Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Can Religious People be Moral?

We’ve come distance since the time of Pierre Bayle, the early Enlightenment philosopher and journalist who got in trouble by suggesting that atheists can, after all, be decent people; but the concept of a moral atheist is still paradoxical to many—I heard the historian John Lukacs on CSPAN a couple of years ago expressing his astonishment that some of the atheists he had met over his lifetime turned out to be people of good character. Nevertheless, for many of us, the more salient question these days is becoming whether belief and morality are antithetical. It’s not just that bad behavior and religious fervor may be statistically associated. It isn’t encouraging for the apologist that Mississippi is the most religious state in the Union, but correlation isn’t the same as causation. The deeper suspicion is that religiosity, at least in its AM radio form, is intrinsically anti-ethical. There are several reasons to think so, none of which require you to think that dear old Aunt Maude is a moral monster:

1.Many religious people claim that actions are good because a transcendent power says they are good. Of course one can claim that shooting a doctor or flying a plane into a skyscraper is not actually praiseworthy behavior but only by asserting that the television preacher or Imam who sponsored this behavior was not really reporting God’s wishes. Thing is, though, it all becomes a game of theological he said, she said since, ex hypothesi, there is no way to judge the authenticity of revelation by reference to a rational standard of right and wrong. For all you know, Osama has been right all along.

2.Religious ways of thinking about morality promote the notion that ethics is some profoundly mysterious subject and that there aren’t sound and rather obvious reasons for most of the norms of civilized behavior. While there certainly are times when it is hard to decide on the right thing to do, focusing on dubious instances creates a false impression. For the most part, it’s quite obvious what the right thing to do is, which is why it is legitimate to hold people responsible for their actions. Pretending that ethics is rocket science just provides a second handy excuse for bad behavior that hasn’t already been blamed on original sin.

3.Religious people commonly suggest that we ought to try to be good; but this way of thinking, though an inevitable stage of moral education, confuses doing right with pleasing somebody. It’s a moral fault in a grownup that has more than theoretical consequences since it routinely leads people to abdicate responsibility to the nearest authority figure.

4.Religious thinking corrupts practical reasoning by introducing infinities into moral calculations. Pascal’s wager is a good example. It doesn’t matter how low one estimates the probability of the truth of religion so long as the postulated reward for accepting it is infinite: .0000000001 times infinity is still infinity. The bet will always be worthwhile. In fact, this kind of reasoning was the conceptual recipe for fanaticism long before Pascal, though in practice 72 virgins is apparently close enough to infinity for practical purposes. (I note, parenthetically, that the insistence of religious people on the infinity of rewards and punishments is more evidence of the profound vanity that underlies faith.)

5.Traditional religiosity leads to political immorality because it abdicates to God and the next world our responsibility to create a space for ourselves in this world in which good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior punished.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

And Another Thing

I wrote the following couple of paragraphs in a comment thread about the prospects for a split in the Democratic Party:

"I don't think the issue is capitalism versus anti-capitalism so much as democracy versus oligarchy. While the New Democrats and the Old Republicans disagree as to whether experts or billionaires should be in charge, they agree that the history of the last couple of hundred years has taught us that government by consent of the governed is a childish idea on a par with the fantasies such as legal equality. A certain faction of the Democratic Party base disagrees about all this and actually believes that, for example, if the majority of the country is in favor of having a public option or not invading Afghanistan, their wishes should mean something. For that matter, these feckless idealists believe that government agents should not be allowed to get away with torturing people. Imagine that!

Snark aside, I just don't encounter very many people who are interested in nationalizing the toilet paper factories. What I do hear are voices that oppose the current organization of American business, not because the corporations are private but because they are politically powerful and deeply irresponsible, even to their erstwhile owners. Like feudal barons, the corporations have taken over part of the sovereignty of the state—they even maintain their own courts. The perceived problem is at root more political than straightforwardly economic. Is this our country or theirs?"

I would ask for unanimous consent to revise and extend my remarks, except that the Talmud of ifs, ands, and buts I would ideally like to append to this tiny Torah would run to at least as many volumes as the Short History of Human Vanity. Nevertheless, a few additional thoughts:

1. A serious critique of how American society is organized would have to look as hard at the NGOs as at the for-profit corporations. The mentality and often enough the salaries of top bureaucrats are comparable to those of private CEOs. Anyhow, the term “corporatism” is too unspecific to capture the essence of the current conjuncture.

2. Property rights are not natural facts but historical constructions, and the proof of their artificiality is that they have obviously changed dramatically over the two and third centuries of our national existence. In particular, one form of property, the modern corporation, was a 19th Century invention like the cotton gin. The point of insisting on the social construction of property is not, as Conservatives always assume, to badmouth property rights in general. Indeed what bothers me about corporations is the way in which they weaken one of the great advantages of private property by disassociating ownership and responsibility. Nobody washes a rented car, and no stockholder or executive gives a damn what happens to General Motors after he sells out or retires. Limited liability may be a good thing insofar as it promotes the flow of capital to productive uses and yet a bad thing insofar as it serves as an all purpose mechanism for dumping externalities on the public. The point is not to restore some sort of Jeffersonian utopia of yeomen farmers holding forty acres in fee simple, but to work towards new legal forms that restore some accountability in a knowledge economy.

3. The usual complaint about Democracy is that the people are too ignorant to make meaningful decisions, but the irony is this notion is trotted out most often in connection with issues like war and peace or social equity where the public often turns out to be wiser than the self-appointed wise men. Where the public really is wretchedly informed, for example, on issues like global warming or the true state of the American health care system, it’s vox populi, vox dei. I have a different perspective. I don’t think there is anything sacred about democracy—as ought to be obvious, I don’t think there is anything sacred at all—and I certainly don’t believe that the majority is always right or should have unlimited sway; but my reading of history has led me to conclusion that societies are both more stable and more dynamic when they are responsive to the wishes and interests of their members and do the many things that are necessary to ensure that the People are something different and better than a mob. Where the leading classes don’t recognize—and fear—the authority of the population, they won’t be zealous in looking after their interests either. They may make populist appeals for strategic or tactical reasons and they will certainly continue to repeat the usual pieties, but they will inevitably end up favoring the interests of themselves and their class.