The New Pope Says Something Nice About Atheists! Is This Really A Big Deal?

I’ve seen a lot of news stories, opinion pieces, critiques, and other buzz regarding the new pope’s comments about atheists and other non-Catholics, to this effect: that all can do good, and that doing good is what should bring us all together. Sounds nice, right?

While there are many prominent atheists, secular humanists, and others who are gladdened by the pope’s remarks, many others are skeptical or dismissive, as exemplified by participants in a recent online discussion I took part in. They point out that the Pope’s historical positions on many important issues is aligned with the officially systematized bigotry of the church he leads: opposition to gay marriage, women banned from the priesthood, and so on. With this, I agree. They also think it’s a mistake to ‘hope for acceptance’ from the Catholic Church, or that atheists are ‘eagerly’ ‘falling for’ a positive interpretation of the pope’s actual stance on atheism. This is the part of the discussion where I think it veered off into treating some hypotheticals about what the glad atheists are thinking as fact. I think the skeptical reactions may be based on misunderstanding the reasons behind the positive reaction.

My point in the discussion, and my understanding of why there was such a glad reaction to the pope’s comments, was this: the pope’s current tendency to use more peaceful and ecumenical rhetoric is more likely to inspire better behavior in his followers, who generally look to him for an example to follow, not Vatican officials who issue a legalistic statement later. So, even if it’s true that the pope is still a bigot and his church is still an organization that promotes hateful and untrue doctrines, it’s still the case that if the words that come from his mouth are of a more peaceful and ecumenical tone, those who look primarily to him as their role model are more likely to adjust their own attitudes accordingly. That’s one point. There is nothing in this having anything to do with caring whether the pope or any other church members personally approve of atheists, or whether official church doctrine has changed regarding the afterlife and how it pertains to atheists, or any of the other red herrings such as charges of ‘hoping for acceptance’ that came up in the discussion. The positive response of many atheists, especially prominent ones, focus on whether or not the pope’s words signal a positive shift in attitude, and whether his words will provide a good example to his followers.

But another point I didn’t make, which upon reflection I think is more important, is this: the single most influential moral leader in the world just publicly classified atheists (and others) in the same moral category as Christians and Catholics. Christians do good. Atheists do good too. So both are good! Big deal, an atheist, a cosmopolitan, indeed, any reasonably informed or empathetic person might say. That’s as obvious as saying: atheists think and have emotions and are competent language users, therefore, they must be human too! I mean, c’mon! Duh!

But remember: atheists have been distrusted and marginalized for so long, since most Christian religions claim that belief in Christ’s divinity is necessary for deliverance from evil, that the idea that atheists can be good people is a novel one for countless religious people all over the world. Yet these are same people who adjust their beliefs to align with the pope’s, and his words constituted a sort of permission to consider atheists and non-Christians good people too. In my own family there are still those who use the word ‘atheist’ as an epithet for one who’s wicked, stupid, or depraved! The previous pope’s hyper-conservative, dogmatic, and divisive rhetoric did nothing to help matters. This pope’s remarks, by contrast and for the first time at this level of authority and clarity that I’m aware of, places atheists in the same moral category as religious people: those who do good. It humanizes atheists for those who simply don’t understand atheists, who think atheists are evil and have rejected the good since they don’t believe in any gods. And this is important because of what we know about human psychology: people are kinder to others when they identify with them, when they think they’re on the ‘same team’, when they’re humanized and no longer ‘the other’. 

I think that the Pope, with these few remarks, just helped a whole lot of people all over the world to really believe that when it comes to doing good, most human beings believe in the same and most important thing. Thomas Paine described it best: ‘The world is my countryall mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.’ (The Age of Reason, 1794) Whether the Pope himself really shares the conviction that atheists are worthy people, I think his remarks will lead a whole lot of other people to believe so.

Draft – Gun Control Debate in America: Some Double Standards From the Right and From the Left

In the heated debate over gun control, with extremist rhetoric proliferating from those on the liberal left and those on the conservative right, I’m finding that many from each of these two sides hold inconsistent views. (The libertarian arguments on this matter are more consistent, but aside from their devotion to liberty, incorporate some of the worst ideas from both sides, in my view.) To paraphrase the main points of each sides’ position:

From the right: A society is engaged in an moral endeavor when it governs itself, and as the arbiter of social rights and responsibilities, social institutions such as the government, the family, and the native religion(s), are an inherently moral institutions. Morality involves the shared code of behavior that every individual is required to follow. The distinction between ‘morals legislation’ and other laws is, therefore, meaningless, since morality is involved in everything we do. As a member of society, just as in a family, each individual has certain rights and responsibilities. Therefore, it is right and just that the laws enforce and support our moral code, and prohibit those actions which would threaten the survival of our social institutions, be it the family or the state. At the same time, each individual has a personal dignity and inherent worth which must also be protected from harm and from the encroachments of others. For example, it’s right that that law punishes rapists, murderers, child abusers, and thieves, since it is the proper role of law to discourage individuals from transgressing the moral order which is essential for familial and societal cohesiveness. The law also should punish these transgressors since they trample on individual liberties, such as rights to life, personal property, and freedom of speech and belief. Since human beings are fallible and prone to error, our social institutions

But it’s not enough that the law should just prohibit us from doing certain things. Besides imposing punishments on immoral behavior, the law should enforce certain duties, certain moral obligations, we should fulfill in order to deserve and enjoy the benefits of living in a society. For example, the law should require everyone to contribute to the overall welfare by paying taxes, to pay for such essential public goods such as  infrastructure, defense, and some additional degree of support and protection of the most vulnerable members of society, such as children, the disabled, the elderly, and the very poor. It also includes such reasonable obligations as registering ownership of our motor vehicles, obeying traffic laws, and purchasing auto insurance. These legal obligations should not only enforce the moral duty of citizens to fairly contribute to society, they should also enforce some degree of taking responsibility for some of the costs and and hazards we may potentially impose on others in the course of enjoying out personal liberties. For example, driving a motor vehicle is widely considered a personal choice, but it can easily result in harm to others if not enjoyed wisely. Without such legal requirements listed above, for example, a careless or drunk driver could run down and kill or maim innocent bystanders without fear of suffering any consequences. A road full of vehicles driven without traffic laws would result in severe traffic jams, severely impeding each individual’s liberty to travel, let alone the innumerable deadly crashes that would result.

A certain amount of prudent regulation, therefore, is actually necessary for protecting liberties. After all, when an individual exercises their liberty to fire a gun, they can potentially nullify every single liberty of another with a single shot. When the American Constitution says ‘Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…’ this does not mean that each and every action which could be categorized as speech cannot be limited or regulated if the speech of one can substantially infringe on the liberties of others. For example, Bradley Manning’s right to free speech and Julian Assange’s freedom of the press should be curtailed if their speech substantially threatens the security of other Americans. Therefore, regardless of the literal wording of the First Amendment, there can and should be laws abridging the freedoms of speech and of the press. We recognize that at least some of the Founding Fathers recognized this. For example, President John Adams championed the Alien and Sedition Acts which made it a crime to criticize the government, just a few years after he participated in the formulation of the Constitution.

From the left: Society and its governing institutions are constrained by morality, as is true for the conservative view; the government should never engage in immoral actions, such as infringing on essential liberties of citizens, engage in exploitative and unjust warfare, or be complicit in oppression anywhere in the world. Individuals also have public responsibilities, just as in the conservative view, such as paying taxes and obeying wise regulation. However, it is not the role of government to decide on intimate matters of personal liberty and expression of personality, since such governments have historically oppressed and even killed entire populations of people, such as religious and ethnic minorities, women, and political and other dissenters. Rather, it’s the role of government to protect the life, health, and liberty of individuals from the encroachment of others, such as powerful exploitative monetary interests or religious or ideological orthodoxy. Therefore, government should regulate commerce, since shortsighted financial interests of some can and often do harm the public as a whole, such as environmental polluters and makers of dangerous auto vehicles. But, the government should not not engage in ‘morals legislation’, since this infringes on the rights of individuals to control their own bodies and minds.

Where the right is inconsistent: So American conservatives, like other conservatives throughout the world, agree with the basic principles of political thinker Edmund Burke, who held that a society is a natural, organic institution (rather than a rationally constructed artificial entity), whose traditions must be respected and whose citizens are properly bound by moral duties and prohibitions. Yet, somehow, so many American conservatives argue as if all of these principles evaporate in the matter of gun control. In other parts of the world, the arguments for gun control often come from conservatives, who take the view that morality is the business of society, and people should not have the right to just run around doing whatever they want when and if it’s clear that what they want to do results in a moral wrong. For example, Australia adopted stricter gun control laws following the horrific massacre at Port Arthur, Tasmania, in the mid-nineties, and the arguments in favor of these new restrictions were traditionally conservative ones: the individual has moral responsibilities to society as well as morally determined limits to their behavior. Freedom does not mean people can just do whatever they want and have whatever they want: a responsible, moral member of society expects that some smaller liberties can and should be limited if such limitations lead to an overall more morally sound, liberty-enhancing society. The evidence shows that when weapons proliferate among a population, more people tend to die violent deaths, while populations that are less heavily armed tend to have low homicide rates. For example, consider the low homicide rates in Japan or Great Britain, where private gun ownership rates are also low, compared with the high gun ownership and violent death rates in the United States. Consider also the high death toll of mass attacks in the US, where mentally unhinged people easily possessed themselves of guns capable of killing many people within seconds, compared with mass attacks in China where it’s very difficult to obtain a gun, so the total of deaths and injuries inflicted with far less lethal weapons is a fraction of the US totals. Even if individual gun owners are responsible, the argument goes, it is their moral obligation to give up the particular liberty of owning certain weapons since the proliferation of such weapons undermines the security and stability of society as a whole. Many American conservatives say that individuals owning such weapons should actually make society safer, but this theory is simply not borne out by the evidence. In a morally good society, the right to one’s life is considered prior to and more precious than the right to own property, so the prevention of the moral evil of homicide takes precedence over personal desires to possess powerful weapons.

The American conservative stance against gun control but in favor of proscriptions against birth control and abortion, therefore, is incomprehensible to liberals, who rightly point out that if the right to life and the primacy of the procreative role of sex are greater than all other considerations, then the ‘pro-life’ movement should be at the forefront of the gun control effort, as it is for conservatives in other countries. Yet, the rhetoric of the conservative gun rights movement in the United States centers on a particular reading of the text of the 2nd amendment to the U.S. Constitution and an emphasis on property rights; the pro-life arguments are out the window for conservatives on this one. Therefore, American liberals consider the conservative gun rights position at best inconsistent, and at worst, hypocritical.

Where the left is inconsistent: The liberal left in America, however, does not consider it the primary role of a society and its governing institutions to promote and enforce personal morality. Rather, society’s role towards in the life of individuals is to protect them from harm from one another, and to ensure that each individual enjoys the same opportunities as any other to accomplish their goals and live a satisfying and meaningful life. Yet, arguments against so-called ‘morals legislation’ and arguments in favor of laws that prevent harm and promote equality are all based on moral considerations: that harm is worse than non-harm, that individual liberty is better than oppression, that human rights are sacred and that trespassing on them is wrong. There is no societal rule or proscription that is not derived from one moral precept or another: a human society is an inherently moral endeavor. When American liberals argue for laws that limit gun control but against laws that regulate other activities, such as abortion or sexual behavior, on the grounds that the government’s only task is to prevent harm, the arguments are often so inconsistent on that it’s no wonder that conservatives, in turn, consider liberal arguments to be inconsistent and hypocritical.

Where does the confusion originate? While American conservative arguments are generally based on a foundationalist moral system, which holds that all of morality is derived from a single founding principle (for example, Aristotle’s function-based system, or the divine command theory espoused by evangelicals), American liberal arguments seem to hold that, while the law is based on the foundationalist ethic of utilitarianism, personal behavior is governed by a pluralist moral system, which can differ from society to society. The various and often conflicting values we hold, such as liberty, compassion, beneficence, and so forth, must be weighed and balanced against one another in each matter under consideration. The law and issues of personal morality, then, should be determined separately, because utilitarian considerations are more readily determined and amenable to democratic consensus and evidence than value considerations. For example, it’s easier to find and present evidence regarding rates of gun ownership and crime statistics, and argue that high homicide and suicide rates    by gun reveal that the current system in the United States results in more harm than systems in other countries, or vice versa, than to demonstrate clearly that the value of liberty is more important than the value of safety, or vice versa.

I agree overall with the liberal position that the law should be utilitarian, and that moral pluralism seems to be a fact of human nature: I think that there is more evidence that morality is in fact based on a pluralism of values, and that a utilitarian ethic has done more to inform laws that promote human flourishing than laws based on other moral systems. Yet, American liberals so often argue as if their positions are only about harm and fairness, as Jonathan Haidt points out, when really there is and should be a more rich moral system that informs them (I think that Haidt has too simplistic a view of liberal morality, though I agree with his assessment of most mainstream liberal arguments, taken at face value). It seems to me that the choice of utilitarianism as the dominant theory in law formulation is a moral choice, based on the higher valuation of liberty over obedience, individual freedom from harm over social convenience or enrichment, knowledge over ‘blissful ignorance’ (soon to come: my critique of ‘innocence’ as a prized value), etc. The distinction between the harm/fairness basis of legal utilitarianism and the pluralistic basis of personal morality is, then, an artificial one, and American liberals would be well served to take the moral high ground, proudly trumpeting their commitment to moral excellence and responsibility rather than trying to hide it under the relatively dry and uninspiring rhetoric of mere consent and fairness.


Libertarianism and Me

You may perceive in my recent essays and remarks a tendency to argue against libertarian positions. If you’ve known me very long, this may surprise you, since I’ve long taken libertarian arguments very seriously. I’m sympathetic to the libertarian instinct because I share many aspects of it in my personality: I’m very independent, have always liked to go my own way and do my own thing. (To a fault: if something’s popular, if everyone who’s hip is wearing it, listening to it, eating it, etc, I have a strong instinct to immediately run off and do the opposite, since cliques, to me, since childhood, have represented oppressive communities that, in their own way, demand deference to their codes, behaviors, and aesthetics just as thoroughly as the dogmatic and hierarchical religious community I was brought up in. My libertarian instincts are so strong, in fact, they tend run amok, and I have to chase them down to rein them in constantly! Pesky things!)

Yet, as I’ve studied and closely examined my positions and beliefs, I’ve found that many of those arguments I took seriously and even espoused, such as the position that morality is a personal matter and not a societal or governmental one, or that individual considerations are separate from and always take precedence over the desires and needs of the many, are flawed or entirely incorrect. My recent tendency to argue against libertarianism, then, is not based on a desire to pick on this philosophical and political viewpoint, or that I think it’s worse than all others. Rather, I’m sharing with you aspects of my own journey, and where I am so far when it comes to my endeavor of seriously considering each philosophical school and each argument, on its own merits, before I accept it, discard it, or keep in in mind for future consideration if I don’t have enough information on hand to make a sound judgement.

So there you go. I’m very fond of you libertarians in many ways, and agree with you more in instinct and sympathy than I do in logic. It’s a mark of my affection and respect that I wrangle, so often, with your arguments.

IRS Targets Conservative Groups

This story is deeply disturbing to me. 

When any concerned citizens, be it individuals or groups, from Communists to Tea Party subscribers, are harassed or silenced, the people are cheated out of hearing arguments that enrich their understanding of the world and of what moves people to think and act as they do. 

A most invaluable lesson instilled in me, informally through listening to political and philosophical discussions around the dinner table, and more formally in my education in philosophy, is how invaluable it is to always learn the arguments presented in a positive and sympathetic manner, no matter how alien to your own, so that you come away understanding the actual arguments, not some amalgam or distortion infused with your own prejudices. In this way, the position you reach on the matter is likely to be informed, and honest.