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A critical look at secular humanism
Posted: 07 February 2007 02:38 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 31 ]
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Brennen said:

What worries, I might even say frightens me about your statement (Manifesto?) is the prophetic zeal and certainty. If you didn’t specifically deride religion in your first post, there is nothing about these ideals or this language that would be incompatible with fundamentalist religion. It’s not that there is anything wrong with perfect selfless compassion and non-violence, it’s just that you seem to have a vision of the TRUTH which excludes any competing visions, and that’s a form of arrogance, albeit couched in humble terms. What if you’re wrong? What if the others who call themselves humanists aren’t just intellectual or moral cowards or selling out to get a mainstream following but sincere, intelligent folks working for the good of humanity just as you are? Can you simply condemn all they do as futile because it doesn’t fit your vision?

Sure, zeal motivates action, and I can’t quarrel with your commitment or the fact that you try to put your ideals vigorously into practice, but I think without a touch of humility and self-doubt would do you a world of good in preventing you from becoming fixated on the whole vision and unable to use reason and criticism to help you weed out the mistakes.

I can’t speak for Mark, of course, but what if we all are wrong?  We all may be.  The universe may really be such that our understanding of it is equal to the knowledge of the beings living in Flatland! 

But this sort of thinking only leaves us with nothing to say at all about our lives, our futures. 

Maybe Mark is “sure” of what he says, but so are we all when we say we know or think we know something.  I do not think all of us walk around as total agnostics about everything!  We all have opinions, and probably - those of us who profess to having a scientific world view - have some fairly good reasons for thinking we are correct re some of those opinions. 

After all, all of our reading and research into religion, naturalism, politics, etc., must eventually lead to some fairly strong opinions - at least as strong as those of whom we read - and therefore, I think it is fair to say that we may be correct perhaps even a good deal about what we think (re our opinions). 

There is a difference between being confident in one’s ideas/opinions and being dogmatists or absolutists.  I do not think either Mark or I are such.

Perhaps Mark is sure he is not wrong (though I doubt it), but certainly I understand that I may be wrong in one or more aspects of my ideology…  But I think it is pretty clear that others can be wrong as well.  Indeed, capitalism is certainly a non-humanistic economic system, but when someone defends it, they are thought to be rational, clear thinkers.  Certainly not dogmatic.  But when someone criticizes it, whether he/she is a socialist, anarchist, or otherwise, he/she suddenly “believes too confidently” in their ideas or are being dogmatic or a utopian.  Why?

Re humanism, we need to believe in SOMETHING otherwise why call ourselves ANY thing? Humanism is such which if it is to be realized (and go beyond secularism and atheism, which it should based on humanist writings and history), it MUST be PRE-ceded, not superceded, by a social ‘set of premises’ which can lead to a humanistic future.. and this means we need to address SOCIETY. 

Politics, economics, etc., are the ‘blood’ of modern society, and we don’t get specific as to which kind of political or economic system is most likely to lead to a humanistic future at our own peril…  Making humanism, therefore, useless.

I suppose that even all this might sound arrogant or narrow, but ALL worldviews can sound arrogant and narrow to those who disagree with the worldview.  We can always hear the cry, ‘who is he to think he has the right answer’ or ‘who is she to criticise traditional ideas?’ 

But in the end, just as naturalists will prove to be correct about supernaturalism (I think most of us on this forum thinks that), I think anti-capitalists (for instance) will prove to be correct about capitalism.  Both naturalists and anti-capitalists have the best evidence.

And as for zeal…  What’s wrong with zeal?  What’s wrong with vigor?  If someone has an arguement which offers proof of any sort (even if it is not very scientific), that my attempts to find one best way (not THE best way, I invite other ‘best ways’ to come forward), to move toward a humanistic future are wrong… Well then,  as ‘W’ said… “Bring it On!”  :twisted: 

That is what these forums are for… debate and dicussion! 

The burdon of proof is on me because my ideas are in the minority, and I have been providing my proof all along.  I may not always get it correct, but I change my opinions as I gain more knowledge.

Of course, there may come a time when my opinions and another’s may be so fundementally different that further debate is useless… and then each of us will have to continue along on our own paths.
Brennen said:

If any difference from your perspective is delusion, or incomplete realization, or cowardice, or deliberate refusal to see the truth, then you’ve set yourself up as a prophet, and prophets are dangerous, and frankly usually mostly wrong.

Hmmm. Isn’t that what Dawkins/Harris say about religion?  Are they atheistic prophets?

Anyway, I at least have not called anyone delusional or cowardly.  :wink:


Brennen said:

Deciding who gets to be a humanist and who doesn’t based on strict adherence to your dogma is a very “religious” behavior, despite the nominal secularism of the dogma.

If humanism means ‘A’ (however narrow or broad ‘A’ is), and person ‘1’ promotes and carries through ideas which fit under ‘A,’ then person ‘1’ is a humanist. 

If person ‘2’ does not, what shall we call this person? 

Fact is, if we have so broad a definition of humanism that almost any secular person can be under ‘A,’ then we don’t need the ‘ism’ in the first place!

Example: If Anarchism is about state-less order (which it is), and person ‘1’ likes most of what anarchism is all about, but believes a small state is a good idea, then person ‘1’ is not an anarchist.  Simple as that.

Brennon:

And finally, I’m sure you’ll call me a cynic and dismiss me accordingly, but you both seem very proud of the radical/outsider character to your certainties and very confident that absolute visions and unifying ideals can and should be realized. Calling all humanitarian work (i.e. “charity”) a meaningless band-aid in the absence of fundamental elimination of the underlying causes of suffering, which you say should be our only aim, is the worst sort of utopianism. Sure it’s noble, but why should I believe you and your ideas are the path to achieving this when no one else’s in history has achieved it?

First of all, I - at least - am not “proud” of being an outsider or a radical.  It may come off that way when such radicals like Mark? and I speak to this, but in truth, I’d rather be just a happy, relaxed part of the mainstream! 

Of course, THAT mainstream would be very much to the “left” of what we have today, which is why I find myself on the radical side of the spectrum! 

I wish mainstream society was more anarcho-democratic just like most atheists wish society was less religious.  For now, in America, we are both on the outside looking in.  Perhaps one day, the mainstream will move toward atheism and anarcho-democracy… perhaps not.

As for charity.. I did not mean all humanitarian work.  I meant traditional charity like churches are often involved in.  Humanitarian work can cover helping folks out who were ravaged by Katrina and the Bush Administration (both which led to the disaster in New Orleans), but this is not what I mean by charity .. particularly when natural disasters cause the tragedy.  Of course Bush’s ignoring the pleas to fix the levies, and his slow response and that of fema to Katrina, are things we need to change too! 

And while we seriously work to fix the problems charity is supposed to fix, we can be charitable… but THAT must be a temporary thing BECAUSE we are already working to fix the problems in the first place. 

It is simple for me to think that the same people who can do charitable work can also do work to fix the problems before they become so big as to require charity, no?

As for history, just because ‘utopia’ is not a place we will ever reach, seriously stiving in the direction of utopia is very humanistic indeed.  Just because some things have not happened or worked out yet, does not mean they never will.  Were the US Founding Fathers wack jobs to think of trying out representative democracy when it was never tried or ever worked before?  Of course not.  I say the same re ‘inclusive, participatory democracy.’

What do you suppose will happen re our futures if no one tries?

While we are all using quotes, here is one great one:

“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.  And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail.  Progress is the realisation of Utopias.” - Oscar Wilde

Brennen:

If you don’t see any way to share the visions that admits of compromise and difference of opinion, you will waste your talents preaching to a small choir and a large, indifferent multitude, and nothing will come of them (barring one of history’s rare revolutions or waves of religious conversion). That would be a shame.

I do not intend on just talking about this stuff on the CFI forums.  LOL

I do so because, well, what better group of people - members of the largest “humanist” organization in America - to share such ideas with and hope some of them ‘trickle up’ to the powers that be in Amherst?

And compromise is a way foward, at times, and is why I am willing to work with liberal religionists in my endeavors (which many at CFI and folks like Sam Harris don’t want to do)....
Mark said:

So, I used to think the same way as you regarding the fact that we should be very wary about asserting “truths”, and we should be. But I also believe as Henry George says, that “its just as harmful for a man to think that he knows nothing, as it is for a man to think he knows everything”. And once we clearly realize the truth of something, and have thought deeply about it, and can verbalize it, and explain rationally exactly why and how it is the truth, just as 2+2=4, then we should not be timid, indeed it is our duty as human beings not to be. And if there are holes in my reasoning, I want to know. We can’t legitimately talk about the truth as a matter of intellectual pride or arrogance, as anyone who wants to get at the truth will gladly sacrifice pride to see their mistake.

Very well said, Mark!

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Posted: 07 February 2007 02:56 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 32 ]
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I’m not afraid of goodness. I’m afraid of self-righteous passion, uncompromising moral certainty, and messianic zeal. Those things are not the same as being good. Conviction is not the same as the absence of doubt or humility. Humility is not the same thing as crippling self doubt.  I don’t mean to charicature your point of view, but you seem perilously close to charicaturing mine.

The difference between MLK or Gandhi or Hitler and Stalin is the specifics of their goals and methods, and these are the key in evaluating any visionary’s ideas. But there is an inherent risk in the cult of personality that forms around visionaries, and this requires exceptionally good people to use the power this gives them in a constructive, not destructive way. I don’t believe that most, or all people are likely to achieve the degree of moral character necessary to resist both the allure of power or the seductive experience of having their own belief in their special insight or wisdom being confirmed by their followers to the point where they become inured to the idea they may sometimes be wrong.

How good should we be? Absolutely as good as we can be. The trick is I would include humility, tolerance and respect for others, compassion and respect even to those who don’t see the world the same way I do as components of goodness. Perhaps you would too.  I’m just trying to point out that, to deliberately misquote Barry Goldwater, “Extremism in pursuit of liberty CAN BE a vice; moderation in pursuit of justice IS a virtue.” Of course, extremism is in the eye of the beholder. We never see ourselves as extremists since our own point of view often seems the most reasonable one around. Someone else is always the extremist. All I am arguing for is a recognition of this that diminishes our tendancy to dismiss competing ideas as nonsense and sees only one way, our way, and the single solution to all the world’s problems.

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Posted: 07 February 2007 03:23 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 33 ]
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There is a difference between being confident in one’s ideas/opinions and being dogmatists or absolutists

Absolutely!

I do not think either Mark or I are such.

This may be true, and I suspect it is. The disappearance of the all boldface posts is a good sign of willingness to compromise, and much appreciated!  :wink:  As I hope I made clear, I am commenting on language that conveys an impression of absolutism and dogmatism which, especially if it is a false impression, sometimes obscures the message.

Hmmm. Isn’t that what Dawkins/Harris say about religion? Are they atheistic prophets?

Exactly! I think they may very well be! Though I’m trying to reserve judgement until I get around to reading their latest, I tend to agree with your criticism of their assault on religion, not because I think they’re wrong or that religion is not a major problem for humanists, but because I think a Sam-Harris-like tone of contempt and disdain is the wrong way to go to achieve secularism’s goals. Wendy Kaminer’s piece in the latest Free Inquiry was a lot closer to my attitude than the Paul Kurtz editorial. This is exactly the sort of tone I caution against, even in defense of ideas I agree with.

If humanism means ‘A’ (however narrow or broad ‘A’ is), and person ‘1’ promotes and carries through ideas which fit under ‘A,’ then person ‘1’ is a humanist.

Sure, but ‘A’ is, unfortunatley for absolutists and dogmatists, usally an imperfectly cobbled together consensus statement that nobody really objects to but nobody embraces passionately in its entirety. I am as frustrated by this as you are, but I don’t see the alternative apart from the formation of ever smaller and smaller ideological splinter groups which renders the whole movement as pointless and ineffective as you think it is now. If your goal is to drive ‘A’ in the direction you think it should go, more power to you. If you goal is to offer a definitive ‘A,’ take it or leave it and if you leave it you’re no humanist, then you’re an absolutist or dogmatist. Since you made some adjustments to your defintion in this very thread, I suspect the former to be true. But then you say anyone who is not an avowed anarcho-democrat isn’t a “real” humanist, and I begin to doubt you.  smile

As for history, just because ‘utopia’ is not a place we will ever reach, seriously stiving in the direction of utopia is very humanistic indeed. Just because some things have not happened or worked out yet, does not mean they never will. Were the US Founding Fathers wack jobs to think of trying out representative democracy when it was never tried or ever worked before? Of course not. I say the same re ‘inclusive, participatory democracy.’

What do you suppose will happen re our futures if no one tries?

Again, I agree. An all-or-nothing utopianism is futile and naive, but striving towards something better, even if we sometimes despair of reaching it, is of course a good thing. As I said above directed towards Mark, “I would argue that there is much we can do by, as you suggest, aiming for such an ideal even without any absolute confidence of reaching it. It sounded to me, and I may be wrong, that you espouse something of an all or nothing attitude towards the pursuit of the virtues and actions you believe we should pursue, and it is this absolutism, rather than the pursuit of the greatest virtue we can personally achieve, that I was expressing concern about. ”

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Posted: 07 February 2007 03:47 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 34 ]
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Ok, how do you distinguish between truth and goodness on one hand, and self-righteous passion and messianic zeal on the other?
How do you know what to embrace and what to be afraid of? Are these perceptions not based on what you currently regard as truth and goodness, and so anything outside of this box will likely trigger the fearful thoughts?
This is where strict adherance to reason comes in, and not being afraid of absolute truths. (After all the belief that there are no absolute truths, is itself an absolute claim and is intolerance under the veil of tolerance). The only moral absolute truth that I would claim is that we should love one another. Or the reverse, that violence ultimately only begets more violence. (of course, violence will sometimes seem to produce effective results, but these are temporary, that’s why I throw in the word “ultimately”).

A practical deduction from the absolute moral ideal I have stated would be the secular humanist ideal of “treating others as we would like to be treated”. So this is all I’m claiming to know, and many would see it as common sense not necessarily self-righteous or arrogant. But when we make rational deductions from these ideals (deductions that commonly counteract the status-quo, tradtions and social norms) and practically apply them to real world situations, that’s when the self-righteous and arrogant claims begin. However they are, most of the time, driven by attachment to public opinion and tradition and are completely unfounded from a rational standpoint, so I do not worry much about being labeled as such. If what I claim does not naturally and rationally flow from the basic moral ideals that we all share then I would like someone to point out my error. And so humility, truth, and reason go hand in hand.

Brennen when you say “How good should we be? Absolutely as good as we can be.”
It seemed like you were saying that extreme “goodness” is sometimes not desirable, since it promotes overbearing “zeal”, or creates prophets. I just want to know where you draw the line, should we strive individually for absolute nonviolence? (perhaps this sounds like I’m being a jerk, and I admit that I don’t think this argument has a rational foundation, but I would want someone to push me a little to think about it). Should we be good, but stay under the radar, so as not to become a prophet? And what if someone were so good that staying under the radar of public view was impossible, as it would likely be with some people. What about people who are already famous for other reasons, should they not be as good as they could be since this might precipitate a following?

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Posted: 08 February 2007 05:44 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 35 ]
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Brennen:

This may be true, and I suspect it is. The disappearance of the all boldface posts is a good sign of willingness to compromise, and much appreciated!


:D LOL  :wink:


Brennen:

Exactly! I think they may very well be! Though I’m trying to reserve judgment until I get around to reading their latest, I tend to agree with your criticism of their assault on religion, not because I think they’re wrong or that religion is not a major problem for humanists, but because I think a Sam-Harris-like tone of contempt and disdain is the wrong way to go to achieve secularism’s goals. Wendy Kaminer’s piece in the latest Free Inquiry was a lot closer to my attitude than the Paul Kurtz editorial. This is exactly the sort of tone I caution against, even in defense of ideas I agree with.


Hallelujah!  Yes, I agree completely.  I am not a Sam Harris-like atheist.  Kaminer was right on the money as was Julian Baggini.  Kurtz, Hitchens, Harris, etc. need to move into the 21st Century.  :?

Brennen:

‘A’ is, unfortunately for absolutists and dogmatists, usually an imperfectly cobbled together consensus statement that nobody really objects to but nobody embraces passionately in its entirety. I am as frustrated by this as you are, but I don’t see the alternative apart from the formation of ever smaller and smaller ideological splinter groups which renders the whole movement as pointless and ineffective as you think it is now.

Yes, I see your point.  I am not an absolutist or dogmatist, but like you, see the “cobbled together consensus statement(s)” offered by CSH, AHA, etc., to be problematic in defining for the world what humanism actually IS, and what it is NOT. 

No one bothers to come up with a clear statement based on scientific findings of human nature, political or economic systems and their affects on society and individual people, and the lofty goals and sentiments found in the humanist manifestos ... this is why the only common denominator ... the only working statement on humanism winds up surrounding words like ‘science,’ ‘naturalism,’ ‘Secularism,’ ‘Atheism’ and ‘Reason.’  Also offered, of course, are a list of “ethics or morals” but they are not defined well, and nothing is offered as to why we should think these ethics and goals are what we actually want, can achieve, or where they even came from (or if they are justified). 

So I am VERY frustrated that CSH and AHA, etc, cannot do this, so I have attempted to do it myself.  If what I do/write splinters off some ... if it is more narrow than the official “cobbled together” definition(s), that may be because it is a more disciplined, more accurate definition and not a more ideological or dogmatic one. 

And yes, the “movement” now is nothing much more than an atheistic one (with science tossed in as “proof” that atheism is correct).  If a smaller, less ambiguous movement might leave out certain atheists from the ‘ism,’ so be it.  That’s the problem with radical movements ... why they are radical in the first place! 

Humanism, in today’s world, is radical.  There is no way around that. Atheism does not a movement make.  If atheists are a small fraction of American society, then atheistic humanists are an even smaller fraction!  That is why I would work with “religious” humanists as well as atheistic humanists (both which are usually secular) .... It makes for a much larger fraction!
Brennon:

But then you say anyone who is not an avowed anarcho-democrat isn’t a “real” humanist, and I begin to doubt you.

Well, no.  There is room for movement here.  Though I think ALL humanists think participatory democracy is closer to an ideal for a better society than not, not all have to agree to the anarchy part to be humanists (in my mind).  Anarchism may wind up never coming to fruition.  It may not be something humans can achieve.  I have more hopes for ‘inclusive democracy’ than anarchism per say, but even that can be very difficult to achieve. 

I would argue that the next best system would be a more sustainable (than we have had thus far) welfare-state sort of social democracy.  But in order to achieve even this, we need to abandon neo-liberal capitalism, and perhaps most forms of capitalism besides markets.  I do not think such will be sustainable in the end, but it is surly better than what we have today with globalization, et al.  It would be humanistic, but perhaps not wind up in the end, humanistic enough.  I still think hierarchy is the main problem with social democracy.

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Posted: 08 February 2007 06:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 36 ]
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how do you distinguish between truth and goodness on one hand, and self-righteous passion and messianic zeal on the other

Obviously, truth and goodness are concepts philosophers have argued about for millenia, so I can’t say I have the final word on what they mean. But let’s try and see what we get.

Truth-I guess a statement, or set of statements, about reality that can be reasonably demonstrated by evidence to accurately describe and explain the aspect of reality being considered, that make verifiable predictions about reality, and that is subject to re-evaluation and revision as dictated by new evidence. The empirical foundation for truth is why I resist absolutes. This doesn’t mean I don’t believe anything, only that I expect some of what I believe will likely need revision in the face of new arguments and evidence, and I’m willing to listen to such and re-evaluate as necessary.

For example (and let’s try not to get too caught up in the content of the examples, since they are only important as illustrations of my general point), I oppose unrestricted private ownership of guns because I think the empirical evidence is strong that allowing this leads to more violence and harm that good. Similarly, I see no convincing evidence that capital punishment deters crime to a degree which justifies that evil of allowing the state to take the lives of its citizens. So I would say the statement “Private gun ownership and capital punishment are unjustified and should be abolished” is true. Now, maybe someday new evidence will come to light that I am mistaken, and I don’t discount automatically the possibility, but in the meantime I work actively to oppose those things that I believe are wrong. If these aren’t sufficiently abstract moral “truths,” I could use as another example, “Compassion for others is the foundation of ethical behavior” as a statement I believe is true. That is much harder to argue and demonstrate empirically because it is rather vague. Still, in principle I could devise arguments and experiments, or at least examples, to try and demonstrate this is true, and unless someone else can convince me it is not, I will try to base my actions of this belief.

Conversely, “Jesus Christ is the son of God, the Lord, and only if you accept him as a personal Savior can you go to Heaven.” This is a statement about reality that many people believe to be true. I personally see no convincing evidence of it. But most of those who believe it is true do not believe it is subject to empirical proof or contradiction, it is simple intrinsically true or true by virtue of divine revelation. They believe any attempt to argue against it is, de facto, sinful and marks the person as sadly mistaken or even evil. It is not a question of which statement, or person, is good or not good, but whether the truth you base your actions on can be meaningfully challenged and revised, or falsified, by sufficient argument or evidence. If it can, than you are not possessed of the kind of absolutism or excessive certainty I am cautioning against. If you believe that your truth is incontrovertable, and you pursue realizing it through action aggressively and without concern for the beliefs of others, than you have a “messianic” or “prophetic” zeal, and I would argue you are far more likely to do harm than good. Now, if the truth you pursue is actually true, and if you are commited to nonviolence in realizing it, sure you probably will achieve good even if you are a closed-minded zealot. But, I think closed-minded zealots are, as a rule, less likely to do good than people with more humility and open-mindedness. And they are much more likley to be motivated to do evil in the name of their truths because they believ any means are justified by the self-evident good of their ends.

I guess I am trying to separate the true or falsity (maybe goodness or evil) of the belief from the mindset of the person promulgating that belief. I am convinced that the mindset has a great influence on whether the outcome of the person’s actions is good or bad
even if I believe the belief they are promoting is itself true and good.

But when we make rational deductions from these ideals (deductions that commonly counteract the status-quo, tradtions and social norms) and practically apply them to real world situations, that’s when the self-righteous and arrogant claims begin. However they are, most of the time, driven by attachment to public opinion and tradition and are completely unfounded from a rational standpoint, so I do not worry much about being labeled as such.

This may be true sometimes. New and radical ideas are scary to many people because they are new and radical. But I don’t think this is what I’m responding to. I think the claims of self-righteousness and arrogance have more to do with the perception, true or not, created by the language a person uses, that the person is convinced of their own truth to the exclusion of seriously considering alternative arguments. People who are so convinced, as I try to illustrate above, can often develop contempt and anger towards those who do not see the obvious truth of their ideas. Plenty of people whose message is “God is love,” which seems benign, decide God’s love doesn’t apply to those who don’t believe in Him, and in fact such merit his wrath. A similar problem can happen when benign non-religious ideas are followed with unquestioning allegiance and fervor.

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Posted: 08 February 2007 09:22 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 37 ]
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Brennen, claims of arrogance imply there is some sort of opinion involved, and not rational deductions. For instance saying 2+2=4, will not likely draw accusations of arrogance or self-righteousness, because A) it is a commonly accepted truth held by public opinion, and B) because it can be demonstrated clearly through logic and simple reasoning.

Now however open-minded or closed-minded we are on a particalar issue is a reflection of how sure we feel about it. Someone saying 2+2=4, would not be deemed closed minded, although strictly speaking there is a spark of doubt in all of us regarding even the most obvious truths, but this is mostly an academic issue.

You say that you resist absolutes. But shouldn’t you rather be indifferent to them? This resisting sets up a bias, and makes the possibility of realizing any absolutes impossible. This itself is a closed-minded approach, and is intolerance in another form, albeit a pardoxical form.

You are worried that absolutes lead to evil. But this is putting the blame on the wrong thing, sort of like blaming our legs for giving us the potential to kick someone. You make the mistake of thinking that the leg is in control, or that the absolute is in control of the person’s brain, rather than the other way around. Now I grant you that terrible things have happened in the name of absolute “truths”, “holy” wars, etc. However, none of these truths were based on reason, but rather on superstitions and dogma, and thus could be rationally disproven as not being absolute truths (even in ancient times). Regardless of how cruel men were to each other in the past, it does not follow that absolute truths are bad on this account. You seem to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and do not acknowledge the positive among all the fear inducing historical examples.

Just as you will accept true knowledge as good (like 2+2=4), we each have an responsibility to find the true knowledge with respect to ethics and morality. And just as we should not be not be timid with correcting someone who says 2+2=5, we should not be timid in rationally discussing morality. And just as you would not, from intellectual pride, correct someone who says 2+2=5, you would do it for other, more humble reasons, as knowing 2+2=4 is simply rational and certainly nothing to be proud of.
Perhaps you are thinking that ethics and morality are completely different than mathematics and that reason could not be used in an analogous way, but give it a chance. Be open-minded about this possibility and put your ethics to a strict rational testing, as it can only be helpful, right?

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Posted: 08 February 2007 09:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 38 ]
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Mark,

I fear we may have reached an impasse and we are beginning to repeat ourselves without actually hearing one another. I will certainly listen, with an open mind, to specific ideas you have about ethics. But I do think ethics are qualitatively different from mathematics. The certainty that mathematics justifies is rarely, I think, justified in less abstract endeavors, particularly those involving human mores and behavior. It would take mighty evidence indeed to convince me that a specific ethical system had the self-evident absolute truth of 2+2=4 and thus deserved unquestioning acceptance and implementation. I suspect in ethics, politics, and so on there may be more than one correct answer for a given problem, that answers may be partially correct and partially incorrect, that no absolute correct answer may be obtainable, and the correct answer varies with the circumstances and changes over time in a way not true of mathematics. What is more, seldom are people driven to kill or oppress for the truth of a mathematical proposition, but the truth of how we should live seems to evoke such passion more easily, and as I’ve said repeatedly this is not always a good thing whether the proposition be true or false.

People who believe they have a simple, self-evident answer to the great problems that have plagued mankind may be exceptional visionaries, but I suspect they are more likely deluded. And believing that one has found such an answer when all people who have gone before have failed to find it is a species of arrogance. If, as you say, they can prove their position true by reason and evidence, then I’m open to being convinced, but I am still skeptical. And if they are convinced that their position is so self-evident that disagreement can only stem from ignorance, stupidity, self-delusion, cowardice, a malign spirit, or any of the sort of accusations zealots use to dismiss those who disagree with their ideas, then I do think they are dangerous, however good their original insight might be.

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Posted: 08 February 2007 11:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 39 ]
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Brennen, if you do not wish to answer my questions from the past couple of posts, yes we are likely at an impasse, but I don’t see any barrier between us, as reason or logic are the same for both of us.

This is what I see as your bias or intolerance, when you say: “People who believe they have a simple, self-evident answer to the great problems that have plagued mankind may be exceptional visionaries, but I suspect they are more likely deluded. And believing that one has found such an answer when all people who have gone before have failed to find it is a species of arrogance.”

What this boils down to is suspecting people are deluded simply based upon public opinion. What happened to thinking for ourselves about the “great problems” and coming up with a rational answer(of coarse learning from others can help). And who is claiming that “all people who have gone before have failed to find it” (whatever this “it” is, as the case may be)?
How open-minded can you seriously expect to be if you have already decided for yourself “...they are more likely deluded”. Should you not suspend judgement until reason gives you a clear indication?

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Posted: 08 February 2007 02:54 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 40 ]
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I follow the skeptic’s dictum that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Claiming a simple, obvious answer to a deep complex problem that has persisted in human history requires extraordinary evidence. As you pointed out before, being open-minded is not the same thing as believing anything. I believe that complicated problems are complicated and I am suspicious of people trumpeting simple answers they have found that no one else has thought of. It doesn’t mean I’m not open to pursuasion by reason and evidence, but I am skeptical. This skepticism is not based on public opinion or what is popular but on my rational understadning of how things work. As I’ve pointed out repeatedly now, I do suspend final judgement until I hear the evidence, but that doesn’t mean I embrace instantly and uncritically any statement of absolute truth. I am skeptical of such statement for what I think are good reasons, and you may call that intolerance or bias if you wish, but I don’t think it fits the definition I use for those words.

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Posted: 08 February 2007 03:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 41 ]
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Brennen, I just added this to my last post, but since I don’t think you saw it, I’ll repeat it here. “If you do not wish to answer my questions from the past couple of posts (ie not the last post), yes we are likely at an impasse, but I don’t see any barrier between us, as reason or logic are the same for both of us.”

I wonder what this “deep complex problem” you are referring to is. What specifically are you talking about?

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Posted: 08 February 2007 03:37 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 42 ]
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Well, speaking in generalities may be part of our problem. You have made a number of general statements such as:

“we should focus on disentangling ourselves from our overly complex and ultimately morally stifling and irrational lives.

“There will be different interpretations of truth, just like there are different branches from a tree, but the trunk and the roots will be the same. People are different, but we will agree more on the basics of justice and morality than we do now.”

“We each can individually change our fundamental outlook on life in a radical way, so as to embrace lofty moral ideals,”

“Following our conscience for the sake of conscience (believing that only good can come from this pursuit, both for you and everyone). In other words, a belief that the means are the end, and that the “sacrifice” must be thought of as no sacrifice at all or else we will only half-heartedly be able to “sacrifice”. In a way it can be viewed as selfish, but it springs from the firm belief that our happiness is found in serving others.”

“Secular humanism does not seem to put the emphasis on these lofty moral ideals (the “love your enemies” variety, absolute nonviolence) that would constitute perfect virtue. More fundamentally, it does not emphasize the change of outlook on life that would serve to motivate the type of genuine morality and ethics that it seeks, and primarily because, this is just too radical for the mainstream. So I think that secular humanism sells out to a degree to gain mass appeal, but then again it never did seem to have any soul to sell in the first place. It seemed to come into being as a result of people wanting to found ethics and morality on something other than what a true and genuine morality can only be founded upon.”


All of this is quite general, so most of what I was responding to oh so long ago was the tone which suggested that secular humanism was bankrupt as a philosophy becaue it wasn’t based on the simple, self-evident moral principles you have divined by reason which would solve the immoralities and injustices in the world. Near as I can tell from your posting, these principles are something akin to the buddhist recognition that self is an illusion and that self and other are the same, the principle of absolute nonviolence, and some variety of the Golden Rule (love your neighbor as yourself sor tof thing). None of these ideas are radical or revolutionary, of course. And they all have obvious merit. Yet they have all failed to bring peace and justice throughout the world despite being recognized as noble and despite the efforts of many individuals to realize them in their lives.
So when I refer to “deep complex problems,” I am referring to the sorts of injustices you seem to feel could be vanquished if we adopted your “lofty moral ideals:” (poverty, war, oppression, etc). My objection, as I’ve said, is not to the ideals but to your presentation of them as radical or as simple self-evident solutions to society’s ills. Barry and I can argue about specifics because he is fairly specific about what he thinks we should stand for and do. You and I are debating in fairly general terms because I have only the general notion I just sketched out about what you think we should believe/do. I did try to offer some specific examples (gun control, capital punishment, compassion as foundation for morality) to focus the discussion a bit, but these were my examples. I suspect if you put forward some more specifics about your ideas we would find, as you say, not much of a barrier between us. But we would probably still disagree about whether they are simple self-evident, absolute truths or whether there is arrogance in proclaiming that you have found these simple answers to all our troubles which humanism is too empty or cowardly to acknowledge or put into action.  smile

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Posted: 09 February 2007 04:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 43 ]
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Just to give some additional info that might expand the research available: Mark is clearly interested in the “roots” of ethical systems. He appears to believe that unless an ethical system has good roots, it is worthless.

I do think it bears saying that there is a long tradition in western philosophy of studying something called “ Meta-ethics ”. This is the study of the grounds of ethics. That is how professional philosophers approach the question of “roots”. And much of this meta-ethical study has informed people who are a part of the vibrant secular humanist community.

So, I think before we get sidetracked into one particular inchoate sort of ethical “root” we might be better off to do something of a study of the alternatives.

Here are some materials for further reading:

A bibliography of metaethics .

Metaethics in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy .

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Ethics .

Agnostic/Atheist “About” category: Metaethics .

Part of a complex argument about contemporary metaethics by philosopher Quentin Smith .

Possible further reading: a book of essays on metaethics edited by Terry Horgan and Mark Timmons .

A “Darwinian approach to metaethics” by P. Wesley Edwards .

A very good, rigorous philosopher with a realist naturalist ethical program, Prof. David Brink .

I haven’t read through these, but taken together they do look like a good starting place for further discussions about the “roots” of ethics.

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Posted: 09 February 2007 11:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 44 ]
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doug, thanks for the links on meta-ethics.

Brennen, I answered your questions in a general way because they were general questions, I don’t mind getting specific.
We can specifically examine any of the “deep complex problems” you mention. You mentioned poverty first, so here are my thoughts on this problem:
Lets look at the largest class of poverty stricken people, the poverty stricken laborers (as this also includes the topic of “oppression”).
First of all, poverty primarily springs from the lack of awareness and the lack of moral-ethical sentiment among us as a people. People who oppress others and thus create poverty (as well as those who “allow” themselves to be oppressed). This is the major obstacle that must be overcome if we are to treat the cause first. In conjunction with this comes the question of of how to practically implement this. What enslaves people and forces them to work for slave-wages? The answer to this is that land has been monopolized by a wealthy minority and thus the poor majority have to make terms with these landowners in order to live. Bringing up the land issue probably sounds strange and at first it may not seem applicable to the problem of poverty, as we are used to thinking of it, but if we trace the causes and history of the matter it becomes obvious. We need land just as much as we need air to survive, and whoever controls the land, controls life. When you pay someone for land, what are you paying them for? It is not something that they have produced. You are paying them for the privilege of them letting you live. And this fundamental injustice must be corrected otherwise poverty will only continue to get worse. Any improvements done upon the land only increase the value of the land and therefore the price that the laboring people must pay in order to live. So treating the symptoms of poverty often times makes the overall situation worse.
  And of course there would be many other things that needed to be done, but the first focus should be arousing a moral sentiment and awareness about land injustice, since any improvements in the lives of the poverty stricken will very quickly fall into the hands of the landowners, so long as this injustice remains intact. Here is an enlightening speech that explains what I’m trying to say in a much more comprehensive and articulate way…  

Basically these problems are not so complex. The solutions to them are fairly simple, however putting these solutions into practice would be very radical, as it would often go against tradition, government, public opinion, etc. So, if you’re asking yourself the question, “What can I do to help fix this problem”, as I think we all should, then the answer is not complex. Again, I invite criticism on everything mentioned, and do not ask you to accept my beliefs. I do want my errors pointed out.

Side note, I should have pointed this out earlier, but when you said “...a commitment to the principle of nonviolence (though I believe Gandhi himself argued his methods would not have been appropriate against Hitler)”....Gandhi did stick to his principles of absolute nonviolence even regarding Hitler.

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Posted: 10 February 2007 07:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 45 ]
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Mark said:

When you pay someone for land, what are you paying them for? It is not something that they have produced. You are paying them for the privilege of them letting you live. And this fundamental injustice must be corrected otherwise poverty will only continue to get worse.

Yes, Mark.  I agree (again).  This is a major issue for libertarian-socialism and/or anarchism ... Perhaps a key issue.  Michael Albert, Takis Fotopoulos and others have addressed this issue in recent years.  So have, I think, Joel Kovel, Michael Perelman and Robin Hahnel.  Again, a problem with capitalism.

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