessary, and thus prostrating the self before them (as brutal human warlords no doubt demanded in exchange for diminished brutality), is a foregone conclusion of the situation. Once the ritual sacrifice was invented, be that by unfortunate accident or macabre desperation, it was all too likely to become a central feature of any belief structure surrounding a brutal god. Enter Yahweh.

Of course now, this pattern of behavior is significantly reduced, largely by the influence of progressive culture and particularly by the advent of sciences like meteorology, modern medicine, etc. What remains is the feeling of needing to prostrate oneself to God's will or to suffer the consequences, and so a psychological complex of self-debasement sits at the heart of fundamentalist, if not other kinds, of One True Faiths religious belief.

The consequences are further reaching than one might expect, I would guess, and that is the theme of this particular piece. One feature of religious belief is that it is practiced. That means that religious believers practice the things that form their faiths and thus, we might expect, become proficient at them, for that is the very point of practicing. This is a danger of moderate faith, of course--in moderate, as well as fundamentalist, faith, people routinely practice activities such as suspending their disbelief in favor of accepting beliefs that are perceived to be desirable. They also practice self-debasing behavior before perceived external authorities viewed as having some meaningful power over their lives. This, it turns out, has serious economic repercussions, one of which I will mention to open Pandora's box.

I would contend that the economic disaster known as supply-side economics, which can now only be supported via quasi-religious (or otherwise ideological) belief, is a very meaningful example of this same self-debasing behavior applied outside of the usual One True Faiths religious context. The magic delivery system, of wealth in this case, is the lamentable hypothesis of "trickle-down economics," which defies the simple economic reality that money floats. This is, of course, widely believed, and by all appearances in conservative areas of the modern world, it is predicated on the idea that people must self-debase, lower themselves in favor of the big business owners and appease them with reduced tax rates, more tax loopholes and credits, and essential protectionism against regulation if the money is to ever start trickling down.

Even a relatively casual scrutiny of the economic evidence reveals the patent absurdity of this trickle-down hypothesis, and yet we are constantly sold from most mainline politicians, particularly on the right, that it will work if only we double-down in our efforts to favor the advantages of the fabulously wealthy in our culture. The result has been utterly predictable: wealth has accumulated at the top while the middle class has slowly sunk into quicksand, and the evidence lies literally everywhere we want to look. Yet rabidly, the untouchables at the top of this socioeconomic hierarchy are defended and their agendas promoted by people working against their own best interests--and we might wonder how much of this has to do with the well-practiced art of self-debasement before an ideological hierarchy that is practically the central feature of the One True Faiths.

Supply-side economic models can't even stand up to armchair scrutiny, though, they are so profoundly fantasy. If there is an expressed demand for some good or service that is within the scope of at least break-even production, there is a very good chance that someone will willingly engage in that production. On the other hand, there is no reason to believe that just because an entity produces a good that anyone will be willing to buy it. It is literally this easy to understand that free markets are driven by demand, not supply (more formally, supply is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for economic activity).

Now, Thom Hartmann has amply indicated how this outlandish notion was sold to the American people since the 1980s, starting with the new Republican Party born under President Ronald Reagan, by the likes of Jude Wanniski, Art Laffer, and the growing neoconservative leadership. These folks, then, are something like the high priests that convinced people that animal sacrifices had influence on the weather, although here it is that economic and political sacrifices by the middle class to the great providers of publicly owned corporations and their CEOs would result in nearly magical influence over the gales of wealth that, no matter how we prostrate ourselves, blow continually like Westerlies into the remote, tax-exempt bank accounts of the ultra-wealthy.

It isn't, of course, the sales pitch that made it work, but rather the belief structure of the people it was sold to. Whether or not it is the case that bizarrely religious America fell prey to this thinking, given their well-practiced art of self-debasement before a providential superpower, is the theme I raise as a question more than an assertion. Plausibility is there, but it may, of course, merely be correlational. This, however, does nothing to remove responsibility from facing the reality of the behavior, or from identifying the potential for elucidation of economic principles to ameliorate some of the problem. Here that means realizing that publicly owned companies represent not nations or their consumers but rather their shareholders, who transcend nationality or allegiance to essentially anything but the profit motive, at least as a collective group. 

Once the realization that Wal*Mart and its CEOs, for example, only represent American (or British or Chinese or Mexican or...) interests--or the interests of anyone but their shareholders--to a nominal extent is accomplished, the legislation that keeps them free to do business within ethical boundaries should follow naturally, supposing corruption in politicians can also be voted out of power along the same lines. Right now too many Westerners hold the stupid idea that corporations are the gold standard of human accomplishment, their CEOs veritable golden calves, and so we give them more than ample opportunity to goose us over and over again. Instead of catching on, we do like everyone in every good religion does: we prostrate ourselves before our gods and hope we can win their mercy by giving them more and more of our sacrifices.

So, we are the people in the sequestered room, and we are the beneficiaries of economic windfalls that come in spite of the socioeconomic winds that blow. We therefore find ourselves in the situation of wondering whether or not knowledge of the process will be enough to get us to bust the myth, changing our economic behavior out of the darkness of supply-side superstitions of ritual legislative prostration before Golden Calf, Inc. Perhaps we'll continue to cling to the hope until we are ultimately disillusioned, as appears to be happening. The announcement has been made, though, and to have a hope of effecting change, we must spread it.
 
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If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Reframing the moral debate--a complaint about imprecision

Many difficult debates exist in the world for no better reason than that the language being used is very imprecise, in particular that the same word means different things to different people. This is a common thread on this blog, so common and troublesome is the problem. It's also a bigger problem--in the must-read (albeit dry) The Closing of the Western Mind, Charles Freeman makes it abundantly clear that a certain lack of complexity in language specifically made it harder for the Romans to articulate particular philosophical ideas than was faced by, say, the Greeks, leading to a vastly different culture. Though the English language, and most modern languages, are very, very nimble in this regard, it strikes me as a bit arrogant and precariously silly to assume that our language is sufficiently clear for all of our purposes. Indeed, I would assert that many, though not all, of our important debates, particularly philosophical ones, boil down to a certain lack of linguistic exactitude--a claim painfully obvious from my background in mathematics, where all functional terms are exactly as precise as needed, and no more so.

To name just a few examples of problematic lacks of linguistic clarity that I touch on from time to time:
  • The word God itself, distinguishable from god, is exceptionally poorly defined, rendering it a dangerous and bad metaphor. Indeed, one of the weightier chapters of God Doesn't; We Do handles this particular issue at length. (N.B.: One member of the editorial staff refers to this particular chapter, the fourth, "Defining God," as an example of me at my best, so it will be worth referencing for those interested.)
  • The word liberty means at least two very distinct things, causing much social and political issue lately. As this will be a topic for an upcoming post, I'll reserve further comment on it now save to summarize Abraham Lincoln's remark that when a shepherd rescues a sheep from the jaws of a wolf, the sheep calls the shepherd its liberator while the wolf rightly feels that its liberties have been infringed upon by the same act.
  • A conscientious friend has been repeatedly pointing out to me that even the words truth and probablility are also dangerously unclear.
For my purposes here, though, I want to focus on the claim that the word morality is also insufficiently clear in meaning, creating a host of problems, particularly leading to the ongoing debates about what is and is not moral.

I do this specifically to reframe how we approach moral questions, not to attempt to undermine it. Indeed, to label an idea, and too-often by extension the person holding that idea, as immoral or amoral is so fantastically insulting that it is a powerful barrier to effective dialogue, causing heels to be dug in and personal honor to be dragged into a discussion where it simply does not belong. At some level, this sort of shaming is probably appropriate, especially in cases where someone is wilfully and knowingly engaging in some kind of wrongdoing, but often, the charge is not heard as it should be because the listener believes himself, possibly mistakenly, to be acting morally. I would go further than this and even assert that often the problem comes from the fact that one or both people involved are too moral in differing moral frameworks, all caught under the still-nebulous umbrella of "morality."

This is not an appeal to some kind of complete moral relativism in which moral frameworks are all considered equal! That is such utter rubbish of an idea that I refuse to give it credence in elaborating now that it's stated, although it will play into the ensuing discussion.

There is a certain battle being waged recently on the front lines of the moral debate between renowned author, neuroscientist, and moral philosopher Sam Harris, with whom I agree to tremendous degree, and pyschologist Jonathan Haidt, notably over his Moral Foundations Theory.

Haidt proposes that morality, cross culturally, is at least a six-dimensional phenomenon, based upon a variety of axes, expressed as diametrically opposed ends of a continuum:
  1. Care/harm
  2. Fairness/cheating
  3. Liberty/oppression
  4. Loyalty/betrayal
  5. Authority/subversion
  6. Sanctity/degredation
Harris, responding to Haidt, wrote: "Even if Haidt's reading of the literature on morality were correct, and all this manufactured bewilderment proves to be useful in getting certain people to donate time, money, and blood to their neighbors—so what? Is science now in the business of nurturing useful delusions? Surely we can grow in altruism, and refine our ethical intuitions, and even explore the furthest reaches of human happiness, without lying to ourselves about the nature of the universe." It must be noted that Harris is specifically responding to Haidt's defense of religion under the umbrella of morality here, not that he is specifically criticizing Haidt's moral axes.

Sam Harris, of course, was attacked by Haidt, who claimed that the New Atheists are "polluting the scientific study of religion with moralistic dogma and damaging the prestige of science in the process," so he was obliged to respond harshly to this rather egregious accusation. As Harris went on to publish The Moral Landscape a few years later, it is difficult to say for certain that Haidt was attacking one of the central themes of that work, though it seems he was: that the only salient understanding of morality must rest upon the relative well-being and suffering of sentient beings.

This is where we must step back and see how complicated this whole notion is, particularly since Haidt attacks Harris (and the other New Atheists) as waltzing an understanding of morality toward moral relativism instead of away from it! The terms just aren't clear enough!

It seems to me that Haidt's research carries valid insight into explaining the variety of moral systems that have arisen in the world--a complex study, for certain. Supposing that his six-dimensional construction is both necessary and sufficient to describe the foundations of moral systems, even in the severely discretized case of a five-point scale on each axis (e.g. strongly one way, slightly, neutral, slightly the other way, or strongly), there are 15,625 moral positions defined by his framework. Some proportion of those, at least all of those admitting a net balance of values greater than zero (of which there are thousands) could be called "moral" systems with at least some degree of justification!

Pause for a moment to consider that someone who has adopted a moral system, by the above definition, that acts in accordance with the dicta of that system to the best of his knowledge, believes himself to be acting morally and will consider himself to be a moral person. This does not include those systems that are neutral or negative on the axis being considered moral to some people. Even in this grossly discrete, simplified case, taking Haidt's six-dimensional assessment at face value, there are literally thousands of meanings for the word moral! Moral relativism is the undeniably stupid position that all of these systems are "morally" equivalent, unable to be judged by any criterion and thus given equal status under "moral" considerations.

This, essentially, paints the titular theme of Harris's Moral Landscape, then! There is this hypothetical moral landscape in which various moral systems exist. Harris's central claim is captured in his subtitle: How Science Can Determine Human Values, which explicitly assumes that science can cast determination on moral systems. In other words, when Sam Harris claims that the only salient understanding of morality rests upon the relative well-being and suffering of sentient beings, it might be more clear to say that that his moral landscape gets its hills and valleys by saliently measuring the real moral worth of various moral systems using the metric of some hypothetical measure of their impacts on the well-being and suffering of sentient beings, science, of course, being able to shed considerable light upon that metric. Here we might note that neutral or even strictly negative moral frameworks, as I've defined on Haidt's construction, might be morally positive constructions as measured against the net well-being they create, though it seems extremely dubious to expect that any of those would be optimal moral constructions or even remotely close to them.

The center of Harris's critique on Haidt is that Haidt assumes a position that religious moral frameworks may be worth a lot more salt than Harris and the other New Atheists give them credit, and Harris finds it outlandish, repugnant, and clearly incorrect that a moral system based upon useful untruths has a chance of being measured optimally. I agree with this sentiment in full.

My issue comes with the term "moral" then. Under Haidt's construction, even grossly simplified, we have thousands of positions for which people could make a good case that they are being moral, and under Harris's analysis, we see the clearest, most salient way I have encountered to decide if they are right. My thesis here is that an essential problem arises from the assumed right of those acting in a moral system, per Haidt's construction or something analogous, to call themselves moral because they are succeeding in a moral framework. Harris seems to lay that claim to rest with his highly pertinent metric, but the issue arises over his (justified) use of the word "moral" to accomplish it.

Linguistically, this is exceedingly tricky to tease apart. I am tempted to call people who are succeeding in a particular moral framework "relatively moral," but that term already is loaded unfairly against the purpose. Worse, the expected negation, "absolutely moral" treads unfortunately into another usurped space--that of the moral absolutism usually associated with God by religious people (operating in "relatively moral" systems that Harris's work specifically tries to demonstrate are not "moral" at all). Another alternative is to call these people "framework-moral," which I rather like, but it leaves open the same problem for a name that appeals to Harris's conception. (Well-beingness-moral is too awkward for use, and any appeal to synonyms like goodness, righteousness, etc., is fraught with incredible difficulty.)

Since I agree with Harris's assessment that the only salient metrics of morality measure the resultant well-being and suffering of sentient beings as a consequence of some framework-moral system, I will opt to give favor to his work and call his conception of morality--a set of ethics that provide for optimization of well-being and a functional minimization of suffering for sentient beings--by its usual name: morality.

By this measure, we have no problem whatsoever in recognizing that an Islamic fundamentalist who beats or murders his own unmarried daughter over a matter of "honor" arising from an accusation of being seen alone with a boy or one that throws acid in her face for daring to learn to read might be very framework-moral while being abjectly immoral due to the extremely low likelihood that this particular framework-morality scores well on any salient metric. Notably, under Haidt's conceptualization, this particular Muslim may subscribe to and utterly fulfill a framework-morality that scores strongly in loyalty, authority, and sanctity--and may even be net-positive despite abysmal scores in oppression and harm--but he is not acting morally. This can, in fact, be pointed out without drawing direct criticism to the person, who may mistakenly think he is behaving morally, adding some sliver of hope that the accusation of immorality can fall squarely on the motivating moral framework instead of on a person who may actually only be severely miscalibrated in his moral thinking.

Now, much becomes clearer, but it requires us to talk about morality vastly differently if we wish to be precise. Field-testing of this concept in some recent discussions I've had seems to indicate that it is a game-changer for conversations about morally charged topics. I'll illustrate presently.


With this understanding, many moral frameworks can be evaluated. For example, political conservatism and liberalism can be seen as moral frameworks, and a particular conservative or liberal person can be very framework-moral, and yet that implies absolutely nothing about his level of morality. This, indeed, with a Randian Objectivist (of course, strongly conservative and starkly capital-L Libertarian), was one of the more successful conversations of this kind that I had, convincing me that reframing the discussion this way can work positively by keeping the matter firmly entrenched in the realm of abstract ideas, at least slightly lowering the chances of someone taking it personally and digging in for battle.

The conversation proceeded as so many do with Randian Objectivists, where anything but strict Objectivist ideas are doused with the black paint of being "immoral." It is easy enough to rise to this kind of talk and point out that many of the precepts of Randian Objectivism hardly qualify as moral, perhaps the utter exaltation of the self, the rejection of regulation on anything, the utter rejection of altrusim, or the recasting of anyone who isn't a "producer" as a vile parasite on everyone else--or generally a "lesser" that is worth nothing and should get even less. In doing so, though, the usual and imprecise language might read "it's flatly immoral to exalt the self and reject altruism entirely," which can very easily be taken as a personal shot at the Objectivist. (Objectivism, of course, is hardly unique in this regard--any moral framework that ties its morality to a set of fictions, especially idealized ones, instead of to the real-world notions of well-being and suffering of living, breathing sentient beings, is very likely to fail morality, in Harris's sense.) Cosmic battles of moral overture usually result, along with enmity and people who have hardly changed their positions. This is probably suboptimal a result.

A delicate change in thinking allowed me to say, though, "The problem isn't that you aren't a moral person. Indeed, you're very moral, perhaps even too moral. The issue is that you are 'very moral' under a moral system that, from my perspective, is immoral, and you see me the same way. Since this creates nothing but an impasse, we've got to look at it another way. We've got to somehow compare our moral systems, and see what falls out of them. My own particular framework aside, I would suggest that a concept of morality has to be measured against its consequences in the real world, compared against the well-being and suffering of all those subjected to those following that framework. Would you agree?"

One interesting thing about Harris's conception of morality is that once it is put to someone very plainly in terms of well-being and suffering, it is intensely difficult to dismiss. Perhaps only the likes of apologist William Lane Craig can even attempt to, and in doing so those folks are outed for their overwhelming preference of some set of fictions (the Bible, the Quran, Atlas Shrugged, etc.) to grounded, real-world concerns. While this doesn't exactly dismiss them, it certainly strikes them a heavy blow toward marginalizing their perspective.

The result, in this case, was that my debate partner had to agree with Harris's metric, complaining rightly that it is exceptionally vague and still ill-defined (of course!). In the process, while I certainly did not change her mind in real time, which is incredibly hard, I was able to get her to agree that it is "possible" that her moral framework only has evidence for working successfully in a collection of romantic fictions by Ayn Rand, even if she held to the claim that we don't know enough about "well-being" and "suffering" to say for sure about the real world--which perhaps now she will look at with increased interest and clarity.

If you've ever debated morals, or really anything else, with a Randian Objectivist, then you will realize the non-triviality of this accomplishment. I expect it was only possible because I directly started out by accusing her of being very (framework)-moral instead of leaving the matter where she could take it as an assault on her character. To me, the result was striking, and I was able to use this reformulation in another conversation to diffuse someone who was very socially conservative (telling him that he was very moral in the conservative moral framework, a commitment that was commendable in a sense) and reframe the conversation around the moral frameworks themselves instead of angry people calling each other names.

By increasing the clarity this way, perhaps with better terminology, we could tell someone that they are being very successfully, perhaps too framework-moral while getting them to re-evaluate the moral framework itself and perhaps see things from a different perspective.

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If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Another way that religion poisons everything--forgetting who your friends are, for faith

I'm cutting straight to it here. Luke Winkie published a piece for Vice.com titled "Hey Atheists, Just Shut Up Please." Let me get two huge points out of the way first before getting to what I want to say about this.

First: Hemant Mehta did an absolutely beautiful job answering the content of this piece already with his post today "Reddit Atheism, I Still Love You" on his blog Friendly Atheist on Patheos. It's beautiful right down to the xkcd comic he included that indicates this entire growing movement, which I like to call the "devout agnostic" movement, is more about psychological superiority than it is about much of anything else, perhaps save some attempt to renew a semblance of harmony between the non-religious and the so-called do-no-harm religious folks.

Second: The Winkie piece is just another one of the "Shut up! That's why!" arguments that atheist blogger Greta Christina decimated way back in February of 2009. In fact, Winkie isn't even subtle about it--the "atheists: just shut up" is right there in the title of Winkie's piece! Just shut up? No, no, and no. Mehta did a decent job explaining why we shouldn't, as has Christina less specifically to Winkie, so there's no need to cover that ground again.

What I want to talk about is my experience with this article today, but first let me note yet another point it raised for me right along the lines of the working subtitle of Christopher Hitchens's last decade of life, not to mention his book god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (emphasis mine). (Hitchens, incidentally, is mentioned in Winkie's piece, where he is noted for making a career out of "'debating' religious people"--in which I might detect a cynical undertone that I've heard before from the devout agnostic camp and elsewhere that folks like the "New Atheists" are in it for a lucrative career, not to effect real change--ad hominem and likely to be false.)

In fact, in this video compilation of pieces from Hitchens, he rather indirectly points out one way that religion poisons things: due to Jesus' rather immoral and fanciful command to "love everyone," the religious are not necessarily able to know an enemy when they see one (see timestamp ~13:30).

That said, my experience with this article today went essentially like this: I saw the post from Hemant Mehta on his blog and read his take on it, skimming Winkie's original piece. Frankly, at this point I find Winkie's kind of annoying flap increasingly difficult to read and thus don't pay it a lot of stock any longer unless I deem it extra important for one reason or another. That reason came for me later when a dear friend of mine over the last decade posted it to his Facebook timeline. As I have Christian friends, this normally wouldn't have raised my eyebrow too much--I plainly see why Christians are tired of open-mouthed atheists, particularly given that we frequently "carpet bomb" religion, especially on threads like Reddit's--except that this friend of mine is gay.

What does his sexual orientation matter? Simple: it seems altogether unseemly that one oppressed minority would find it conscionable to lay a "Shut up; that's why!" argument at the feet of another. In this case, there's a lot of data suggesting why it's extra surprising. Eyebrows officially raised--if only I were Sam Harris... the argument would be over!

Thus, I realize that religion poisons yet another aspect of our lives--it sometimes renders us unable to see who our friends are.

Clearly, I should note that the terms "gay" and "straight" are not sufficiently clear for the purposes of careful discussion, but since the study from The Barna Group that I am going to briefly mention here uses that terminology, I will match it. They indicate that roughly 70% of gay Americans, compared with 85% of straight Americans, claim Christianity as their religion. The study notes further: "Another gap was then noted among those who say they are Christian: about six out of ten heterosexuals say they are absolutely committed to the Christian faith, compared to about four out of ten among homosexuals."

Using their statement that roughly 3% of the adult population of the United States is homosexual, only around 2% of the adult population of the United States is gay and Christian, and only around 0.8% is gay, Christian, and absolutely committed to the faith (Cf. roughly 83% of straight Americans are Christian with 50% of the population absolutely committed to the Christian faith). Bear in mind that somewhere between 1.5% and 2% of the American population self-identifies as out-and-out atheist. In other words, there are roughly as many gay American Christians as there are American atheists.

Now some data from Pew Research, bearing in mind that same-sex marriage is the defining social struggle for gay Americans today (along with others worldwide!).
  • "Religiously unaffiliated" people (16% of the population--closest thing to atheists in the research) are by far the most motivated among the various religious groups to be in favor of same-sex marriage. In fact, some 73% of "unaffiliated" people support it, versus barely 50% of the general population, Catholics (53%), and white mainline-Protestants (52%). Only 35% of black Protestants and 19% of white evangelical Protestants support same-sex marriage.
  • "Religiously unaffiliated" people are more likely to be in favor of same-sex marriage than American Democrats (62%). Independents come in at 52% and Republicans at 24%.
  • "Religiously unaffiliated" people actually edge out liberals in general on the matter of favoring same-sex marriage as only 72% of liberals support it at this point. Compare 57% of moderates and 26% of conservatives.
  • Atheists are very likely to outstrip "religiously unaffiliated" people on this matter, though I have no data other than anecdote to support this--it was news to me that there might even exist atheists that don't support same-sex marriage (on what grounds would they oppose it?), but apparently they're out there. Indeed, again from Hemant Mehta on the Friendly Atheist, a Gallup poll indicates that 88% of those who self-identify as having no religious identity support same-sex marriage. From this we can conclude that roughly twice as many atheists that favor same-sex marriage exist in the United States as do gay Christians.
It is absolutely no secret that Christianity is perceived, particularly by young people, as being openly hostile to the LBGT movement. Indeed, Christianity, as an organization, is recognized as the primary anti-gay, anti-gay-equality organization in the United States and the central motivating force for the vast majority of the rest of them. Some people, it seems, think of "anti-homosexuality" as the primary defining characteristic of the Christian religion today! It is rather surprising, to me at least, that there are so many gay Christians, though surely they will be the ones that help the religion dig itself out of the gutter on this issue. Either way, atheists have no particular beef with gay people and have all kinds of beef with using religious justifications for essentially any bad idea or general injustice. 

In short, most atheists should be staunch allies, if not friends, of LBGT folks, even the Christian ones, so long as we're permitted to paint with such broad strokes. Hell, we're even loud about things in general now, particularly about this, where the opposition to same-sex marriage is a clear application of religious privilege acting poorly, as usual. In fact, that we are loud against religious privilege and religiously protected bigotry is one of the central reasons Winkie wrote his piece in the first place! Religious belief, though, apparently can trump even that. Unsupportable beliefs with disproportionate importance can have that effect on you.

What would my gay friend say, I wonder, if I had posted on my own timeline some petty piece indicating that all of the gay people should "just shut up please"? Actually, I don't wonder. I'd get the vitriolic response I deserve--or worse--and I know it. Majorities throughout history have told minorities fighting for their rights to "shut up"--blacks, women (though they were never a minority in numbers, they were in social status), and yes, gays. People of almost every minority religious persuasion have gotten it too--at least in countries where people have the rights to be different and to voice their views.

My friend said he agreed with every single point Winkie makes. I feel his frustration--atheists can be quite caustic, for which I expect we have our reasons (like that being extra nice and accommodating seems not to work and is rather lacking in intellectual and moral integrity--once one really knows why they do not believe in Christianity, at least). He even contended that he agrees with what is perhaps the most outrageous point in Winkie's piece: that rational argument cannot change someone's religious beliefs.

Winkie writes: "By the way, what is more arrogant than assuming someone can be reasoned into abandoning their faith?" This is a surprising statement, characteristic of this devout agnostic movement that likes to win a feeling of superiority by flagrantly misusing the word "arrogant" by throwing it back at atheists (who are often wont to point out the rather considerable vanities contained in religions like Christianity--a universe created for mankind, a personal relationship with creator, Lord, and God, that beliefs in certain improbable propositions can morally trump any set of deeds, etc.). Certainly reasoned arguments led me away from my faith and are at the centers of almost all of the deconversion stories I know, even if the arguments don't produce a deconversion on the spot or in real time. Indeed--those reasoned arguments hit me when I was looking to validate Christian beliefs for people while I was "religiously unaffiliated" for a time before walking away from the faith entirely.

To Winkie's point I would respond: other than, perhaps, through outright disgust at the moral outrages presented by the juxtaposition of this world and the claims about God, how else, other than through reasoned arguments, has anyone ever left their faith?

To my friend I would ask: has your religious belief made you forget who your real friends are?

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If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

What does atheism have to offer? Nothing--which is everything

I hear it all the time, a criticism of atheism fired from the theistic sidelines and sometimes from within: "What does atheism have to offer?" The question is sometimes serious and more often rhetorical, attempting to point out that atheism cannot compete with religion because it is devoid of the many usual trappings and social functions of religions. Atheism has no dogmas, no doctrines, no creeds, no beliefs, no moral framework, no explanation for the universe or anything in it, no churches, no worship, no songs, no social community, no nothing. This, of course, is all true, and it is the reason that some atheistic folks like Alain de Botton have proposed an "Atheism 2.0," which seeks to fill in some of these gaps and make atheism more popular with the masses. Indeed, how else can it bring more people to it?

This all misses the point entirely!

Atheism fails to offer all of these things simply because it cannot offer them.

Outspoken "New Atheist" and neuroscientist Sam Harris has repeatedly made this point, though perhaps not with the same emphasis as I gave above: "atheism" is a very odd word, a word that should, perhaps, not exist. It is so odd a term because it does not describe a person in terms of what what he is but rather in terms of what he is not. An atheist, as is widely and repeatedly pointed out nowadays, is someone who simply does not believe in gods, someone that is without theism.

Because the term "atheist" merely indicates that someone fails to accept an entire class of claims, it itself is not actually a position at all. Since it is not a position, it cannot offer anyone essentially anything: no dogmas, no doctrines, no beliefs, no moral framework, no explanation for the universe or anything in it, no churches, no worship, no songs, no social community, no nothing. This is not a fault of atheism, nor is it a weakness or a deficiency. If anyone finds this the least bit confusing or disappointing, then it is simply proof that they don't understand why "atheist" is such an inappropriate term in the first place, just as are ahomeopathist and aspiritualist.


Very, very curiously, then, atheism does offer something, in a sense. Atheism offers freedom. Atheists are not bound by any particular dogmas, doctrines, creeds, beliefs, moral frameworks, or explanations of the universe or anything in it. By virtue of this, atheists are freer than perhaps any other group of people to choose from those that are offered by our world's cultures or to work out their own to the best of their abilities. This, of course, is not nearly the same thing as saying that atheists are people without morals or understanding of the universe; it's merely a statement that atheists are free to do most honestly what everyone must do--work out a working understanding of the world we find ourselves in.

So, atheism doesn't offer these things, can't offer these things, doesn't even claim to offer these things, and cannot be held accountable for not doing what it cannot possibly do, by definition. (This doesn't imply that atheists cannot be held accountable for their actions--in fact, it's a stunning statement of the idiocy of some of the non sequitur arguments routinely made against atheists that I even have to clarify this point.) To criticize "atheism" for not offering anything is ignorance, and to try to redefine it to offer something is foolishly artificial. To try to bring people to atheism is silly, as it is simply having them walk away from certain kinds of belief constructs that is actually being asked.

Where, then, do atheists get their morals, explanations for the world, inspiration, etc.? They get them from the same places everyone else does! From philosophers, scientists, social interaction, and, above all, a rational and careful consideration of themselves and the world around them.

Humanism and science are often cited, but they're not the only avenues available to atheists. In stark contrast to theists, who must at least in part consider the mindset handed to them by their religion and compare everything against its teachings (particularly those involved in totalitarian religions, esp. fundamentalist believers of the Abrahamic religions), atheists are free to peruse the religions of the world for suggestions of what to do or not to do and then able to examine the consequences of those choices before determining their own thoughts. This freedom is explicitly denied to the religious, even if they happen to let their cultural secularism trump the dictates of their belief systems on most or all matters.

This, of course, is also not the same as saying that "anything can be considered moral" for atheists. That flatly invalid charge is particularly egregious since it is actually a feature of most religions--many of the most horrible moral vacancies in the world can and have been justified or even raised up as righteous epitomes of virtue by religion, atrocities such as genocide, infanticide, rape, genital mutilation, extreme and violent and murderous sexism, racism, homophobia, slavery, burning people alive for victimless or imaginary crimes, etc., etc., etc., and yes, etc.

Perhaps the best statement of where atheists get their morals that I'm aware of is from Matt Dillahunty, one of the hosts of The Atheist Experience television program. He says:
I get my limits from a rational consideration of the consequences of my actions. That's how I determine what's moral. I get it from a foundation that says my ac tions have an effect on the people around me and their actions have an effect on me and if we're gonna live cooperatively and share space we have to recognize t hat impact and my freedom to swing my arm ends at their nose and that I have no right to impose my will over somebody else's will in that type of scenario. That 's where I get them from. I get them from an understanding of reality, not an as sertion of authority.
Now, for an understanding of the world, many atheists turn to science, though not all--and certainly none are required to (though most people in modern Western democracies are at least somewhat scientifically literate). The huge contrast here between theists and atheists is that atheists are not pinched by the fact that there are scriptures out there that are contradicted by science. This is not trivial, particularly because holding to the theistic or scriptural claims begins to invite (and outright evokes) science-denial, which is a major, major problem in a modern world like ours.

This, though, isn't meant to be a long treatise on where morals or understanding of the universe comes from. It's merely meant to cut the ropes holding up the puppet of an argument that atheism somehow is a faulted position because it lacks these things. Such assertions are vacuous, and though folks like Alain de Botton are well-meaning, their attempts will always be a bit silly. Atheism doesn't need to redefine itself. Secularism, humanism, science, and other philosophical constructions simply need to be brought forward--I can even envision humanistic "churches" operating much like the Unitarian churches now--letting atheism become a term that falls into the margins, a historical note reminding us of the terrifying time when theism ruled all.

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If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

"Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day" is an ideological embarrassment

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee (also famous for once stating that all Americans should be forced to read Christian historical-revisionist David Barton "at gunpoint") dubbed today, August 1, 2012, to be "Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day" in what has become one of the biggest national embarrassments I've had the displeasure of living through in more than three decades. After creating the event to support the business today and writing long-winded posts on his Facebook about how this isn't about religion or politics, Huckabee has helped to propel this issue to the front of the national stage--with over 600,000 people expressing support of the event to be held at any Chick-Fil-A establishment in the country today. In response, partly due to a protest by those supporting LBGT rights, Chick-Fil-A restaurants across the nation, especially in the South, experienced booming business with near-constant long lines, even in dangerous summer heat or other adverse weather conditions. Traffic was disrupted from cars trying to get chicken sandwiches "for freedom," and police had to be called in to direct traffic in some location (no irony here, whatsoever, felt by the no-government-influencing-business crowd).

We all should be stepping back for moment and thinking about this pretty seriously. Why did all of this go down? Religious and political forces, of course.


The religious forces

Christianity has branches that are still vehemently against homosexuality. This is a problem. They try to deny it and cover it up by saying that they're "not against anything or anyone," that they "love the sinner but hate the sin," or that they are "pro-traditional values/marriage." It's all fluff for the reality of the matter: they are uncomfortable with gays. Why?

Although you'll see it quoted a lot, this isn't about Leviticus so much as it is about Romans, if we want to talk Bible. The first chapter of Paul's letter to "the Romans" is one of the most disgusting invectives against gays ever written, and it has been canonized into the center of the Christian religion (Romans 1 is given "pride of place" by the Catholic Church). This is why Christians feel perfectly at ease with the hypocrisy of throwing out the comments from Leviticus about gay sex being an abomination while wearing tattoos and eating bacon (both also banned by Leviticus). They like to believe Jesus changed the rules for them, seemingly to a new set that allows them to go on hating whatever they want to hate and liking whatever they want to like (e.g. bacon) as long as those things don't deviate too much from the prevailing attitudes of the people that raised them.

There are two central reasons that these Christians have a problem with gays, though, and neither is as trivial as "they gross me out," which is often true enough, or as scathing as Christopher Hitchens's suggestion that they have repressed homosexual interests, which is also often true enough (and repeatedly proved to great embarrassment). Hitchens's suggestion is probably at the root cause of the prohibition of homosexuality in the scripture, but for many people, the root of their motivation on this matter comes down to one or both of two central religious facts (there is a political one as well) that make them want to legislate their conception of morality.
  1. If the Bible is wrong, say in Romans 1, about homosexuality, then the Bible might be wrong about other things. That is absolutely forbidden for them because the Bible is the source of the information that they have that allows them to pretend to escape their fear of death, which is enormous and not dealt with.
  2. God, throughout the Bible, wrecks havoc upon nations that do not accord their laws with His laws. 
The first of these problems is deep, mostly silent, and pervasive, erupting as a defense-mechanism against a profound fear. It is very difficult to deal with specifically because of how difficult it is to honestly face death and accept the reality of our ultimate annihilation (a gift, when you see it).

The second is why we see all of these pronouncements in the news that God is sending hurricanes or other destruction because of gay sex. Even Dan Cathy, the COO of Chick-Fil-A, hinted at this, indicating that we're "arrogant" and that God won't be happy with our legal structure. God doesn't really wreck nations for having morals more advanced than those in the Bronze-Age Middle East, though.

There is also believing in belief, as Dan Dennett sometimes calls it. There are people out there, most of whom are religious, who are standing up for Chick-Fil-A because they are a company that is willing to "stand up for what it believes in." This is ridiculous, though; they're a fast-food chicken restaurant. These people want to stand up for the idea of believing in something, which has some merits, but they also need to take a moment to reflect upon what they are standing up for here. Not all beliefs are created equally, nor are all of them on a moral level. Standing up for Chick-Fil-A's willingness to stick to its guns is admirable and all, or it would be if it weren't for the ugly and inconvenient truth that Chick-Fil-A's guns are morally repugnant in this case.


The (socio)political forces

First worth mentioning here is the one that applies specifically to the Christians that want to legislate their conception of morality--traditional values. These people are almost universally socially conservative, which essentially means that they favor sociopolitical stances that match as nearly as possible those present during the idealization of their childhoods (or, occasionally, some other fanciful time, e.g. a perfect, though fictional, Libertarian Golden Age either in the idyllic past or an Ayn Rand novel). Since gay marriage was not legal when they were kids, it shouldn't be legal now. This simplistic never-do-anything-for-the-first-time attitude is astonishingly common, often rationalized via "...and we turned out just fine." Except you didn't. You turned out as a bigot.

Most of the other political forces are all about "freedom." In my previous post about Chick-Fil-A, I noted that the "freedom" here is not actually the "freedom of speech" that many claim it is (often rendered as the "freedom to hold one's own opinions"--which is totally fine, if you don't act on them when they are oppressive, hateful, or violent). It is instead the freedom for those with privilege to tyrannize those without it. Of course, this is one part traditional values and two parts misunderstanding Liberty (the demigod of the so-called freedom-lovers). There are at least two major camps involved here.
  1. Those who feel like this is an issue about freedom for people to do what they want without social coercion, i.e. those I just dealt with above; and
  2. Those who are afraid of an unwelcome intrusion of government into private business.
Say what? I admit, I had to stop and really think about that second group too. The government involvement seemed hard to find, but essentially the direct targets here are the mayors of Chicago and Boston who both made it clear that they were very unhappy with Dan Cathy's opinions and donations and would not welcome his business in their cities. Fair enough--those mayors do not technically possess the legal authority to block Cathy on those grounds, and both have recognized that fact and stepped back from the implied legal force of their original statements. It probably has something to do with the fact that the Democratic National Convention has added a plank to its 2012 platform to support same-sex marriage, although that literally has nothing direct to do with Chick-Fil-A except in the minds of fanatical conservatives who see every action by the Democrats as a liberal takeover straight to "socialist-communist-fascism" (even with the contradiction in those terms).

The "government intrusion" thing, of course, is a fantasy as well--it's just not happening, nor is it what this is about. This is about defending religious privilege and sacrificing liberty to Liberty.


Then there's the "liberals" thing....

If ideologues are good at anything, they're good at demonizing their opposition. With the Chick-Fil-A thing, CNN reports that some people are supporting the chicken chain specifically because "it's an uber-successful privately held [sic] corporation who happened to take a public stand against a topic that the liberal media chooses to champion." (emphasis mine, and n.b.: the person who said this is a self-reported agnostic, indicating that it is not purely a religious thing operating on behalf of Chick-Fil-A). Here we see a fellow paying homage to the political icon of the "privately-held corporation" while playing upon the myth of the "liberal media," a portrayal of romanticized forces of good and evil for the simple and easily-angered conservative mind.

Conservative ideologues have been outrageously successful over the last few decades at demonizing the term "liberal" and then at using the manufactured pejorative connotation to wield considerable power in a realm that operates fully outsides of the universe of facts and reason. The testimony and support for Chick-Fil-A shown above, with its attached intention, shows the power that such imagery can have over people. If nothing more, it illustrates the thoroughness with which some people can have their moral compasses realigned toward favoring a fast-food chain over the struggle for equal rights--and attached suffering--of millions of people.


This is embarrassing to us as a nation, not a moment of national pride. Look at the list of nations that would support the United States in this endeavor, places like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Uganda, all of which are known for killing gays (in fact, some of the donations made by Chick-Fil-A to anti-gay organizations were spent lobbying not to condemn Uganda's "Kill the Gays" bill). I think it's fair to assume that those are not exactly the company that these "freedom"-lovers would like to keep, but so long as they make a fuss like "Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day," they'll use their ideology to put us right there with them.

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If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.