By lex, on October 25th, 2010
NB: Religious/philosophical discussion follows. Those who don’t like that sort of thing, or aren’t capable of joining it in a civil fashion are encouraged to seek their entertainment elsewhere.
We had a spirited discussion in comments to a post last week that touched on issues of morality, whether they must be driven by religious faith or could be derived in a secular fashion. Some of those who are religious will say that, absent absolute Authority, they know no basis for a shared, common understanding of morality. When presented with the example of moral, secular people – and they are legion – some of the faithful will say that the secular understanding of right and wrong is culturally derived, and that the foundations of that culture in this nation are Judeo-Christian.
These kinds of arguments by assertion inevitably make the secular moralist bristle: We do not murder that we might not be murdered. We do not bear false witness that false witness might not born against us. The marriage contract – even if not sanctified – ought not to be willfully trampled upon. So does it all come down to reciprocity?
Speaking under correction as a non-secularist, I understand that the secular moralist makes his decisions about right and wrong in any number of ways. Perhaps it is mere reciprocity, or perhaps it is fundamentally a legal construct, the extended understanding of social decency as encoded in laws. But we know that there are things which are legal that may not be moral.
Perhaps it is the evolving nature of our social compact that precedes legislation, the shifting and sometimes emotional response of a community to both acute and chronic stimuli, the expressed will of a transient majority. But we know that excited majorities* often take actions that their component persons later regret. Indeed, our Republican form of government was designed explicitly to prevent the tyranny of bare majorities.
Perhaps it is personal experience. But experience can be hard won, long to gain and all too often be interpreted through the lens of personal preference. Sometimes in ways that seem – to me at least – objectively amoral, if not immoral.
Take the case of young Kathleen Rose**, from Detroit:
An American husband and wife have been branded the most heartless couple in the U.S. after taunting the family of a seven-year-old girl who is dying from an incurable disease.
Scott and Jennifer Petkov’s despicable behaviour has caused outrage across the country after they posted a photo of terminally ill schoolgirl Kathleen Edwards on Facebook above a set of crossed bones.
Little Kathleen is in the final stages of Huntington’s disease – the same wasting illness that her mother, Laura, died from last year at the age of 24.
In another incredibly cruel taunt, Mrs Petkov also put a picture of the girl’s dead mother in the arms of the Grim Reaper online.
After Laura Edwards died last year, the Petkovs also allegedly drove their truck – which bears the message ‘Death Machine’ and has a coffin attached to it – down the street and honked the horn.
The sick attacks are the culmination of a long-running and increasingly bitter feud between the Petkovs and a number of neighbours in Trenton, Michigan that have raged over the past couple of years.
Neighbours accused the couple of laughing and poking fun at Laura Edwards and her daughter because of their disease, a progressive neurological disorder that causes involuntary writhing movements.
Moral people religious and secular alike will no doubt recoil in horror at the example of Jennifer Petkov, who might just take the fiercely contested prize as the most awful neighbor ever. But my question is for the secularist: Upon what foundation does their condemnation rest?
It cannot be reciprocity, as the odds of the Petkovs’ family having a child with Huntington’s Disease is vanishingly small. It cannot be legal, since there are no laws that by themselves punish people for being awful. I have already suggested, and most will agree, that the emotional responses of shifting and excited majorities make a poor foundation for any collective morality. That leaves us with personal experience and preference, which is a troubled anchorage for any shared understanding of morality in a society.
If personal, rather than collective decisions as to what constitutes moral behavior are to trump, then how are we to elevate the Edwards’ preference not to have their feelings hurt above the Petkovs’ preference to hurt their feelings? Who are we to judge? Furthermore, given the absence of a flying spaghetti monster***, if each of us is to be the ultimate arbiter of own moral behavior, how is that clearly distinguishable from sociopathy****? If, alternatively, a society’s mores are defined collectively, what constitutes a quorum? Are super-majorities ever required? If the secularist’s argument is that religiously-based morality was all well and good for the last several millenia, but that “we’ll take it from here,” some of us would like to see the map.
At least two religious philosophers have enunciated their basis for morality: Hillel the Elder’s wrote, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.” According to Matthew, Jesus said, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” I am not quite sure what Mohammad said, but at least the prior two gentlemen had an answer for Ms. Petkov.
I read this treatise on the secular basis for morality: It left me unconvinced, being more a counter-argument against religion than an affirmative statement. Another article says that atheism is unconcerned with morality, but rather with ethics; morals redound to personal character, while ethics are community based. But we have seen instances of communities that have decided that their own good can only be furthered by the destruction of other, weaker communities. Such a community-based application of human reason might even be rational under certain extremely stressful circumstances, but it could never be moral.
Sam Harris writes accurately in the of the “Council for Secular Humanism” (how do you get elected to that?) that religion has been the cause of great evil in the world’s history. But he does so while failing to demonstrate or even troubling to assert that human history would read better for the lack of it. I wonder.
I’m looking for a discussion here, not a fight. I don’t want to challenge anyone’s belief system, and I hope that we can keep the discussion civil, without any aspersions cast or offense taken. It is possible to argue in light of human advancement over the last two hundred years that ancient belief systems are necessary but not sufficient to a shared understanding of what it means to be a moral person, no argument there.
But I really do want to know: Given my assumption that secularists find Jennifer Petkov’s actions morally repellent, upon what foundation do they pretend to judge her? They have their community, she has hers. Granted it was a mean and awful thing to do: So?
**Article in UK’s Daily Mail.com by David Gardner, October 15, 2010
***originally linked to Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flying_Spaghetti_Monster) – seen as a parody religion
**** originally linked to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychopathy#Sociopathy