More on Comparative Meta-Ethics

Some months ago, I brushed off a certain blogger’s argument that it doesn’t matter what religions say, we should prioritize peoples’ lives above all.  Now that things have perhaps cooled a bit, let me explain why I said this means that he fundamentally does not respect others’ beliefs.

First, while the statement that human life is important hardly seems objectionable, it completely denies the legitimacy of all competing priority sets.  If we agree that “human life = #1” is a universal truth, then we also reject all systems that do not hold this as their first priority, whether they fall to the right or to the left (Chivalry and Deep Earth philosophy are both out.)  This is, you will note, supposed to be about ways to judge competing priority sets.  I am reminded of the story of the Guiness company man who at a beer convention asserted that if no one else would drink “real beer” (i.e. Guiness), he wouldn’t either.  If only his own company’s beer is acceptable to him, is this man qualified to be a fair judge of beer? And likewise, if only a man’s own values are acceptable to him, is he able to fairly treat disparate values systems?

Most dangerously, this is, in essence, his own beliefs, postulated as a set of “meta rules” that all other rules must follow to even be considered.  Isn’t that convenient?  It’s not a coincidence at all, and he doesn’t see how that could reasonably inconvenience anyone, because he doesn’t accept any belief that doesn’t conform to it as a reasonable one!  This is an end run around the idea that we can fairly compare belief systems on the whole and choose one that seems good to us; rather than that, any morality must be highly similar to his morality to even warrant consideration!  Put like that, this rule is obviously rigged and must therefore be rejected.

As to religion in particular, deciding to believe in God or not may be a choice.  I allow that.  What I don’t agree with is the assertion that every facet of one’s personal belief system is therefore a choice, and the implication that one can easily choose again or choose otherwise, piecemeal.  Consider that if you believe in the findings of geology, and you believe in radiocarbon dating, and so forth . . . all sorts of other things come from that, by implication.  This is how Science works, and this is also how the human brain works (not a coincidence, as the former is a product of the latter.)  Now, it may be that you believe in a benevolent and omnipotent creator, and you believe he would want to give humans some hint as to how to run their lives, and so you believe in the Bible, and so you open the door to all sorts of other things you don’t necessarily want to believe in (witchcraft, floods and plagues, abiogenesis, and so on.)  But if you accept step one of the logical link, the others seem to follow.

As this kind of fundamentalist – how do you reconcile that?  What would you think it would be OK of others to ask of you? Because it seems to me there is a very valuable and rare intellectual honesty in refusing to take your philosophy or theology a la carte. I don’t think we should demand that people bend and break to what is popular.  We should encourage them to have quirky, disparate beliefs, even if sometimes that means we wind up supporting the rights of what the left would surely call moral throwbacks.

I suppose, going back to the person bound by implication, you could take drugs to deliberately make yourself a deranged and illogical person, so that you would not be bound by logical implication, and therefore be able to accept part of your religion but avoid other parts, but that is hardly something I would ask another person to do, and most especially not in the name of society or law.  I suppose you could deny a portion of your beliefs.  I suppose you could try to let yourself be converted away from your religion so you could rejoin “normal” society and reap the benefits – but there we are in the business of favoring one worldview over another, are we not?  (And for mercenary reasons!)

This blogger I had the discussion with takes people first, because – and this is very important – to him, it is axiomatic that people exist.  People, not God, are therefore the start of his values.  But the fundamentalist takes God as the axiomatic part and considers people as having the purpose of living according to some sort of divine plan, or on divine sufferance.  If we accept the former, we get, as a logical consequence, that rules are not as important as people.  But if we take the latter as our starting point, then we get that people are not as important as God, which results in an unclear result when we try to decide whether people are more important than God’s rules, or in practical terms, our interpretation of such (in Christianity, Jesus seems to resolve this by suggesting that the entire point of the rules is to help people – but this is specific to one interpretation and hardly accepted by all professed Christians, let alone all religious believers.)

If you believe in freedom of opinion, it behooves you to accept that people believe different things and have different priorities.  It is not a solution to be dismissive of people simply because they have different beliefs (that you may or may not be able to understand.)  Treating the religious like they have some kind of brain disease, a la Richard Dawkins in his angrier days, is only going to create rifts in society and ultimately trample on human rights when one side “wins” the argument.  That fails to be useful.

(For the record, since this comes as an offshoot of the ‘Bad Person’ posts – I in no way think this makes the blogger a bad person.  It does mean that he, like the vast majority of the population, religious or otherwise, has internalized his belief system to the point where he can’t accept the validity of a system that is fundamentally at odds with it.  He can be perfectly moral, but – like the Guiness enthusiast above – I would be very wary of his pronouncements on moral systems that differ from his own.)

To me, the important question in all this is: does a man with a wildly unpopular belief, even a dangerous belief, have the same right to cling to his belief (and act accordingly) as a man with a popular belief?  If our answer is anything but a resounding Yes, then we have merely formulated a new tyranny: a tyranny of the reasonable.

Published in: on September 7, 2012 at 12:49 AM  Comments (7)  
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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. How do you distinguish the difference between entertaining someone’s belief and rejecting someone’s belief? Fundamentally, people still and will believe whatever they want. If someone’s belief doesn’t allow him to entertain an idea, how is it different than him rejecting it? Is this some notion about clinging onto something different than disagreeing with something?

    I think there is already some kind of tyranny going on in order to establish your position, what’s the big deal of having another?

    • If you can say “Oh, that’s just what YOU think” to another person’s ideals, but can’t accept that they might do the same to your ideals – then we have a problem.

      In that situation you have no problem with begging out, or asserting your right to self-determination, but won’t allow that they have the same right.

      And no, I don’t believe that fundamentally people will believe whatever they want. I believe there is a very real danger caused by the imposition of consensus – people feel obligated to believe what large numbers of other people tell them to believe.

      • Let me rephrase what you say in my words. You believe that it is potentially dangerous to go with the consensus.

        If that is not what you mean (I think you dresses it up with too many words to express a pretty simple idea) then what is the difference?

        I guess that is why I believe people will believe whatever they want to believe in the end. If they choose to use what they profess in this regard to their own gains, they certainly can. In fact, isn’t that the implicit position? Others of course can do whatever they want, not to mention the same, to your ideas as you to theirs. Consensus, too, is just another belief in this context.

      • “Go with the consensus” is too neutral of a wording and does not accurately represent what is happening. That is why I use a word like “impose.” There are negative consequences for those who do not pay lip service to consensus belief. These are, moreover, artificial negative consequences – it’s not like if someone doesn’t believe in gravity, and as a consequence falls off a cliff without the intervention of other people, simply because the idea itself is flawed. In order to impose consensus we exclude people, shun them, stone them or – if we are modern – freeze their bank accounts and chase them into embassies.

        Having established that consensus is often maintained through fear and coercion, not merely inertia – yes, I would characterize that as dangerous. And I would say that the tools involved – fear, derision, social stigma, ostracism – these are always dangerous tools to use; they would be equally dangerous used in favor of what we believe to be scientifically correct or factually true as they have been when used against it.

        Looking at a situation where people are basically told, “believe this or your friends will abandon you” and saying “well, people will still believe whatever they want to believe; I’m not concerned” is a gross mischaracterization of what is going on.

      • I think that comment would have made a much better post than your original post.

        While I agree with you in gist I have a hard time agreeing with you in a lot of the details. For one while there’s a coercive effect to consensus, I’m not sure how much of it is artificial and how much of it is just the by-production of human societies as they evolve naturally. I would say life is much more difficult for outcasts (to summarily describe what you’re talking about) ways back (say, 20,000 years ago) than they are today, and I would also have a hard time saying that sort of stuff is artificial the way you use that word. It’s natural human psychology to hammer down what stands out.

        The other thing I have problem with, which you don’t address, is that not every belief has the same impact with consensus and some beliefs have no consensus in some societies. I think it’s difficult to generalize as you have it, across everything.

  2. Thank you for the post – I appreciated your reasoning and your sensitivity toward people of all types of beliefs.

    • Thanks for reading!

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