Tag Archives: God

Is Work a Blessing?

English: Photograph from the records of the Na...

English: Photograph from the records of the National Child Labor Committee (U.S.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While watching news clips about the debate over cutting the SNAP program (more commonly known as food stamps), I saw Florida Republican Steve Southerland say “work is a blessing.” As he sees it, there should be a work requirement for people to be eligible for food stamps. This claim is certainly an interesting one.

In the United States, there is an entire mythology devoted to the notion of the blessings and value of work. The largest roots dig deep into the stereotypes of the Puritans: dour white folks dressed in penguin colors who scorned play and lived to work and pray. Or so the myths go. The mythology of Calvinism also contributed to this notion: the idea that people are pre-destined for heaven or hell—though the final destination could be discerned, perhaps, from the worldly success of the individual.

Interestingly, the mythology of work seems to have begun with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden. On a not unreasonable interpretation of the text, God punishes man with a curse that will require him to work to survive: “Cursed is the ground because of you; In toil you will eat of it All the days of your life.” On this view, work is not a blessing, but a curse.

The mythology of capitalism, at least that which is distinct from the mythology of religion, also praises hard work and would seem to cast it as a blessing. This makes sense: the capitalist needs the workers to work hard for him so that they generate his profits. For the capitalist, the work of others is indeed a blessing. For him. Not surprisingly, those critical of the excesses of capitalism have contended that such work is not a blessing for the workers—especially children and those that toil in horrible conditions for pittances.

While Southerland simply threw out the claim that work is a blessing, presumably he has not given this matter considerable thought—at least in terms of properly defining work and sorting out what sorts of work (if any) are a blessing. There is also the question of what a blessing is. Perhaps he means that in today’s economic system, it is a blessing to be able to find a decent job. If so, I would agree that he is right. However, his intent seems to be that working itself has a special sort of value.

I would agree that working can have extrinsic value. After all, work is mainly aimed at achieving some end and usually there are other ends beyond that. For example, a person might work to assemble iPads in order to get money in order to buy food and pay the rent so as to avoid starving or dying of exposure. That, I suppose, could be seen as a rough sort of blessing. However, this sort of work seems to lack intrinsic value. That is, it is not something valuable in and of itself. After all, we do such work only because the alternative is worse. Few, if any, people would work most jobs if necessity and need did not drive them to do so, like a whip drives a mule.

I will even agree that work can be good for a person. After all, people seem to grow bored and discontent when they do not have appealing work to perform. Also, as my mother was fond of saying in my childhood, work can build character. She is obviously right—I turned out to be quite a character. However, not all work is of the sort that is good for a person. Working a crushing and demeaning job is work, yet obviously not a blessing for the person. Unless, of course, the alternative is worse.

I even accept that it is good for a person to earn his daily bread, at least when that earning is not destroying the person. After all, it is a matter of integrity to not simply receive but to earn. And even more so to give to those who are in need. Of course, I think a person could have the same or more integrity by living a life of value—and these need not be a life of what would be considered work. Which returns me to the matter of sorting out what is meant by “work.”

People use “work” in many ways, ranging from the toiling of slaves in the field to the creative acts of a free artist to running around a track (speed work). As such, the usual usage slams and jams together horrible things and pleasant things, torments and joys, evils and goods. As such, it is rather hard to say that work is blessing, given the incredible scope of the term. I would agree that some things that are called work are a blessing. I regard working out as a blessing—it is a gift indeed. I also regard much of my work, mainly teaching and writing, as blessings. However, this might be because, in a way, I do not see these things as work.

After all, work seems to be what is done from necessity in order to achieve some practical end (like not dying of starvation). What is done from choice because of the value of the activity itself seems to be another matter. Looked at this way, a workout is both a necessity and a valued choice: I need to do running work because it is necessary to be a runner. But, I also value running in and of itself—it is a choice I make for the sake of what I am choosing, not just to achieve some other end.

One of the grotesque failings of our civilization is that so many people have to engage in work of the onerous sort: grinding away the hours just to survive and seeing little value in what they do. Those who benefit from this often believe that this is a good thing for them, but they hold to a deranged set of values in which the accumulation of profit is seen as the highest good.

I am, obviously enough, borrowing heavily from Aristotle: the life of wealth and accumulation of wealth is not the proper function of man. Rather, it is the life of virtue and excellence. Sadly, as Wollstonecraft noted, wealth and property are valued more than virtue and poverty is regarded as a worse vice than wickedness.

Work, then, is not really a blessing. At best, it is necessity.

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Owning Human Genes

Human genome to genes

Human genome to genes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While it sounds a bit like science fiction, the issue of whether or not human genes can be owned has become a matter of concern. While the legal issue is interesting, my focus will be on the philosophical aspects of the matter. After all, it was once perfectly legal to own human beings—so what is legal is rather different from what is right.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for the ownership of genes is a stock consequentialist argument. If corporations cannot patent and thus profit from genes, then they will have no incentive to engage in expensive genetic research (such as developing tests for specific genes that are linked to cancer). The lack of such research will mean that numerous benefits to individuals and society will not be acquired (such as treatments for specific genetic conditions). As such, not allowing patents on human genes would be wrong.

While this argument does have considerable appeal, it can be countered by another consequentialist argument. If human genes can be patented, then this will allow corporations to take exclusive ownership of these genes, thus allowing them a monopoly. Such patents will allow them to control the allowed research conducted even at non-profit institutions such as universities (who sometimes do research for the sake of research), thus restricting the expansion of knowledge and potentially slowing down the development of treatments. This monopoly would also allow the corporation to set the pricing for relevant products or services without any competition. This is likely to result in artificially high prices which could very well deny people needed medical services or products simply because they cannot meet the artificially high prices arising from the lack of competition. As such, allowing patents on human genes would be wrong.

Naturally, this counter argument can be countered. However, the harms of allowing the ownership of human genes would seem to outweigh the benefits—at least when the general good is considered. Obviously, such ownership would be very good for the corporation that owns the patent.

In addition to the moral concerns regarding the consequences, there is also the general matter of whether it is reasonable to regard a gene as something that can be owned. Addressing this properly requires some consideration of the basis of property.

John Locke presents a fairly plausible account of property: a person owns her body and thus her labor. While everything is initially common property, a person makes something her own property by mixing her labor with it. To use a simple example, if Bill and Sally are shipwrecked on an ownerless island and Sally gathers coconuts from the trees and build a hut for herself, then the coconuts and hut are her property. If Bill wants coconuts or a hut, he’ll have to either do work or ask Sally for access to her property.

On Locke’s account, perhaps researchers could mix their labor with the gene and make it their own. Or perhaps not—I do not, for example, gain ownership of the word “word” in general because I mixed my labor with it by typing it out. I just own the work I have created in particular. That is, I own this essay, not the words making it up.

Sticking with Locke’s account, he also claims that we are owned by God because He created us. Interestingly, for folks who believe that God created the world, it would seem to follow that a corporation cannot own a human gene. After all, God is the creator of the genes and they are thus His property. As such, any attempt to patent a human gene would be an infringement on God’s property rights.

It could be countered that although God created everything, since He allows us to own the stuff He created (like land, gold, and apples), then He would be fine with people owning human genes. However, the basis for owning a gene would still seem problematic—it would be a case of someone trying to patent an invention which was invented by another person—after all, if God exists then He invented our genes, so a corporation cannot claim to have invented them. If the corporation claims to have a right to ownership because they worked hard and spent a lot of money, the obvious reply is that working hard and spending a lot of money to discover what is already owned by another would not transfer ownership. To use an analogy, if a company worked hard and spent a lot to figure out the secret formula to Coke, it would not thus be entitled to own Coca Cola’s formula.

Naturally, if there is no God, then the matter changes (unless we were created by something else, of course). In this case, the gene is not the property of a creator, but something that arose naturally. In this case, while someone can rightfully claim to be the first to discover a gene, no one could claim to be the inventor of a naturally occurring gene. As such, the idea that ownership would be confirmed by mere discovery would seem to be a rather odd one, at least in the case of a gene.

The obvious counter is that people claim ownership of land, oil, gold and other resources by discovering them. One could thus argue that genes are analogous to gold or oil: discovering them turns them into property of the discoverer. There are, of course, those who claim that the ownership of land and such is unjustified, but this concern will be set aside for the sake of the argument (but not ignored—if discovery does not confer ownership, then gene ownership would be right out in regards to natural genes).

While the analogy is appealing, the obvious reply is that when someone discovers a natural resource, she gains ownership of that specific find and not all instances of what she found. For example, when someone discovers gold, they own that gold but not gold itself. As another example, if I am the first human to stumble across naturally occurring Unobtanium on an owner-less alien world, I thus do not gain ownership of all instances of Unobtanium even if it cost me a lot of money and work to find it. However, if I artificially create it in my philosophy lab, then it would seem to be rightfully mine. As such, the researchers that found the gene could claim ownership of that particular genetic object, but not the gene in general on the grounds that they merely found it rather than created it. Also, if they had created a new artificial gene that occurs nowhere in nature, then they would have grounds for a claim of ownership—at least to the degree they created the gene.

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Do Dogs Have Morality?

A Good Dog or a Moral Dog?

The idea that morality has its foundations in biology is enjoying considerable current popularity, although the idea is not a new one. However, the current research is certainly something to be welcomed, if only because it might give us a better understanding of our fellow animals.

Being a philosopher and a long-time pet owner, I have sometimes wondered whether my pets (and other animals) have morality. This matter was easily settled in the case of cats: they have a morality, but they are evil.  My best cats have been paragons of destruction, gladly throwing the claw into lesser beings and sweeping breakable items to the floor with feline glee. Lest anyone get the wrong idea, I really like cats—in part because they are so very evil in their own special ways. The matter of dogs and morality is rather more controversial. Given that all of ethics is controversial; this should hardly be a shock.

Being social animals that have been shaped and trained by humans for thousands of years, it would hardly be surprising that dogs exhibit behaviors that humans would regard as moral in nature. However, it is well known that people anthropomorphize their dogs and attribute to them qualities that they might not, in fact, possess. As such, this matter must be approached with due caution. To be fair, we also anthropomorphize each other and there is the classic philosophical problem of other minds—so it might be the case that neither dogs nor other people have morality because they lack minds. For the sake of the discussion I will set aside the extreme version of the problem of other minds and accept a lesser challenge. To be specific, I will attempt to make a plausible case for the notion that dogs have the faculties to possess morality.

While I will not commit to a specific morality here, I will note that for a creature to have morality it would seem to need certain mental faculties. These would seem to include cognitive abilities adequate for making moral choices and perhaps also emotional capabilities (if morality is more a matter of feeling than thinking).

While dogs are not as intelligent as humans (on average) and they do not use true language, they clearly have a fairly high degree of intelligence. This is perhaps most evident in the fact that they can be trained in very complex tasks and even in professions (such as serving as guide or police dogs). They also exhibit an exceptional understanding of human emotions and while they do not have language, they certainly can learn to understand verbal and gesture commands given by humans. Dogs also have an understanding of tokens and types. To be specific, they are quite good at recognizing individuals and also good at recognizing types of things. For example, a dog can distinguish its owner while also distinguishing humans from cats. As another example, my dogs have always been able to recognize any sort of automobile and seem to understand what they do—they are generally eager to jump aboard whether it is my pickup truck or someone else’s car. On the face of it, dogs seem to have the mental horsepower needed to engage in basic decision making.

When it comes to emotions, we have almost as much reason to believe that dogs feel and understand them as we do for humans having that ability. The main difference is that humans can talk (and lie) about how they feel; dogs can only observe and express emotions. Dogs clearly express anger, joy, fear and other emotions and seem to understand those emotions in other animals. This is shown by how dogs react to expression of emotion. For example, dogs seem to recognize when their owners are sad or angry and react accordingly. Thus, while dogs might lack all the emotional nuances of humans and the capacity to talk about them, they do seem to have the basic emotional capabilities that might be necessary for ethics.

Of course, showing that dogs have intelligence and emotions would not be enough to show that dogs have morality. What is needed is some reason to think that dogs use these capabilities to make moral decisions and engage in moral behavior.

Dogs are famous for possessing traits that are analogous to (or the same as) virtues such as loyalty, compassion and courage.  Of course, Kant recognized these traits but still claimed that dogs could not make moral judgments. As he saw it, dogs are not rational beings and do not act in accord with the law. But, roughly put, they seem to have an ersatz sort of ethics in that they can act in ways analogous to human virtue. While Kant does make an interesting case, there do seem to be some reasons to accept that dogs can engage in basic moral judgments. Naturally, since dogs do not write treatises on moral philosophy, I can only speculate on what is occurring in their minds (or brains). As noted above, there is always the risk of projecting human qualities onto dogs and, of course, they make this very easy to do.

One area that seems to have potential for showing that dogs have morality is the matter of property. While some might think that dogs regard whatever they can grab (be it food or toys) as their property, this is not always the case. While it seems true that some dogs are Hobbesian, this is also true of humans. Dogs, based on my decades of experience with them, seem to be capable of clearly grasping property. For example, my husky Isis has a large collection of toys that are her possessions. She reliably distinguishes between her toys and very similar items (such as shoes, clothing, sporting goods and so on) that do not belong to her. While I do not know for sure what happens in her mind, I do know that when I give her a toy and go through the “toy ritual” she gets it and seems to recognize that the toy is her property now. Items that are not given to her are apparently recognized as being someone else’s property and are not chewed upon or dragged outside. In the case of Isis, this extends (amazingly enough) even to food—anything handed to her or in her bowl is her food, anything else is not. Naturally, she will ask for donations, even when she could easily take the food. While other dogs have varying degrees of understanding of property and territory, they certainly seem to grasp this. Since the distinction between mine and not mine seems rather important in ethics, this suggests that dogs have some form of basic morality—at least enough to be capitalists.

Dogs, like many other animals, also have the capacity to express a willingness to trust and will engage in reprisals against other dogs that break trust. I often refer to this as “dog park justice” to other folks who are dog people.

When dogs get together in a dog park (or other setting) they will typically want to play with each other. Being social animals, dogs have various ways of signaling intent. In the case of play, they typically engage in “bows” (slapping their front paws on the ground and lowering their front while making distinctive sounds). Since dogs cannot talk, they have to “negotiate” in this manner, but the result seems similar to how humans make agreements to interact peacefully.

Interestingly, when a dog violates the rules of play (by engaging in actual violence against a playing dog) other dogs recognize this violation of trust—just as humans recognize someone who violates trust. Dogs will typically recognize a “bad dog” when it returns to the park and will avoid it, although dogs seem to be willing to forgive after a period of good behavior. An understanding of agreements and reprisals for violating them seems to show that dogs have at least a basic system of morality.

As a final point, dogs also engage in altruistic behavior—helping out other dogs, humans and even other animals. Stories of dogs risking their lives to save others from danger are common in the media and this suggests that dogs can make decisions that put themselves at risk for the well-being of others. This clearly suggests a basic canine morality and one that makes such dogs better than ethical egoists. This is why when I am asked whether I would chose to save my dog or a stranger, I would chose my dog: I know my dog is good, but statistically speaking a random stranger has probably done some bad things. Fortunately, my dog would save the stranger.

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The Ethics of Genetic Extermination

Ochlerotatus notoscriptus, Tasmania, Australia

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While we consider ourselves to be the dominant species on the planet, we do face dangers from other species. While some of these species are large animals such as lions, tigers and bears our greatest foes tend to be tiny. These include insects, bacteria and viruses.

While we have struggled, with some success, to eliminate various tiny threats advances in technology and science have given us some new options. One of these is genetically modifying species so they cannot reproduce, thus resulting in their extermination. As might be suspected, insects such as disease carrying mosquitoes are a prime target. One approach to wiping out mosquitoes is to genetically modify mosquito eggs so that the adults carry “extermination” genes. The adult males are released into the wild and reproduce with native females in the target area. The offspring then bear the modified gene which causes the female mosquitos to be unable to fly (they lack flight muscles). The males can operate normally and they continue to “infect” the local population until (in theory) it is exterminated. As might be imagined, this approach raises various ethical concerns.

One obvious point of concern is the matter of intentionally exterminating a species. On the face of it, such an action seems to be morally dubious. However, it does seem easy enough to counter this on utilitarian grounds. After all, if an organism (such as a mosquito) is harmful to humans and does not have an important role to play in the ecosystem, then its extermination would seem to be morally justified on the grounds that doing so would create more good than harm. Naturally, if a harmful species were also beneficial in other ways, then the matter would be rather more complicated and such extermination could be wrong on the grounds that it would do more harm than good.

The utilitarian approach can be countered by appealing to an alternative approach to ethics. For example, it could be argued that such extermination is simply wrong regardless of the beneficial consequences to humans. It can, however, be pointed out that species go extinct naturally and, as such, perhaps a case could be made that such exterminations are not inherently wrong. The obvious counter would be to point out that there is a significant moral difference between a species dying of natural causes and being destroyed. The distinction between killing and letting die comes to mind here.

I am inclined to accept that the extermination of a harmful species can be acceptable, provided that the benefits do, in fact, outweigh the damage done by exterminating the species. Getting rid of, for example, the HIV virus would seem to be morally acceptable. In the case of mosquitoes, the main concern would be the role of the mosquito in the ecosystem and the impact that its extermination would have. If, for example, the disease carrying mosquito was an invasive species and its elimination would not impact the ecosystem in a negative way, then it would seem to be acceptable to exterminate it. Naturally, if the extermination is local and the species remains elsewhere, then the ethics of the situation become far less problematic. After all, I have no moral objection to the extermination of the roaches, termites, fleas and other bugs that attempt to reside in my house—there are plenty that remain in the wild and they would pose a threat to the well-being of myself and my husky. Naturally, I would only accept the extermination of a species on very serious grounds, such as a clear danger presented to my species. Even then, it would be preferable to see if the extermination could be avoided.

A second point of concern involves the methodology. While humans have attempted to wipe out species by killing them the old fashioned ways (like poisons), the use of genetic modification could be morally significant.

There is, of course, the usual concern with “playing God” or tampering with nature. However, as is always pointed out, we routinely accept such tampering as morally acceptable in other areas. For example, by using artificial light, vaccines, surgery and such we are “playing God” and tampering with nature. As such, the idea that “playing God” is inherently wrong seems rather dubious. Rather, what is needed is to show that specific acts of “playing God” or tampering are wrong.

There is also the reasonable concern about unintended consequences, something that is not unknown in the attempts to exterminate species. For example, DDT had a host of undesirable effects. I do not, of course, think that modifying mosquitoes will create some sort of 1950s style mega-mosquitoes that will rampage across the land. However, there are reasonable grounds to be concerned that genetic modification might have unexpected and unpleasant results and this possibility should be seriously considered.

A final point I will address is a practical one, namely that even if a species is exterminated by genetic modification another species might simply take its place. In the case of mosquitoes it seems likely that if one type of mosquito is wiped out, then another one will simply move into the niche vacated and the problem, such as a mosquito transmitted illness will return. The concern is, of course, that resources would have been expended and a species exterminated for nothing. Naturally, if there are good grounds to believe that the extermination would be effective and ethically acceptable, then this would be another matter.

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Training the Will

In general, will is a very useful thing to have. After all, it allows a person to overcome factors that would make his decisions for him, such as pain, fear, anger, fatigue, lust or weakness. I would, of course, be remiss to not mention that the will can be used to overcome generally positive factors such as compassion, love and mercy as well. The will, as Kant noted, can apparently select good or evil with equal resolve. However, I will set aside the concern regarding the bad will and focus on training the will.

Based on my own experience, the will is rather like stamina—while people vary in what they get by nature, it can be improved by proper training. This, of course, nicely matches Aristotle’s view of the virtues.

While there are no doubt many self-help books discussing how to train the will with various elaborate and strange methods, the process is actually very straightforward and is like training any attribute. To be specific, it is mainly a matter of exercising the capacity but not doing so to excess (and thus burning out) or deficiency (and thus getting no gain). To borrow from Aristotle, one way of developing the will in regards to temperance is to practice refraining from pleasures to the proper degree (the mean) and this will help train the will. As another example, one can build will via athletic activities by continuing when pain and fatigue are pushing one to stop. Naturally, one should not do this to excess (because of the possibility of injury) nor be deficient in it (because there will be no gain).

As far as simple and easy ways to train the will, meditation and repetitive mental exercises (such as repeating prayers or simply repeated counting) seem to help in developing this attribute.

One advantage of the indirect training of the will, such as with running, is that it also tends to develop other resources that can be used in place of the will. To use a concrete example, when a person tries to get into shape to run, sticking with the running will initially take a lot of will because the pain and fatigue will begin quickly. However, as the person gets into shape it will take longer for them to start to hurt and feel fatigued. As such, the person will not need to use as much will when running (and if the person becomes a crazy runner like me, then she will need to use a lot of will to take a rest day from running). To borrow a bit from Aristotle, once a person becomes properly habituated to an activity, then the will cost of that activity becomes much less—thus making it easier to engage in that activity.  For example, a person who initially has to struggle to eat healthy food rather than junk food will find that resisting not only builds their will but also makes it easier to resist the temptations of junk.

Another interesting point of consideration is what could be called will surrogates. A will surrogate functions much like the will by allowing a person to resist factors that would otherwise “take control” of the person. However, what makes the will surrogate a surrogate is that it is something that is not actually the will—it merely serves a similar function. Having these would seem to “build the will” by providing a surrogate that can be called upon when the person’s own will is failing—sort of a mental tag team situation.

For example, a religious person could use his belief in God as a will surrogate to resist temptations forbidden by his faith, such as adultery. That is, he is able to do what he wills rather than what his lust is pushing him to do. As another example, a person might use pride or honor as will surrogates—she, for example, might push through the pain and fatigue of a 10K race because of her pride. Other emotions (such as love) and factors could also serve as will surrogates by enabling a person to do what he wills rather than what he is being pushed to do.

One obvious point of concern regarding will surrogates is that they could be seen not as allowing the person to do as he would will when he lacks his own will resources but as merely being other factors that “make the decision” for the person. For example, if a person resists having an affair with a coworker because of his religious beliefs, then it could be contended that he has not chosen to not have the affair. Rather, his religious belief (and perhaps fear of God) was stronger than his lust. If so, those who gain what appears to be willpower from such sources are not really gaining will. Rather they merely have other factors that make them do or not do things in a way that resembles the actions of the will.

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God & Sandy Hook

Former Arkansas Governor, Mike Huckabee, speak...

. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The murders at Sandy Hook Elementary school brought the problem of evil once again into the media spotlight. While the specifics of the matter change with each horrible incident, the basic question remains the same: why does God allow evil to occur? I have considered this matter in various other essays, but here I will take a look at what two prominent members of America’s religious right have said about the matter.

Former governor and one time presidential contender Michael Huckabee said “We ask why there’s violence in our schools but we’ve systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage because we’ve made it a place where we don’t want to talk about eternity, life, what responsibility means, accountability.”

While Huckabee’s remark has been taken as claiming that God allowed the massacre because American public schools do not religious activities (such as prayer) and religious education (as opposed to teaching about religion), it can also be taken as expressing a slightly different view. Rather than claiming that God is being spiteful and allowing children to be slaughtered because He is experiencing a divine anger, Huckabee could be taken as asserting that the killings at schools occur because people do not have the proper religious education in public schools. Presumably Huckabee believes that if people received the correct religious education in public schools, then such killings would be less likely to occur.

The idea that the correct moral education will result in better behavior is an old one and was developed extensive in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics—although I am sure that Huckabee and Aristotle would disagree about the specifics of the education since Aristotle was not a Christian. As such, if Huckabee is simply claiming that the killings at schools are caused by a failure of moral education, then his claim has some degree of plausibility. Of course, whether or not bringing Christianity back into public schools would reduce the chances of violence in America is another matter. One interesting point worth considering is that as people like Huckabee claim that society has grown worse as it has allegedly “removed God”, Steven Pinker argued in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature that violence has been on the decline. While correlation is not proof of causation, this is a matter worth thinking about especially since Thomas Hobbes noted that one major cause of violence is disputes over religion.

Turning back to the problem of evil, Huckabee’s explanation does not really address this concern effectively. While it might explain why people do bad things in terms of a lack of proper education, this does not explain why God would allow the children and the faculty of Sandy Hook to be slaughtered. Bryan Fischer does, however, take this matter on directly.

Speaking about Sandy Hook, Bryan Fischer said “And I think God would say to us, ‘Hey, I’ll be glad to protect your children, but you’ve got to invite me back into your world first. I’m not going to go where I’m not wanted. I am a gentlemen.”

Fischer’s explanation is very straightforward: God is too polite to go where he is not invited and hence He allowed the slaughter of children. This seems problematic, to say the least.

On the face of it, Fischer seems to be claiming that God’s sense of etiquette trumps His morality. That is, He would permit slaughter to occur rather than act in a way that might be regarded is impolite. This certainly seems to be an implausible claim. After all, consider the following analogy. Suppose I was accustomed to stopping by a friend’s house to get a drink from his garden hose while on my long summer runs. But then he got divorced and his wife got the house. While she does not dislike me, she asks me to no longer stop by to use the hose. Now, imagine that I am running by one day and she and her daughter are being attacked in her backyard. While I could easily defeat the attacker and save the two, I just run on by because I am no longer invited there. Intuitively, that would be morally wrong of me—even if I elected not to engage the attacker, I should at least do something. Also, if my reason is that I am not invited, then there are two obvious responses. First, it seems intuitively plausible to hold that my moral duty to help people in danger outweighs my moral duty to not be impolite. Second, it seems reasonable to think that my friend’s ex-wife and daughter would be happy to invite me to help them in their time of need. Obviously, since I am a decent person I would rush to help the two people in danger. If God is at least as good as me, He would presumably do the same. Also, God has nothing to worry about—the attacker would pose no threat to Him.

Another point of interest is that Fischer certainly seems to indicate that God would be glad to protect children if he were invited back. If he were right about this, this would seem to indicate that God would protect children in such circumstances. However, he seems to be exceptionally wrong about this. After all, God has allowed people of faith to die. He even has allowed children to be murdered in His churches. As such, the idea that God would protect children if we only asked him seems to be absurd. People have obviously asked and God has done nothing.

Of course, it could be countered that people have failed to properly invite God—that is, God would have helped if they had asked in the right way. Going back to the analogy given above, this would be like me running past by friend’s ex-wife and daughter and refusing to stop because their cries for help were not worded properly or otherwise defective. However, I would obviously help them regardless of how they requested aid—that is what a decent person would do. As noted above, presumably God is at least as good as I am, so if I would help regardless of the wording of the invite, so would God.

Overall, Huckabee and Fischer do not give an adequate response to the question of why God allowed the slaughter to occur. To be fair to them, no one ever has and probably no one ever will.

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God, Rape & Free Will

freewill.jpg

freewill.jpg (Photo credit: Thunderkiss59)

The stock problem of evil is that the existence of evil in the world is incompatible with the Philosophy 101 conception of God, namely that God is all good, all powerful and all knowing. After all, if God has these attributes, then He knows about all evil, should tolerate no evil and has the power to prevent evil. While some take the problem of evil to show that God does not exist, it can also be taken as showing that this conception of God is in error.

Not surprisingly, those who wish to accept the existence of this all good, all powerful and all-knowing deity have attempted various ways to respond to the problem of evil. One standard response is, of course, that God has granted us free will and this necessitates that He allow us to do evil things. This, it is claimed, gets God off the hook: since we are free to choose evil, God is not accountable for the evil we do.

In a previous essay I discussed Republican Richard Mourdock’s view that “Life is that gift from God. I think that even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something God intended to happen.” In the course of that essay, I briefly discussed the matter of free will. In this essay I will expand on this matter.

For the sake of the discussion, I will assume that we have free will. Obviously, this can easily be dispute, I am interested in seeing whether or not such free will can actually get God off the hook for the evil that occurs, such as rape and its consequences.

On the face of it, free will would seem to free God from being morally accountable for our choices. After all, if God does not compel or influence our choices and we are truly free to select between good and evil, then the responsibility of the choice would rest on the person making the decision. It should also be added that God would presumably also be excused from allowing for evil choices—after all, in order for there to be truly free will in the context of morality there must be the capacity for choosing good or evil. Or so the stock arguments usually claim.

For the sake of the discussion I will also accept this second assumption, namely that free will gets God off the hook in regards to our choices. This does, of course, lead to an interesting question: does allowing free will also require that God allow the consequences of the evil choices to come to pass? That is, could God allow people moral autonomy in their choices, yet prevent their misdeeds from actually bearing their evil fruit?

One way to consider this matter is to take the view that free will requires that a person be able to make a moral decision and that this decision be either good or evil (or possibly neutral). After all, a moral choice must be a moral choice. On this approach, whether or not free will would be compatible with God preventing occurrences (like rape or pregnancy caused by rape) would seem to depend on what makes something good or evil.

There are, of course, a multitude of moral theories that address this matter. For the sake of brevity I will consider two: Kant’s view and the utilitarian view (as exemplified by John Stuart Mill).

Kant famously takes the view that “A good will is good not because of what it performs or effects, not by its aptness for the attainment of some proposed end, but simply by virtue of the volition—that is, it is good in itself, and considered by itself is to be esteemed much higher than all that can be brought about by it in favor of any inclination…Its usefulness or fruitlessness can neither add to nor take away anything from this value.”

For Kant, what makes a willing (decision) good or evil is contained in the act of willing itself. Hence, there would be no need to consider the consequences of an action stemming from a decision when determining the morality of the choice. An interesting illustration of this view can be found in Bioware’s Star Wars the Old Republic game. Players are often given a chance to select between light side (good) and dark side (evil) options, thus earning light side or dark side points which determine the moral alignment of the character. For example, a player might have to choose to kill or spare a defeated opponent.  Conveniently, the choices are labeled with symbols indicating whether a choice is light side or dark side—which would be very useful in real life.

If Kant’s view is correct, then God could allow the freedom of the will while also preventing evil choices from having any harmful consequences. For example, a person could freely chose to rape a woman and the moral choice would presumably be duly noted by God (in anticipation of judgment day). God could then simply prevent the rape from ever occurring—the rapist could, for example, stumble and fall while lunging towards his intended victim. As another example, a person could freely will the decision to murder someone, yet find that her gun fails to fire when aimed at the intended victim. In short, people could be free to make moral choices while at the same time being unable to actually bring those evil intentions into actuality. Thus, God could allow free will while also preventing anyone from being harmed.

It might be objected that God could not do this on the grounds that people would soon figure out that they could never actualize their evil decisions and hence people would (in general) stop making evil choices. That is, there would be a rather effective deterrent to evil choices, namely that they could never bear fruit and this would rob people of their free will. For example, those who would otherwise decide to rape if they could engage in rape would not do that because they would know that their attempts to act on their decisions would be thwarted.

The obvious reply is that free will does not mean that person gets what s/he wills—it merely means that the person is free to will. As such, people who want to rape could still will to rape and do so freely. They just would not be able to harm anyone.

It is, of course, obvious that this is not how the world works—people are able to do all sorts of misdeeds. However, since God could make the world work this way, this would suggest various possibilities such as God not existing or that God is not a Kantian. This leads me to the discussion of the utilitarian option.

On the stock utilitarian approach, the morality of an action depends on the consequences of said action. As Mill put it, “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” As such, the morality of a willing would not be determined by the willing but by the consequences of the action brought about by the willing in question.

If this is correct, then God would need to allow the consequences of the willing to occur in order for the willing to be good or evil (or neutral). After all, if the willing had no consequences then it would have no moral significance on a consequentialist view like utilitarianism. So, for example, if a person freely wills to rape a woman, then God must not intervene. Otherwise He would be interfering with what determines the ethics of the willing. As such, if God did not allow the rapist to act upon his willing, then the decision to rape would not be an evil decision. If it is assumed that free will is essential to God being able to judge people for their deeds and misdeeds, then He would have to allow misdeeds to bear fruit so that they would be, in fact, misdeeds. On the usual view, He then punishes or rewards people after they die.

One rather obvious problem with this approach is that an all knowing God would know the consequences of an action even without allowing the action to take place. As such, God could allow people to will their misdeeds and then punish them for what the consequences would have been if they had been able to act upon their intentions. After all human justice punishes people even when they are prevented from committing their crimes. For example, someone who tries to murder another person is still justly punished even if she is prevented from succeeding.

It might be countered that God can only punish cases of actual evil rather than potential evil. That is, if the misdeed is prevented then it is not an actual misdeed and hence God cannot justly punish a person. On this view, God must allow rape in order to be able to toast rapists in Hell. This would, of course, require that God not consider an attempted evil deed as an evil deed. So, actual murder would be wrong, but attempted murder would not. This, of course, is rather contrary to human justice—but it could be claimed that human law and divine law are rather different. Obviously humans and God take very different approaches: we generally try to keep people from committing misdeeds whereas God apparently never does. Rather, He seems content to punish long after the fact—at least on the usual account of God.

 

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God, Rape & Mourdock

Getup Get God

Getup Get God (Photo credit: prettywar-stl)

In a recent debate, Republican Richard Mourdock was addressing the subject of abortion. After noting that he believes that abortion is acceptable only to save the life of the mother, he went on to say: “Life is that gift from God. I think that even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something God intended to happen.”

As might be imagined, Mourdock has come under attack for his remarks. These attacks have primarily focused on what his claim indicates about his view of women and the sort of legislation he is likely to support.

Rather than address these matters, I will instead focus on his claim that if a woman gets pregnant from rape, then God intended it to happen. While this matter deals specifically with rape, it is part of the general problem of evil. This is, of course, the problem of reconciling a certain conception of God (all good, all powerful and all knowing) with the existence of evil (in this case rape). It also falls under the general subject of God’s causal relation to the world.

While he might not be aware of it, Mourdock is presenting a view of God that has been argued for by theologians and philosophers. To be specific, this is the view that God is the cause of all that occurs and that nothing occurs contrary to God’s intention.  For example, Hume in his essay on the immortality of the soul, writes  “as every effect implies a cause, and that another, till we reach the first cause of all, which is the Deity; every thing that happens is ordained by him…”

As far as things happening against God’s intention, this would seem impossible given the usual conception of God. After all, things could only go against His intention if He lacked the power to do otherwise or the event in question took place without His knowledge. On the assumption that He is all knowing and all powerful, then events happening contrary to His intention could not occur. Thus, if someone becomes pregnant from rape, then God (if He exists) intended that to happen-just as Mourdock claimed.

One reply to this is that God allows things to happen contrary to His intention, such as pregnancy arising from rape. The obvious reply is, of course, that if allows it and could prevent it, then He does intend for it to occur. If He cannot prevent it, then this would entail that God is rather different than the stock conception of a perfect deity.

It might be replied that God allows things to happen contrary to His intention because of free will. While this might get Him off the hook in regards to allowing rape, it does not do so in the case of pregnancy. After all, God could allow rapists the freedom to rape and still prevent rape from causing pregnancy. He could, for example, give women that pregnancy shut down system that Akin infamously mentioned. Or, even better, he could allow people the free will to chose to rape but prevent them from ever acting on that choice. As such, it would seem that if God exists and matches the stock description, then God does intent for the pregnancies that arise from rape.

There is, of course, still the question of whether not women should be legally compelled to endure such God intended  pregnancies. It could be argued that since God intended the woman to get pregnant from rape, then abortions should not be allowed since God’s intent should not be violated.  The easy and obvious reply to this is that the same logic would entail that we should do nothing in response to anything other than to accept it rather than go against God’s intent.

It can also be argued that we can determine  God’s intent by allowing abortion in such cases. After all, if God intends for the pregnancy to go through, then God can make that happen. If the abortion succeeds, then either God intended for it to succeed (and thus the abortion should have been conducted) or God is lacking in some manner (or does not exist).

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Being in Uncertainty

Like millions of people I watched Felix Baumgartner’s space jump last Sunday. He leapt from a tiny capsule pulled 24 miles into the sky by a helium balloon. He fell to the ground from the edge of space, breaking the sound barrier, and several records, in the process.

I found his achievement moving and compelling. And this surprised me because quite often I find extreme feats of this sort rather sterile, and perhaps a little bullet-headed.  When someone walks across the Antarctic, or climbs Everest without oxygen, it seems to involve a chest-beating determination to assert oneself against nature. The self-assertion makes it seem a small inward-looking response to the largeness and awesomeness of the world. It reminds me of the character in William Golding’s novel Pincher Martin who takes huge pride in surviving against the odds on a tiny rock in the middle of the ocean,  staving his hunger with vile rock-dwelling creatures and sheltering himself by squeezing into a tiny jagged hole. The astonishing twist in that story shows  his pride in that narrow victory to be the very same thing as his failure to see and appreciate something much larger and more beautiful than his deluded and debased survival.

Golding’s novel has a belief in God at its centre. So as an atheist, I read it at arm’s length. I can’t share its central vision.  Some or all of Baumgartner’s jump team are atheists too. That’s the message I took from mission control’s reassurance to Baumgartner that “his guardian angel” was with him. The notion of a guardian angel is so kitsch, so primitive and so not a part of most religious people’s  experience of faith that it seemed to me that these colleagues of Baumgartner were stating their atheism at the same time as they indulged an (entirely understandable) need to supplicate (someone, something) for their friend’s survival.

That these scientists felt drawn to this playful but clumsy invocation of a supernatural entity in which they probably disbelieved gives me a clue about why I found Baumgartner’s jump so moving.

There is an atheist’s plight, I think. Not for all atheists, but for some atheists most of the time, and perhaps even for most atheists some of the time. The plight is this: there is no God, but sometimes invoking the concept of God seems a very compelling way indeed of doing justice to the strangeness, the beauty and the peril of our lives.

An atheist invoking God in response to peril can easily be seen as a momentary weakness, a panicked irrationality, so it is not terribly interesting. More interesting is the way an atheist might feel when contemplating the strange empty  infinity and complexity of the universe and the sheer oddness of being a conscious presence within it. We might not be at all tempted to say that the idea of God needs to be invoked to explain the universe. But the idea that God exists and that we humans are in a state of separation from that God can seem like a very vivid way of experiencing our awe in the face of a not-yet-fully-explained universe and also of capturing  some central philosophical problems. The idea of a God from whom we are separated and whom we strive to rejoin (the idea of a fall followed by redemption) has in the past lent philosophy some of its fundamental structure. Hegel’s self-positing spirit, for example, is a version of God coming to self-knowledge through a process which involves first the generation and then the overcoming of separateness.  And even if we eschew Hegelian ways of thinking,  the idea of a God that we must strive to rejoin feels like a rich metaphor for the traditional philosophical project of characterising reality in a manner which makes it both independent of us and yet within our knowledge. The truth (if it is a truth) of the atheist’s claim that there is no God sometimes seems like poor compensation for the loss of the religious worldview –  because that worldview is a very beautiful and metaphorically fertile orientation to the strange condition of being conscious in the world.

So, just as Baumgartner’s colleagues summoned the idea of a guardian angel to fill the space left by their disbelief in God,  I too look around for metaphors to fill the space left by my own disbelief in God. And Baumgartner’s endeavour at the physical margins of our world, the point where it joins the universe, seemed to fit the bill. Where Pincher Martin, in Golding’s novel, squeezes himself into a small hole on a small rock and feels big, Baumgartner took himself to the edge of the largest possible space to (in his own words) “see how small he was.” It was (corny expressions seem unavoidable here) an encounter with the infinite. The symbolism of falling also has poignancy. It speaks of a chosen passivity, a surrender, very different from the assertive striving  of a Pincher Martin, and very resonant with Christian mythology. Finally the sheer pointlessness of jumping from space seems a rather heroic defiance of the meaninglessness that threatens to engulf us when we look at a vast universe empty of mind: it embraces meaninglessness joyfully and colonises it with purpose.

I don’t want to spend too long teasing out the symbolism of the jump. Instead I want to ask a question. It seems from the above that we (or many of us) have a need for what might be called aids to reflection, aids to the contemplation of certain fundamental features of our presence in the world. If a belief in God is not available to us as a supplier of such aids, we look for it elsewhere. What I want to ask is this: Can a religious person endorse this status of religion as being, not the provider of truth but simply a provider of resources for reflection? If we reject every distinctively religious claim (that there is a god, that there is a soul, or an afterlife, or reincarnation …), if we say that religion offers us no truths of its own but only resources for the contemplation of the truths of science and philosophy, and if we say that religion is not even the only supplier of such resources because art and literature and jumping men are also resources, might it still be possible to be religious? Note that I’m not asking  a question about the value of religion, considered from outside the religious perspective. I’m asking whether the religious perspective itself can survive a certain view of its status. In a review of Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists John Gray quotes  Keats to suggest that “the heart of religion isn’t belief, but something more like what Keats described as negative capability: ‘being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’.” But can a religious person really and wholeheartedly subscribe to such a view?

I think that this question translates into (at least) three more specific questions (only very roughly formulated here):

(1) Is it really true that a religious practitioner can give an entirely “non-creedal” account of religion, one that does not claim there to be any distinctively religious truths  and states that religion is simply not about belief? Quakerism, for example,  advises us to “remember that Christianity is not a notion but a way.” But is it, in fact, possible for a religious person consistently to sustain this religious non-cognitivism?

(2) If religion turns its back on the notion of religious beliefs, can it still maintain a distinctive territory for itself, or does it simply become a part of art and literature? If we contemplate God without asserting his existence, and derive very important lessons from the contemplation, what – if anything – makes this different from contemplating, say, Achilles, or Hamlet, or Dorothea Brooke?

(3) A version of religion which denied the existence of God, and of every single other supernatural phenomenon, would be a very profoundly revisionist one. It might be one that almost every single religious practitioner rejected. Is such extreme religious innovation coherent? Or does religion have to be defined in terms of (certain very general) widely shared features of people’s actual religious practice?

Perhaps these questions seem unmotivated: if one rejects religious belief, why struggle to find common ground with religion? That might very well be a good question. But the extremity of the current antipathy between atheism and faith seems to call for an exploration of different, happier and more mutually enriching forms of interaction between them.  So I’d be grateful for any comments that considered the three questions above. If John Gray and Keats are right, and religion is, not about belief but about “being in uncertainty,” are those questions the right ones for the project of making sense of religion so-conceived? How could they be better formulated? What further questions are there for that project? What direction might the answers take?

 

Our Father vs Big Brother

The tape of Mitt Romney speaking to his cohorts in what could be described as a proverbial back-room seems to have had a lasting effect – we’ll see if it turns out to make all the difference, but it certainly brought into focus the image of Romney as oblivious aristocrat.

But even more interesting to me than the specifics of this candidate’s attitudes was the evidence of a change in certain social and technological expectations. Many people responded to Romney’s comments by shaking their heads at the fact that he would say those things out loud, that he would speak so candidly. Sure, he was at a fundraiser with other super-rich political puppeteers, but he must have known the information could get out…

Of course, a couple decades ago, it probably would not have. Even if a member of the staff could afford a hidden camera it would have taken a lot of planning and setting up to get the material, and once it was on tape it would have taken a lot of work to get it nationally aired. It may not seem like that’s that much commitment, but it’s definitely active and organized: hide tiny expensive specialty technology beforehand, and then transfer incriminating material to a standard medium, and try to get a national news outlet’s attention without being dismissed as some kind of conspirator (in fact, many journalists back then might have rejected the tape as unethical just because Romney clearly doesn’t realize he’s being taped).

Today, a person does not even have to really care about the consequences – sometimes people will record things just because they can. In a room with a famous person and some number of non-guests with iPhones, it is not at all surprising that someone recorded Romney speaking and then put a portion of it on YouTube—there did not even need to be intent behind it. The ease of catching a person in the act has increased so monumentally that the very idea of a backroom deal is in trouble.* Anyone can tape the conversation and show it to a potential audience of millions, and they don’t even need to dislike you or want to cause harm. It’s just information sharing—the connotations or potential impact of the information is not always considered (this happens on Facebook all the time: a photo posted in fun in one context is evidence of a promise broken in another, for instance).

The idea that we are losing privacy, and even losing the desire for privacy, has been argued about since technology and the internet especially first began allowing for these new methods of disclosure. An angle I want to focus on is the concurrence this has with a rise in atheism. There are plenty of other reasons that the idea of God is not as popular as it once was, and technology and the internet can contribute to the phenomenon in other ways. But there’s a social, pragmatic level at which God is becoming obsolete that could be a factor.

One of the classic reasons to have a concept of God from society’s point of view is the same as a reason to have Santa: “he knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake.” From an intellectual standpoint this may not be convincing – Plato, for instance, attempts to show why we can’t use God as a referee when discussing the question of ethics in The Republic. The story of the Ring of Gyges, a ring which allows its wearer to become invisible and thus get away with any sort of immoral behavior she chooses with no repercussions, leads to the argument that even if the wearer is invisible, surely the Gods still know and can still judge. The original argument illustrated by the story of the ring is that people only act ethically when they are being watched, and this comeback says, well, you are always being watched by God so the point is moot. God serves as an external conscience.
But in The Republic, this idea is debunked—God is unreliable, and can be appeased by gifts or pleas for forgiveness. If you do something wrong, you can always get back on His good side. In other words, your conscience may know you were unethical this once, but do something extra-nice next week, and you’ll feel it’s been evened out.

In that way, Big Brother is more effective. If a person wants to steal something in a store, but thinks “No, God will know what I’ve done,” they might stop themselves. But they may also imagine that they can bargain with the big guy and promise to never do something like this ever again. On the other hand, if they believe there is a camera coming at them in every direction it will be harder to make that kind of deal. Our increasingly Panoptic forms of life make it possible to see this particular utility of God being overshadowed, since people with videos are a lot more direct and aggressive.

I am not suggesting that would consciously affect beliefs, but if the fear of moral oversight were to shift realistically toward peers, one of God’s greatest strengths would be made irrelevant. Sure, no video can see into your heart: but if it becomes widely expected that everything that happens in a public or semi-public space could be broadcast, that knowledge could play the part of an external conscience just as well as religion.

It’s true that God was famously described as dead over a century ago by Nietzsche, and he too was concerned with moral issues. However, his focus was on the lack of cohesion or agreement in beliefs, whereas I am addressing the much more mundane but perhaps more convincing issue of the cohesion of facts. That is, Nietzsche thought the concept of God was coextensive with the idea of absolute truth, and as that became untenable, religion would die. It’s arguable to what degree that happened, but the issue here is not what is right, but whether the right thing has to be done. God as an externalized conscience becomes less effective when society is doing the job in a more obvious and graspable way (which doesn’t require that God isn’t real, just that His methods are less convincing).

It could easily be coincidence that secularism is on the rise at the same time as surveillance and general recording become the norm, but I’m suggesting that it is part of larger cultural shift, and that the notion of God just fits less easily into a world where we can already picture a very ordinary kind of “all-seeing, all-knowing” presence. What was once supernatural is now merely artificial.

*I wouldn’t want to imply that therefore people will start being ethical, however. There are always adaptations and ways around – the idea is just that a fear of being seen is becoming much more real.