Saturday, January 28, 2012

Reclaiming Moral Language

Today, I come to the sixth of Sean Faircloth's principles for a new secularist and atheist political strategy. In this principle, Faircloth calls for secularists to reclaim the word 'morality'.

Faircloth asserts that the religious right has turned "morality" into a word for sexual trivia. Yet, not to long ago, it applied to such things as concern for the poor and the dispossessed.

It had to do with, as the ancient Greeks said, taming the savageness of man and making gentler the life of this world.

It has to do with making into a world a better place.

As can be expected, I wholeheartedly endorse this principle.

The very heart of this blog is an interest in reclaiming moral language and to presenting the idea that morality is a set of social institutions that aim at making the world a better place.

Morality is not about sexual trivia. It is about killing and maiming, and torture. It is about the plight of those who do not have enough food to eat, clean water to drink, and about those who stand helplessly and watch their young children die from diseases that could have been treated for mere pennies, while others spend billions of dollars on games and entertainment.

It is about rape. It is about slavery. It is about being used solely for the pleasure of others while one’s own interests are regarded as irrelevant.

It is about breathing unpoisoned air and drinking unpoisoned water. It is about not being lied to or defrauded out of one's savings. It is about having control over one's own creative works. It is about being denied opportunities not because if one's character or abilities, but because of the color if one's skin, where one was born, or some other quality that is entirely irrelevant to the work being done.

Whether or not one's sexual partner is the same gender of oneself is as much a matter of sexual trivia as whether or not one’s partner has the same hair color as oneself. What does matter in the moral is that a committed couple be allowed to take advantage of the institutional safeguards that would allow them to build and to live the one and only life they have with the person of their choice - so long as the person of their choice can and does give informed consent to the arrangement.

There is a substantial portion of the Republican party today that is willing to forego all concern over climate change, medical care, famine, and war, and base their whole political decision on their interest in denying a certain percentage of the population the benefits of institution of marriage to the partner of their choice. We can certainly use moral terms where these people are concerned. They are blind and unthinking bigots who have been raised on such nonsense that their political life is now devoted almost exclusively to that which harms others.

Perhaps they are victims of their culture – a claim many have made in forgiving the racism and sexism that many of our nation’s founding fathers embraced without question. However, they are more like the last holdouts of (hopefully) dying primitive bigotry, than they are like the first thinkers in the generation that first comes to question what a previous generation took for granted.

Like Sean Faircloth, I have been criticized for using moral terms on the basis that morality is the realm of the religious. In addition, I have heard it said often enough, that the realm of description falls to science, while the realm of prescription needs to be assigned to the realm of morality.

I reject this entirely.

First, I reject it because religion is almost entirely the realm of myth, superstition, and fictions invented by tribesmen (and, yes, they were almost exclusively men) whose understanding of the moral universe was as primitive as their understanding of the physical universe. Declaring that some centuries-old text is the final word on morality is as absurd as declaring Hippocrates to be the final word in all matters of medicine - not only in terms of its assault on reason but in terms of the disastrous consequences of acting on that belief.

Second, I reject separating morality from science because issues of the quality of life are certainly a part of objective fact. At the age of 13, I accidentally put my hand on a hot metal plate. In an instant I had 2nd degree burn blisters all across the palm of my hand and my fingers. I did not need to believe in a god to know that I did not want that to happen again. Even today, I do not need to believe in a god to have reason to direct social institutions to reducing the chance that others might do such a thing to me on purpose – or to anybody that I care about. Nor do other people need to believe in god to have reasons to cause me to be concerned about their welfare – to object to them being subject to this kind of behavior.

Also, the animal kingdom is filled with examples of creatures that care their offspring, their mate, and others in their community without a belief in a god. There are good biological explanations for these facts that make no reference to a deity.

The idea that we need to invent a god to account for the facts that underlie morality is as primitive as the idea that we need to invent a god to explain the motion of the planets. It is another "god of the gaps" argument, and the gap is closing rapidly.

Having said this, I will add that a substantial number of atheists and secularists make some significant mistakes in drawing relationships between morality and biology. However, these mistakes appear to be disappearing from the academic field (though they are still common among bloggers and others who discuss these issues in more casual settings).

Long time readers of this blog will know some of the objections that I have to the relationships others have drawn between biology and morality.

However, the fact that people make mistakes in drawing relationships between biology and morality does not prove that there is no relationship - any more than mistakes made about the relationship between swamps and malaria (that malaria is caused by "bad air") does not prove that no relationship (independent of divine power) exists.

According to Faircloth:

Now it is time for us . . . Secular Americans - to step up and offer hope and a specific plan to change our society for the better.

Actually, it is long past the time for this maneuver. Claiming that religion is the realm of morality was and continues to be a significant mistake. It has put myth, superstition, and primitive thinking in control of human well-being, and yielded some predictably poor results.

In saying that these results are poor, one is capable of making a claim as objectively true as any claim in science.

Of course I endorse Sean Faircloth's six principle for a new atheist strategy. Around here, the principle is not all that new.

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