Monday, March 11, 2013

More on the moral debate--three dimensions, moral relativism, what 'atheism' lacks, and common ground

Quite early in my blogging here, I wrote a piece about morality attempting to integrate the works of psychologist Jonathan Haidt and neuroscientist and moral philosopher Sam Harris. Please, consider reading it: "Reframing the Moral Debate--A Complaint about Imprecision." I received some criticism for that piece, which is probably fair--I certainly wasn't an expert on Haidt's take. I was told that I, like Harris, do not understand morality, and I defended myself on that point (and still do) by noting that I understand something of salience, which is what I believe Harris is actually calling for in the moral debate. Certainly, though it may be moral according to the forgoing understanding of morals to engage in certain acts of ritual purity, like eating certain kinds of tasteless wafers while professing to believe wholeheartedly that they are the body of a dead Jew that preached twenty centuries ago, this behavior lacks salience in the way that saying it is immoral to kick a dog captures.

After having read some more of Haidt, I feel I have a better understanding of his position on the matter and would like to make another small bit of commentary. I really like Haidt's expression that morality is, in a meaningful way, a third dimension in psychosocial valuation, to go along with kin-closeness and status. This strengthens my resolve that what I said in that earlier piece is really on to something--that Haidt's moral normativism creates a "framework morality" dependent upon the framework itself while Harris is striving to connect morals to the firm salience of flourishing and suffering--although I did miss an important component of what it means to be salient, which I'll elaborate upon here.

The Old Thinking

To quickly summarize the previous post for those unwilling or unable to read it just now, it strikes me that under moral normativism actions like ritual sacrifice (of animals or humans) can be defended as being important moral goods, but from the outside of that moral system, this kind of framework presents a major stumbling block to accepting the term "moral" for it. Though sacrifice is often a part of religions, other religious practices that are rather clearly harmful (from the outside) frequently fall into this category of being a moral good from within and a moral failure from without. I posited in the previous piece that it is conceivable that a moral framework could emerge that is fundamentally harmful and therefore in which "good" behavior within the social network embracing that framework is actually "bad" behavior from a position of the salience of well-being versus suffering (or flourishing versus harm, or whatever set of terms that philosophers want to tear apart and yet still plainly resonate with us).

I would clarify my previous position by noting that such inherently subjective valuations as moral norms (what I referred to as morals within a particular framework) can meaningfully be compared even without having to appeal to overwhelmingly clear definitions of "well being" and "suffering." Indeed, it can be done without selecting a preferred moral framework, as I would now argue that we each necessarily operate from within at least one such thing. Enter the dreaded moral relativism.

Moral relativism usually posits that we are unable to judge moral systems against each other, but if we extract from that a particular nugget, then we find something profoundly useful. If we accept that we are unable to judge moral systems against each other absolutely but can do so relatively, then we're in business, because at that point, we can start to evaluate any particular system in all of the others that we are considering. While I cannot guarantee that this method would provide the kind of rock-solid information that we could use to build an optimal moral system for many, most, or all people (since this is not my area of research), I can say that such a study would be very likely to be profoundly useful at paring away the peculiarities of particular frameworks (often, as in the case with religions and sacrifices, based upon ancient superstitious beliefs) to get at a more salient core.

The Newer Thinking

So, after reading more Haidt and seeing more clearly where he's coming from, I see more plainly that moral valuation is a component in an immensely complex psychosocial phenomenon by which we evaluate one another. As mentioned, morals seem to be a "third dimension" of human psychosocial valuation, one that seems invisible although that feels dimly perceptible until it is made plain, at which point it seems rather apparent all over the place (itself an interesting psychological phenomenon).

These three dimensions in which we evaluate each other to varying degrees are kin-closeness (how close a family or friendship tie we have established), social status (how well known or important we are in the social circles that matter), and morality (or goodness, or divinity, or purity, or lots of words that capture the broad meaning of the word "goodness"). I'm not entirely sure, but it seems rather apparent while thinking about it that these dimensions are not necessarily completely independent. For example, one can achieve status within a community like a church simply by scoring profoundly well in "goodness," and communities like church operate to create a sense of kin-closeness among a relatively small group of strangers.

In fact, at this point, I'm almost willing to conclude that religions, in their enduring psychosocial roles (their explanatory roles being dead for at least 150-400 years now), are primarily a system hack by which people can obtain a path to creating, maintaining, and renewing individual self- and interpersonal valuation schema primarily along this third dimension of interactions. This would explain neatly why science hasn't killed off religion yet, despite the overwhelming obviousness with which religion continues to embarrass itself in the "truths about the world" department. It's good at psychology, in a twisted sense.

In that sense, then, religion is a very natural thing for people--because it is easy. Social valuation is an incredibly complex phenomenon, and it would do us well to have shortcuts when trying to navigate its tricky, dark forest. That these shortcuts come at a substantial price may indicate that the shortcuts are actually that valuable to our species to have survived the plain failure of being able to prove themselves useful for anything else--indeed, they're more often dangerously wrong than they are right, even about the psychology I claimed that they're good at.

How atheism "lacks"

Atheism, then, requires people to approach life without this system hack, or using other less-clear proxies for it in place (since we will all be involved in moral frameworks anyway as a product of our at least three-dimensional social valuation psychology). Religion makes these matters black and white, simple. Little thought is needed to process the enormous complexity, and the overall complexity of the problem is simplified enormously by accepting the invalid premise that goodness and badness can be made universal--the belief that gives rise to the other common myth and religious goal that peace can be achieved if everyone is on the same religious page.

In a purely secular society, we would have to face the reality that we don't have a cut-and-dry rulebook on goodness and badness that would work for everyone, even if a perfectly salient scientific moral framework could be developed that optimizes clear and accurate notions of flourishing and suffering. By fully respecting the fact that variations in psychology and social valuation exist across individuals, not only would we have to work far harder at moral and social valuation as individuals within society, we would face the challenge that the framework itself is fuzzy. More work is harder, and it may be very difficult for this kind of work to play out effectively in those less capable of understanding complex abstract ideas. A complication is that some people's morals within this fuzzy sea may literally have to be taken, from their perspectives, as inviolable absolutes--something that makes it much harder to manage.

It's really worse than this too if we want to point to where "atheism" is lacking (quotes because atheism is not a thing). Maybe, in fact, we can point blame here at all of the Enlightenment's thinking, illustrating what it missed in its call to logical reasoning as the foundation for all effective thought. This third dimension of psychosocial valuation, since it is so often arbitrary, based upon superstitions, contradictory across cultures, and sometimes downright harmful by any salient measure, has sort of been suppressed. My experience has been that many atheists act rather as if this third dimension is purely arbitrary or, at best, subjective, and thus is essentially immaterial. The problem is that this attitude contradicts the reality of psychology.

That means, then, that "atheism"--when it devalues this dimension of psychosocial valuation--appears to be lacking something profoundly important. Not only is this unattractive for theists, it's downright terrifying. Theists capture this fear in their famous scariest-ever sentiment: "If there is no God, then there is no God's law. Then there is only man's law. And if there is only man's law, then no one has to follow that, so we'd all be raping and murdering and stealing without God's law."

Contrary to how it plainly is heard to those outside of theism--that without God they'd be rapist murderers that steal--this sentiment is most likely to be an expression of fear at abandoning a core part of their psychosocial valuation structure, one that they feel "atheism" cannot adequately provide replacement for. This, incidentally, is why they will band together as "theists" who usually hate each other against "atheists" as well. Atheists really are outsiders because we don't even offer a clear replacement for the third dimension of psychosocial valuation.

What atheism lacks, atheists don't

Of course, any atheist will rapidly tell you that we do not lack a sense of morality, goodness, and decency, even if we're reluctant to refer to it as "divinity" or talk about "ritual purity." Indeed, we have it even if we downplay the value of this third dimension as being subjective or arbitrary. What we don't have, though, is a playbook that we suggest or require that everyone follows. We mostly require ourselves to work out our morals for ourselves, which is hard, worthwhile work that might explain why there are relatively so few atheists in prisons.

Of course, we are lying to ourselves here too--we do have a playbook. It's just invisible. Novelist Daniel Quinn referred to it as "the whispering of Mother Culture" in his book Ishmael. We're raised by people in a culture with a prevailing psychosocial valuation structure already in place, and it forms the foundation for our invisible playbook. Theists contribute heavily to this playbook, which explains why in the West we virtually associate the word "naughty" with sex.

(As an aside,  this is why I agree with a friend of mine who has suggested that there are no "atheism to Christianity" conversions in a nation like the United States--our entire culture is already built on Christian moral norms, and so a conversion is merely an acceptance of a community and a few unlikely propositions. The foundation for Christianity was in the person all along, and the "conversion" can usually be explained largely by that.)

This invisible moral playbook, then, is important because it reveals a critical truth: the "atheist" playbook on morals is essentially the same playbook by which most Christians operate. The difference, which is even more important, is that the atheist moral position is willing and able to question the precepts in that playbook and modify them according to perceived salience, rejecting the arbitrary, superstitious, harmful, and stupid without having to engage in lengthy rationalizations of it. The return is the rejection of many distortions and abject moral failures canonized in religion for a variety of purposes, but the cost is in having the playbook become necessarily fuzzy, invisible, and more difficult to figure out.


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.

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