Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The problem of pleasure

This post is a follow up to the previous one; or rather, a follow up to the dialogue which took place in the comment section of the previous post.

I want to explore an idea which is expressed in this quote from Philip Yancey, an evangelical Christian apologist:
It struck me the other day, after I had read my umpteenth book on the problem of pain (the theological obsession of this century, it seems), that I have never even seen a book on "the problem of pleasure." Nor have I met a philosopher who goes around shaking his head in perplexity over the basic question of why we experience pleasure.

Where did pleasure come from? That seems to me a huge question — the philosophical equivalent, for atheists, to the problem of pain for Christians. On the issue of pleasure, Christians can breathe a little easier. A good and loving God would naturally want his creatures to experience delight, joy, and personal fulfillment. We Christians start from that assumption and then look for ways to explain the origin of suffering. But don't atheists and secular humanists have an equal obligation to explain the origin of pleasure in a world of randomness and meaninglessness?

["The Problem of Pleasure" in I Was Just Wondering]
Yancey's point is that atheists cannot take pleasure for granted — they have to account for it. And I want to broaden the point. There is a whole series of things that atheists take for granted but which cry out for an explanation:  love, kindness, fairness, hope, goodness, beauty, etc.

We assume all of the above values uncritically:  beauty is better than ugliness, generosity is better than selfishness, justice is better than injustice, benevolence is better than malice, etc.

How do we know? We just know. These values are innate:  if not to every human being without exception, at least they are innate to the vast majority of us. And it's not just a societal consensus. Each individual knows in her bones that these values are right and true.

From a theistic perspective, this is not hard to explain. These values correspond to God's nature. Because we are created by God, and created in God's image, these values are deeply imprinted upon us. We know in our bones that these values are right and true because our Creator knitted them into our very being.

On that view, evil is the problem. For evil also exists in the human heart, and surely it does not have its origin in God. Christians are quite aware that the existence of evil and suffering cries out for an explanation, given our theistic assumptions.

Atheists are a little smug about the problem of pain, but Yancey is right. Atheists must account for the other half of the human equation:  goodness, beauty, love, etc. Those values are problematic given the materialist / mechanistic view of the universe to which atheists subscribe.

Atheists believe that the material universe is all that exists. As Carl Sagan famously put it, The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.

According to the theory of evolution, there is no need to posit the existence of a Creator or any transcendent realm from which the material universe was derived. The apparent "intelligent design" of the universe is an illusion. Darwinian natural selection provides an adequate account of everything as it now exists.

I don't want to get sidetracked into a debate over evolution. For my present purposes, I merely wish to point out the obvious — that evolution is an impersonal, mechanistic process. Thus atheists believe in a universe which is entirely material in nature; and its form was entirely determined by an impersonal process.

How then to account for love, beauty, hope, etc.? Such things are immaterial. Not in the sense, insignificant; we are all agreed on this point, that the values we are discussing are profoundly significant. But immaterial as in non-material. You cannot hold hope in your hand or put justice under a microscope.

On what basis does an atheist conclude that such immaterial concepts are right and true, the highest values in a purely material universe?

And where do these values come from? How can such interpersonal imperatives be the product of an impersonal, mechanistic process? (For the Christian, the interpersonal imperatives are grounded in the relationship between God — a personal being — and the "children" God has created.)

Mary P. and I discussed that question tonight. We identified one possibility:  that the values we are discussing are mere accidents of the evolutionary process.

I have read, for example, that sexual attraction can largely be explained by evolution. The evolutionary imperative is to ensure the propagation of the species. Accordingly (so the theory goes), we are attracted to partners whose physical characteristics suggest they can provide us with healthy children.

Perhaps other values can be explained in a similar way. Mary P. suggests, for example, a woman's willingness to make personal sacrifices to ensure the survival of her infant children.

But this explanation gives rise to two questions in my mind. First, does it explain all the values that we hold dear? Justice, for example. Why should I care if blacks living in an inner city ghetto receive an inferior education? Does the evolutionary imperative speak to that concern? — or is there some other explanation for the high value we (supposedly) place on justice?

Second, if our immaterial values are derived from the evolutionary imperative, why should I consent to be held to that standard? Why shouldn't I be selfish, for example, and shamelessly take advantage of others? We began with the observation that evolution is an impersonal process. Why should I respect interpersonal imperatives which are the accidental products of an impersonal process?

Perhaps you don't agree with the explanation Mary P. and I thought up. Maybe you have another explanation for placing ultimate value on love, beauty, fairness, hope, etc.

My point is, Yancey was right. Atheists cannot merely assume these values are right and true; they must account for them, one way or another.

The problem of pleasure is to the atheist what the problem of pain is to the Christian. Stated another way, the fact that these values are a constituent part of human nature is evidence of God's existence.

38 Comments:

At 9:47 AM, October 05, 2005, Blogger Juggling Mother said...

I thinnk we underestimate how many of our "innate" values are sociological.

Love: I love Mr A dearly, but the choice to make him my only sexual partener, the father of my children & a to have a life-long relationship is all down to society. If I'd been brought up in a society where bigamy was the norm, I'm reasonably cetain I could have found other people to share my life & love with. If I'd grown up in a society where fathers have no input into children, I expect I may have found a stronger genome to pass on to my kids:-)

Historically, love has meant different things: in Ancient Greece, where homosexuality was not just accepted, but actively encouraged/admired (despite Brad Pitts depiction of Achilles, Patrocles was neither his cousin, or his "friend"), theer were many long-term, true love, male couples. In countries were it is considered abhorrant, there are very few. In Ancient Rome, children were not considered people until they reached 7 years old, and it was actually illegal to mourn them or mark thier grave if they died younger. Today, we can think of few things that are more tragic than losing a child.

I believe that in modern Western society, we have got far too confused about sex/lust/love/relationships, thinking that there is only one type of true love. I reality, like everything else, Love is a shifting, changing and personal concept. The same applies to all the other "virtues": beauty, art, good, respect, knowledge, joy generosity, altuism etc etc.

Which is why we are constantly having debates on the subjects:-)

 
At 9:52 AM, October 05, 2005, Blogger Juggling Mother said...

On your other point, can evolution excplain it all: the scientists say yes.

love = sex, plus a desire to hang around & bring up/ensure the safety of the kids

Beauty = a wish to keep the gene pool as uncontaminated as possible (be it human beauty, or the beauty of a perfect plat etc)

Hope - we need this just to ensure we do propigate the s[ecies, without hope, why bother?

Kindness - we are social creatures, programmed to work together in a group for the benefit of all

Justice - we are social creatures, & need to have rules to that society - all pack animals do.

 
At 10:24 AM, October 05, 2005, Blogger aaron said...

Before I turn to the questions you raise, I want to take a step backward from the assumptions you're making, and present my take on religion in general.

Once upon a time, the origin of the sunrise could not be explained. Thus the concept of a powerful being who brought forth the sun, the sun god, arose in many cultures throughout the world. Other than those who aren't afraid of skin cancer, there are no sun worshipers any longer, because over the millennia we have learned that the sun rises due to the physics of the universe. Similarly, the moon god, the fire god, the water god, and most of the other gods have fallen away to the realm of mythology, because we have been able to come up with physical explanations for each of these phenomena.

Let's say then, that there are two basic possibilities remaining -- either an all-powerful God is the one responsible for putting the physical universe out there; or there is also a material explanation as to how the universe was created. (Of course, Option A also allows for the , as well as deism, i.e., the idea that our universe is the equivalent of a much larger being's elementary school project, long ago completed and forgotten by the student (who only got a participation prize), and now sits in its parents' basement along with its Atari-equivalent.) Given that we have been able to discover physical explanations for so many things in the universe, I have no reason to believe that one does not exist for the question of the universe's origin, even though I don't pretend to know what it is.

In other words, when presented with an unexplained happening, I assume there is a material explanation even if I don't know what it is, while believers will sometimes defer to their deity and thus end the inquiry. From my perspective (and my understanding is colored by never having been a Christian or even a theologian), the flaw with the latter approach is that sometimes the explanation that eventually comes forth is at odds with the belief that arises out of the ignorance. For example, it took centuries for the church to reject its long-held notion that the earth revolves around the sun, and in so doing implicitly re-ordered its understanding of humanity's role in the universe.

As for your questions about where love, etc. come from, such things can in fact be evolutionary, propogation of the species and whatnot. There are, after all, similar reactions in many other species, even though most religions don't consider them to possess souls. But my failure to have a complete understanding does not demonstrate that God gave them to us. It simply means that I don't know the answer.

In closing, I will merely raise the point that if God is the one who put love into the world, Christians who oppose homosexuality have a lot of explaining to do.

 
At 10:26 AM, October 05, 2005, Blogger aaron said...

Sorry that post is so ugly (it showed up fine in the preview mode) -- the link is to the Flying Spaghetti Monster (those words, and the closing of the link, were left out by the editor, grr!). The deleted post was my first attempt at posting (which turned out to be the same as the next one).

 
At 1:15 PM, October 05, 2005, Blogger CyberKitten said...

Q: WOW...!So many questions... It's hard to know where to start - so I'll start with the easy one... altruism. Basically selfishness only pays in the short term.

You can imagine the scene: Big hunter brings back his kill and refuses to share with the tribe. He grows stronger while the rest go hungry. The only food he doles out is for sexual favours. The next day the rest of the tribe go hunting and kill a mammoth. They bring it back and refuse to share with Big Hunter - who can't intimidate them because of their numbers. This could go on for a while but then one day Big Hunter is mawled or brakes his leg and can't hunt. This gets no sympathy from the rest & he basically starves to death. Those who share increase their survival chances. Those who don't prosper in the short term - but when things go bad, they suffer greatly. Altruism pays.

Ok: Hope. This is another easy one, though I haven't thought about it in this way before. You have a group of 100 people. Some have the hope 'gene' others have the no-hope 'gene'. Times are good... all is ok. Then times are hard. The one's with the hope 'gene' continue to plant crops and look after themselves and their children - the no-hopers quickly give up and start drinking heavily. If things don't get to normal quickly they start commiting suicide. Meanwhile the hopers grit their teeth & struggle on. Things are good again. The hopers have survived and increased in numbers - the no-hopers (the few that are left) are much reduced. Hope is a clear evolutionary advantage.

Ok: Love (as I'm on a roll). Love is a genetically generated illusion to get you and a partner together for long enough to produce and raise children. A study I read about a while back said that on average 'love' lasts approximately 2 years. This is long enough to have lots of sex, go through pregnancy, and be around long enough to get the child to an age where it has a pretty good chance of survival. We are programmed to love children - and not just our own. If that wasn't true there would be a LOT less humans in the world!

I'll have have a crack at Beauty when I've had something to eat.

Good questions BTW. This is FUN.

 
At 1:54 PM, October 05, 2005, Blogger CyberKitten said...

Well, pizza is on (I couldn't be bothered either shopping or cooking tonight) so I'll try an finish off before its ready... Now, where were we...?

Oh, Beauty.... that's a more difficult one because (clearly) ideas of beauty change over time and are different from place to place. Beauty has a large cultural component. However, saying that, the idea of physical beauty has a stong evolutionary/genetic component. Beautiful people tend to be healthy and fertile. This explains why youthful good looks are so highly prized. Older people may have more status but are riskier in the reproductive stakes.

Ok: (takes deep breath) Pleasure... I don't think pleasure is such a mystery. After all it certainly oils the wheels are makes the day go by easier - a spoonful of sugar and all that. Sex for instance (sorry to harp on about that but where evolution is concerned it's mostly concerned with sex) is very important - after all without it genes tend not to be passed on. If sex held no pleasure and resulted in or from no emotional attachment would anyone bother - even if you felt 'compelled' too? If it was like that I'd rather read a book - OK, maybe a GOOD book but the principle is the same. Pleasure is the icing on the cake and people go to some lengths to get it, enhance it or prolong it. Maybe its just an aberation - after all evolution has no long term purpose - but pleasure is rather addictive... and SO much fun...

Have I missed anything?

This is SO funny. The Verification word is DOSECX - DO SEX - (rotflmao)

 
At 2:00 PM, October 05, 2005, Blogger Mary P. said...

Although there have been different socially-acceptable/defined variations of "love" over the millenia, the concept of love has never gone away. Nor has the idea that love is worthy of pursuit, that it enriches life; the fact that there have been different definitions of it only confirms the point that it's an "immaterial" value that transcends specifics.

I'm not convinced that hope is necessary for the propagation of the species. Do geese migrate out of hope of a better place? I doubt it. They are simply programmed for survival to do so. We don't need hope, biologically, to have the drive to keep making babies. Nor is appreciation of beauty necessary for propagation. Rabbits propagate like, well, like rabbits; we once had a male who'd hump a balloon. Was he appreciating its aesthetics? Nope, he was just responding to his biological programming - feeling aroused, must hump something - which is all that's required.

The fact that lack of hope can make a human choose not to make a baby is interesting, though.

It depends on your presuppositions, doesn't it? If you believe in a mechanistic universe, you can find mechanistic explanations for these things - in fact, I was quite impressed by cyberkitten's explanation of hope. In my view, though, these things, beauty, love, hope, are clearly unnecessary, biological irrelevancies, perks.

People who try to prevent scientific inquiry reveal themselves to have less faith than they purport. My assumption has always been that the more science discovers, the more it will confirm the possibility of God.

That early church fathers got their shorts in a knot about the placement of the earth displays merely their short-sighted humano-centricity, and nothing about God's role in creation.

Christians have ever made the mistake of assuming that the Bible gives specifics about how this or that material thing was accomplished: it doesn't. The Bible's focus is on why it was done, and how we are to live in the resultant world/society.

The fact that our concept of God must change as our scientific awareness (knowledge of his creation??) increases, doesn't lessen God's reality, but, again, merely expresses humanity's inability to comprehend him/her. Not surprising that this should be the case: anyone who thinks they understand God through and through has a very small god.

 
At 2:03 PM, October 05, 2005, Blogger Mary P. said...

All discussion of beauty thus far has begun and ended with attraction between the sexes for purposes of propagation. Why then, do we stop and gaze in awe at a mountain, or a sunset, or a painting or sculpture? Irrelevant and pointless - yet universal.

 
At 2:41 PM, October 05, 2005, Blogger CyberKitten said...

Aesthetics is a strange thing which I certainly find difficult explaining from an evolutionary point of view. For example, I love neo-classical sculpture, why? I have no idea. As a child my family had no classical music in the house (though thinking about it I may have heard it on the radio) and yet, the first time I heard Rachmaninov & Albinoni I was floored by how amazinginly brilliantly beautiful the music was. Why? I have no idea. I just do.

There seems to be something to art and music appreciation to do with mathematics. The universe does seem to be amenable to being studied mathematically and I have heard the phrase more than once that God is a mathematician (and inordinantly found of beatles which made me chuckle). We seem to respond to certain kinds of mathematics exhibited in music and art in favourable ways. We see/hear them as beautiful. This is, of course, only a partial answer - but at least gets away from sex...

 
At 2:54 PM, October 05, 2005, Blogger CyberKitten said...

Mary P said: "Do geese migrate out of hope of a better place? I doubt it. They are simply programmed for survival to do so. We don't need hope, biologically, to have the drive to keep making babies. Nor is appreciation of beauty necessary for propagation."

All very true. I think the difference between us and other animals is that though they are, by and large, machines we humans are thinking self-aware machines. I think it's our self-awareness that makes all the difference. It's what allows us to love (and hate), feel pity and hope, appreciate sunsets and the trillings of birds. I love being self-aware (despite the downside). I love wondering about stuff - some of which I may never understand - and I truely love finding out about stuff. It is all perk (as you said) and quite possibly has no evolutionary advantage to speak of - but if it is all accidental then from where I'm sitting its a happy accident indeed.

 
At 3:16 PM, October 05, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

This is a very good discussion of a tough subject. I agree with Cyberkitten — this is fun — so thanks, everybody.

• Mrs. Aginoth:
I think we underestimate how many of our "innate" values are sociological.

I agree. It hadn't occurred to me before, but you're quite right; this is a good alternative explanation to the "evolutionary imperative" explanation Mary P. and I came up with.

But Mary P. has said exactly what I would say in response. We have to distinguish between the values (beauty, for example) and the cultural biases about those values (tall, slim women are beautiful to us; but Reubens clearly had a very different ideal).

The values themselves are universal and therefore transcend any particular culture. Thus we return to my question, where does the (transcendent) value come from?

• Aaron:
I would summarize your comment like this: Christians are not entitled to assume that God exists. But you are entitled to assume that the values we are discussing are real and true.

You are affirming what I deny. I deny that you are entitled to assume any such thing; in my view, you must account for your values.

Religion is full of errant beliefs, no question. But the value itself — the persistent, nearly universal belief that God exists — transcends the narrow and often ignorant expressions of faith on the part of believers.

The majority of people on earth believe in God's existence. Even in the USA, in a society where science is highly valued, the majority continue to believe that God exists.

Similarly, most people espouse "love" as a core value; and they say that murder is wrong; and, as Mary P. points out, they say that mountains are beautiful.

If I can assume that the latter beliefs are probably true on the basis of their universality, why not the former?

With respect, you're not working hard enough at this issue, which is profoundly important. These are the core values around which people orient their lives. And your response is, you have no idea where they come from and you see no need to even grapple with the question.

At least, I think that's what you're saying.

• Cyberkitten:
In essence, I believe what you're saying is that the "evolutionary imperative" explanation is adequate for you. It's a very pragmatic point of view you espouse (not to say utilitarian). These values work for our good … and that's a good enough explanation for you.

Imagine the following scenario. You have an opportunity to kill someone. You stand to gain materially by that person's death. The odds are highly favourable — 10,000:1 — that you will get away with murdering that individual.

From a purely pragmatic point of view, you would at least consider it. But somewhere inside of you, there is a little voice saying, "murder is wrong". Not on pragmatic grounds, but on moral grounds.

Whence this morality that keeps you from putting a pillow over the person's face, or giving them a little shove at the top of the stairs?

 
At 3:23 PM, October 05, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

• p.s. to Cyberkitten:
I should add that your definition of "love" is too narrow for my tastes. You're talking about romantic or sexual love, which is a modern, Western notion.

When I speak of love I am thinking of a broader ideal which may include, for example, empathy for an emaciated child in a famine-stricken nation. Does the evolutionary imperative account for love in that sense? Or for justice, the example I used in my post?
Q

 
At 3:37 PM, October 05, 2005, Blogger Juggling Mother said...

Mary P said: these things, beauty, love, hope, are clearly unnecessary, biological irrelevancies, perks.

Evolution is not sentient. It does not say "lets see, what would be a good trait to evolve in these animals, lets try hope & see what happens", Various mutations happen all the time (with some biggies every now & then, apparently", and the ones that work well, propegate, andf the ones that don't work well, possible don't propegate (their "good" qualities may outweigh their "bad" mutations - hence the prevelance of myosis in humans). Just because they are not vital for our survival, we still prefer to increase our numbers including the perks, rather than without them:-)


CyberKitten, you must be having the time of your life here:-). Now you'll have to admit that finding this blog is quite close to devine intervention

How do we know Geese don't fly south in the hope it will be warmer?

I did mention about the beauty of a perfect plant/animal (yum yum) in my post. Nature & geology is not universally considered beautiful. Our sovciety thinks it is beautiful for it's age, it's size, it's connotations with bygone era's. Bygone era's mostly thought nature was ugly, dangerous, and to be avoided at all costs. Read some victorian literature and you'll see regular descriptions of the beauty of the manmade "triumphing" over the ugly anrchy of nature.

 
At 4:02 PM, October 05, 2005, Blogger CyberKitten said...

Mrs A said: "CyberKitten, you must be having the time of your life here:-). Now you'll have to admit that finding this blog is quite close to devine intervention"

Well... maybe not the time of my life (has pleasent flash back) but certainly the most fun I've had in weeks... And it's less divine intervention and more Crazie Queen intervention.... It's also nice having a fun interesting conversation and not one in which people are lining up to rip parts of my anatomy off - so thanks everyone for a civil conversation.

 
At 4:24 PM, October 05, 2005, Blogger CyberKitten said...

Q said: "In essence, I believe what you're saying is that the "evolutionary imperative" explanation is adequate for you. It's a very pragmatic point of view you espouse (not to say utilitarian). These values work for our good … and that's a good enough explanation for you."

Well, it's a pretty good working hypothesis and somewhere to start. I'm not sure that evolution and genetics can explain everything about us - it's not something I've considered that deeply. However, I don't feel the need to posit the idea of a God to fill in any gaps in my understanding. There are many things that I don't understand as well as many things I am unaware of. So far I have yet to come across any evidence for God - I don't mean insufficient evidence here, I mean any evidence...

I was actually leant a book by C S Lewis by one of the Christians at work. I forget the title but it talked about some of the things you mentioned - specifically the question of where morality comes from if there is no God to place it there. It seemed like a particularly weak argument to me.

Is morality universal? Some aspects of it certainly appear to be. However, there is something else that is universal too - our shared humanity. Does 'universal' human morality arise out of the fact that we are human? I think that more likely than the idea that such a thing exists because God placed it inside us. A universal morality is also a poor proof of the existence of the divine. All that would be necessary to disprove the existence of God would be to show that human morality was not universal.

As to my change of career to assassinations... It's not really my 'cup of tea' and I certainly don't need the money (I also tend to avoid risky or stressful situations - but that's another story). Could I take another human life..? I'm not sure and I hope I never have to find out. However, maybe - if the situation demanded it...

But here's one for you.

You are given access to a time machine & handed a gun. You are told that you are going back to Bavaria in the late 19th Century where you will meet a pregnant woman who, in a few months will give birth to Adolf Hitler. If you choose to do so you can kill her & her unborn child with no consequence to yourself.

Could you do it?

 
At 5:05 PM, October 05, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Cyberkitten:
No, I wouldn't bring about Adolph Hitler's death in the scenario you propose.

You are inviting me to play God, but the position is already filled.
Q

 
At 5:17 PM, October 05, 2005, Blogger aaron said...

Christians are perfectly welcome to believe in God. My point isn't that they shouldn't, just that a deity's existence isn't an automatic in the face of the unexplained.

That most people believe in God is hardly relevant -- at one time most people believed the sun revolved around the earth, but that didn't make it so.

Sorry if you feel that I'm not "working hard enough." Many of my values have been imparted to me by society and family -- I have no idea whether there are any that are not accounted for by society, and if there are, whether biology covers the remainder.

I recognize that I don't know why I see beauty in the mountains, just as I don't know why the sky is blue. The latter has a "material" explanation, it's just that I don't know it. I have no reason to think that the former doesn't as well, even if present science is unable to give a definitive answer. You can even call my logic a sort of faith if you'd like.

These are the core values around which people orient their lives. And your response is, you have no idea where they come from and you see no need to even grapple with the question.

Please don't take this the wrong way, but to me, resorting to a deity to explain things is no better than throwing one's hands up and acknowledging ignorance, as I'm doing. I don't see why my belief that an explanation exists, even though it's beyond current human knowledge, is any less valid.

FWIW, I find this to be a tough conversation to have electronically -- it'd be much better to have it over a couple of beers. :)

 
At 5:48 PM, October 05, 2005, Blogger CyberKitten said...

Q said: "Does the evolutionary imperative account for love in that sense? Or for justice, the example I used in my post?"

The idea of Justice is an interesting one. Though the question 'Where does justice come from?' may be the wrong question.

Imagine a truely unjust society. Just how viable would such a society be? How much effort would it take the government or leadership of such a society to hold the people in check after years of widespread injustice? How long would it be before there was a sucesful rebellion? Probably not too long. Justice and equitable treatment - at least at a minimum level - are necessary for a society to exist beyond probably a few generations. We learnt this lesson from the breakup of the former Soviet Union.

But where does this feeling of injustice come from? Why do we demand to be treated fairly...? These are good questions. I may need to sleep on this before I try for an answer.

Can evolutionary theory answer why we feel angry of slighted if we feel we are being treated unfairly? Or is it a cultural thing? Do we feel that we are treated more unfairly now than our granparents did? Has modern Western society made us feel more 'hard done by' because it has made us more self centred and judgemental?

All very good questions.....

 
At 6:34 PM, October 05, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

• Aaron:
My point isn't that [Christians] shouldn't [believe in God], just that a deity's existence isn't an automatic in the face of the unexplained.

If that's all you meant to say, I agree with you.

to me, resorting to a deity to explain things is no better than throwing one's hands up and acknowledging ignorance, as I'm doing.

I think the theistic explanation offers a much more adequate account for our commitment to these values. We are talking about immaterial values which transcend any specific culture. I believe in a transcendent, non-material deity. We are in some sense accountable to these values (not to assume a place of eternal torment or anything of that sort) by virtue of their origin in a being who exists beyond the material realm and who is, in fact, responsible for our very existence.

This is a coherent account of a phenomenon that you cannot account for — certainly not in the sense of explaining why we ought to uphold the values we are discussing.

I find this to be a tough conversation to have electronically -- it'd be much better to have it over a couple of beers.

I'm glad you took no greater offense than this; I know my criticism was pointed.

And I sympathize with your comment. I have the reverse problem. I sometimes think I have an unfair advantage when it comes to a written debate, whereas (introvert that I am) I am at a disadvantage in face-to-face banter.

But a couple of beers always helps me get over my inhibitions! Maybe sometime we'll get together in Ottawa or Montreal. Mary P. is capable of downing a few pints, too, and probably better company for a semi-inebriated man.
Q

 
At 4:28 AM, October 06, 2005, Blogger CyberKitten said...

Well, I'm awake again & have given the idea of Justice some thought (as an aside I've never really thought about this question so thanks a lot to Q for prompting it).

Where does the feeling of injustice come from? It seems to me that such a feeling is generated by the gap between how we feel that we should be treated and how we actually are treated. If we feel we are being treated as we deserve there is no feeling of injustice, but if we feel we are being treated less well than we deserve we feel we are being treated unjustly. The greater distance between the two - the greater the feeling of injustice.

Ok so far. This means that you can treat two people the same way - and one may feel that they have been treated unjustly. This may have something to do with self-esteem. Maybe the greater the persons self-esteem the greater liklihood that they will feel they have been injustly served. How many times have we heard the phrase "I deserve better than that"? So the feeling of injustice seems to be very subjective and not universal at all.

Looking at it another way... I've just finished re-reading Brave New World. In it a caste system has been produced using genetic manipulation. The lower castes do all of the dangerous, boring and dirty jobs but have been designed so they actually enjoy and take pride in their work. From the outside it appears that a great injustice is being perpertrated on them - but if we asked them how they felt about it.... Firstly they probably wouldn't understand the question... but then I suspect they would strongly deny that any injustice was taking place. They have a job to do & they do it well for the larger community. They are happy. Just because they are designed that way doesn't detract from the argument. Injustice is a perception of those on the 'receiving' end - when no injustice is perceived then it does not exist.

 
At 4:39 AM, October 06, 2005, Blogger Juggling Mother said...

We are talking about immaterial values which transcend any specific culture

Are we? There are many cultures throughout human history that have not valued the things we do:

Your biggy is abouth the taking of human life & it being abhorrant to our very souls, but that it plainly rediculous (no offence meant). Most cultures in the world today sanction human sacrifioce in one way or another, couched as justice. Historically, cultures have killed other peoples & their own pretty much all the time! It's just our social conditioning that tells us we shouldn't personnally go out and stab some stranger dead. In many historical (and some modern) societies this was perfectly acceptable, even applauded (duels come to mind), or specified in law. If we lived in these societies, each & every one of us would happily kill another - it's just about justification. I, personnally, doubt that I'd be able to kill anyone in cold blood, for any reason, but not because I am a human being, just because of my beliefs, culture & education.

Justice & equality is another one that just doesn't stand up to any real research. Historically every culture has been unjust, and totally unequal. The Roman & Greek Empires had successful cultures based on slavery, and Mediaeval Europe went for Serfdom, which was even worse. The rich & powerful have always lived by a different set of rules to the poor & insignificant. It all comes down to your expectations, which are set by society.

Hope I've covered previously, & Cyberkitten gave a good example, but it can just be put down to an extrapolation of past experiences. I remember that it was sunny and warm previously. Now it's wet & cold, but I expect that it will become sunny & warm again soon, because I like it better, so i will live my life in the expectation that things will improve.

 
At 8:55 AM, October 06, 2005, Blogger Mary P. said...

Cyberkitten writes,"Injustice is a perception of those on the 'receiving' end - when no injustice is perceived then it does not exist."

We're getting way off on a tangent here, but this is interesting! I am so glad you discovered this forum, CK; you're a lot of fun. Now I proceed to disagree with you all over the place...

Justice and injustice are much bigger than what happens to me, and my perception of it. (For the record, I don't think "self-esteem" is the same as "big ego" - it's the ego guys and gals who rankle with perceived injustices all the time. Those with solid self-esteem are not so insecure and thus petty.)

Anyway. Injustice exists only in the perception of its victim. I disagree.

Here's an example: A young woman, raised in a religious cult, becomes at age 16 a third wife; five years later she is the mother of three children. She is happy and fulfilled in her role.

Is this unjust? Despite her feelings about the situation, I'd say yes. The position of women in that situation is appalling, and unjust, and wrong. That would not give me the right to barge in there and haul her out of there. As adults, those women have the right to make their choices, but the fact that their choices are so limited is indeed an injustice.

But then, I'm talking about a transcendent principle - "all people should be allowed a full range of life choices, regardless of colour, creed, orientation, or sex" - and you're talking about a materialistic one: "If I feel slighted, that's injustice."

(Do you feel slighted by this??) I concede that not every time and place has seen this example as a principle of justice. My point is merely that an injustice can exist although those within it are blind to it.

 
At 9:33 AM, October 06, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Mrs. Aginoth, Cyberkitten, Aaron:

Clearly I have failed to persuade you. That's OK, no offence taken. Let me summarize your positions, because each of you are saying slightly different things.

• Mrs. Aginoth:
You offer a sociological explanation for our values.

Your last comment is particularly striking, where you argue that there is no universal prohibition against murder. We've been socialized not to do it. But if we had been raised in a different culture, it wouldn't trouble our conscience to kill.

The implication is, there's nothing inherently immoral about taking a human life. More broadly, there's nothing behind any of the values that we hold to.

But I doubt you really believe that. I think, for example, you would condemn Hitler for the Holocaust, and not excuse him on sociological grounds.

• Cyberkitten:
You have accepted my "evolutionary imperative" explanation, and combined it with your own pragmatic / utilitarian analysis. In brief, whatever builds human society is moral.

On what grounds do you assert that human society is the measure of morality? Imagine that a new race evolves. I don't mean a new ethnic group, I mean a non-human race. (Surely such a thing is possible.) The new race is mentally and physically superior to us. They regard us as rivals in the hunt for scarce resources, and they begin to exterminate us.

There's nothing wrong with that, in your worldview. The new race is merely assuming its rightful place at the top of the hierarchy in the great chain of being. There is nothing inherently valuable about human life; it's valuable to us, but that's because we're human. To a non-human life form, we are no more worthy of respect and accommodation than a mosquito.

• Aaron:
If I understand your position correctly, you accept that our moral values are objectively real and true. They are not merely sociological or evolutionary or pragmatic.

You are agnostic about where these moral values come from … but in your agnosticism, you leave no room for God as a possible explanation.

• Mary P.:
You and I are on the same page, of course. Which is good, because I was beginning to feel rather lonely. Your example —

all people should be allowed a full range of life choices, regardless of colour, creed, orientation, or sex

is the most excellent one given so far. Justice is not determined by individual men and women; nor is it determined by human society.

If the woman accepts her station, she is wrong to do so. There is a standard outside of the woman's own feelings that can be brought to bear in evaluating the justice or injustice of her circumstances.

And the judgement of her society may also be wrong; in fact, her society may be the source of the injustice. Again, there is an outside standard, a transcendent standard, that can be brought to bear.

None of the explanations offered above have accounted for the value, justice, you illustrate so well.

Maybe our theistic account of these transcendent moral values is also flawed. But I remain convinced that it is the most adequate account yet offered.
Q

 
At 9:58 AM, October 06, 2005, Blogger Juggling Mother said...

And the judgement of her society may also be wrong; in fact, her society may be the source of the injustice. Again, there is an outside standard, a transcendent standard, that can be brought to bear.

Who says there is an outside standard? That is just your standard.

sorry Mary, but until you find an outside source (god, aliens, dolphins etc) you can not claim there is an outside standard. Justice is defined by the people asking for it.

 
At 10:01 AM, October 06, 2005, Blogger Juggling Mother said...

Aginoth sends his apologies for not joining in - he would love to put his side of the argument (we regularly diagree), but commenets are just too much for his mobile to cope with:-(

 
At 10:08 AM, October 06, 2005, Blogger Juggling Mother said...

Of course I condemn Hitler, and all the many genocidal rulers (and societies) there have been, however, that is from my sociological background. I could concieve of a society that would applaud genocide. There have been many.

If our moral code was internal, designed by God, genocide should be an impossibility, as even if one evil ruler rose to power, the masses (the army), should refuse to do something so fundamentally abhorrant. This has very rarely happened.

 
At 10:26 AM, October 06, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Aginoth:
Glad to know you're reading along, even if you can't post a comment. I'm sure you're right, whatever your position is.

Mrs. Aginoth:
On your first point, I confess that I'm a little shocked. You're arguing that the Holocaust wasn't evil on any objective measure, only from the subjective perspective of those who were cruelly mistreated and killed.

Your second point poses a real challenge for my position. I have been reading a history of the Holocaust, and I know that the citizens of many nations (Austria, Poland, Romania) were quick to participate in the persecution of the Jews. France is an interesting study because the French actively collaborated with the persecution to a certain point … but then their consciences rebelled against Nazi policy.

In Denmark and Italy there was no internal support for persecution of the Jews.

I think the explanation lies, at least in part, in how desperate people were themselves. In Poland, for example — the Nazis treated the Poles almost as brutally as they treated the Jews. Pushed to that extreme, the Polish were willing to prey on another, vulnerable population.

And of course a minority of individuals and organizations in each country aided Jews in escaping or hiding.

In sum, I don't have a full explanation for the Holocaust, but morals did not break down completely. Indeed, it took a profound commitment to the value of human life to put your own life at risk (and that of your family members), which is what you were doing if you protected Jews from the Nazis who wanted them dead.
Q

 
At 10:43 AM, October 06, 2005, Blogger Juggling Mother said...

Q - of course I'm saying the holocaust was evil, what I'm saying is that there isn't an objective measure.

I think the explanation lies, at least in part, in how desperate people were themselves

exactly. a sociological reason.

Actualy, I have to confess that I think cultural/social influences can only be used as part of the arguament, but others have been successfully arguing the other parts:-) However, as individuals we can only move a certain distance away from our cultural assumptions.

 
At 10:48 AM, October 06, 2005, Blogger CyberKitten said...

Wow... Go away for a few hours to visit Mr A and an argument breaks out... (bg).

Aginoth sends his love BTW.

Now I'm off to see my mortgage advisor... but "I'll be Back."

 
At 12:09 PM, October 06, 2005, Blogger CyberKitten said...

Right.. and I'm back. That wasn't too bad...

I'll actually going to start at the end and then go back to the beginning.

I did wonder how long it would take getting around to discussing the Holocaust. Not long obviously.

Some time ago we had a Christian Debate discussion area @ work. It's closed now because the debates got to... heated. But anyway - my point...

I got into very hot water because I refused to use the word 'evil' to describe the Holocaust. Why? you may ask. Because I didn't want to use a word so heavy with religious baggage to describe something, however horrible and reprehensible, undertaken by people. As far as I can find out the definition of evil (or at least the one I settled on) was a 'sin against God'. As a fully paid up atheist I couldn't bring myself to use the word. That is not to say that I in any way whatsoever condone such appaling acts taken against European Jews and many others.

What we need to recognise and understand is that the Holocaust could not have happened without the active participation of thousands and the passive participation of millions. Hitler and the Nazis on their own could not have perpetrated such a great crime against humanity without such participation - and not just in Germany. Let it always stand as a lesson to all of us of what humanity is capable of.

 
At 12:24 PM, October 06, 2005, Blogger CyberKitten said...

Mary P said: "We're getting way off on a tangent here, but this is interesting! I am so glad you discovered this forum, CK; you're a lot of fun. Now I proceed to disagree with you all over the place..."

Thank you. I'm flattered. By this point someone has usually threatened my life or called me the worlds biggest fool - so all of this is a refreshing change...

Mary P said: "But then, I'm talking about a transcendent principle - "all people should be allowed a full range of life choices, regardless of colour, creed, orientation, or sex"

I actually agree with you. As a principle that's a fine and dandy one. But it's a principle of our Western, post Enlightenment, 21st Century Liberal Elite. It is neither universal nor transcendent. It is 'our' belief. Do we think its the best belief or at least better than others? Yes we do. Does that give us the right to impose this belief on others even if it makes them unhappy or even, in extreme circumstances, kills them in the process. No it doesn't.

To say that one belief is objectively 'better' than another begs the question 'What yard stick are you measuring them against?'.. and if it's YOUR yardstick... you see where I'm going with this I hope. If you're judging things from your viewpoint.. then it's hardly surprising that you judge that your viewpoint is 'better' than some others.

Unfortunate as it is - I am unaware of any rational independent measure of ethics, morality or principles. That really sucks - but there it is.

 
At 12:50 PM, October 06, 2005, Blogger CyberKitten said...

Well... this is mentally exhausting... (grin)

Q said: "Imagine that a new race evolves. I don't mean a new ethnic group, I mean a non-human race. (Surely such a thing is possible.) The new race is mentally and physically superior to us. They regard us as rivals in the hunt for scarce resources, and they begin to exterminate us."

Sounds like the 'plot' to Independence Day....

But I know what you're getting at... The 'problem' can be viewed from 2 viewpoints: Us & the Little Green Men (LGM)

Certainly from our point our extermination is a very bad thing. After all we're sentient beings, we love our children and help old ladies cross the road. We certainly don't deserve to be eradicated. We're the good guys.

From the LGM point of view we're vermin - and what's more we're vermin that's in their way.

Does either side have the moral high ground - and in the final analysis does it really matter? Frankly no, it doesn't. If such a scenario came to pass we'd probably be toast.. and the only judge of the actions of the LGM would be themselves (and they would probably hand out medals, clap each other on the back and put hunting trophies on their walls).

We have done pretty much the same thoughout our bloody rise to prominence on this planet - and given the opportunity will do it to other planets too. I think the phrase about stones and glass houses comes to mind.

Q said: "There is nothing inherently valuable about human life; it's valuable to us, but that's because we're human."

I actually beg to differ big time on this one. Human life is patently not inherently valuable to other humans. You just need to watch TV to see that every night on the news. Life is cheap. Actually very cheap. Many thousands of people die every day at the hands of fellow humans. Millions more are neglected to death - and most of the world (often including me) do nothing. If life was as valuable as you believe (and as I wished it was) we would see a lot less death, destruction, starvation and much else on the nightly news. It's a horrible indictment of humanity, but it goes on every day.

..and finally...

Q said: On what grounds do you assert that human society is the measure of morality?

Man is the Measure of All Things.

Socities are man made, as are Laws, codes of Ethics, Principles, Beliefs and Religions. How else are we to measure Morality? We measure it against man's ideals.

 
At 1:06 PM, October 06, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Cyberkitten:

Mary P. and I are still distinguishing between the principle (in this case, justice) which is recognized across cultural boundaries as a core value, and the specific definition of it in any given culture (in this case, sexual equality as a necessary component of justice).

But Mary P. and I have both taken the discussion another step. Now we're saying that there is a right definition of this value. (Not perhaps in the case of beauty … but who knows, maybe God has a transcendent definition of beauty too.)

As a result, I have to introduce a further distinction. A transcendent definition exists, objectively, against which any given culture's definition can be measured. But that transcendent definition is not directly known to us; we have to search it out.

In an earlier discussion, I indicated that I view Jesus as a merely human being. Nonetheless, Jesus functions as an exemplar for me. Why? Because of his profound moral insight, and the courageous and consistent way he lived in light of that insight.

A rationalist would reject my theocentric assumptions. But at least some rationalists would agree that a transcendent definition of morality exists and we must seek it out. A rationalist would try to get there by reason alone without feeling bound by religious tradition.

In fact, a rationalist would regard religious tradition as a hindrance. And I'm not far from that position myself; I believe Jesus had profound moral insight, but I still reject many of the Church's conservative moral norms.

This speaks to your quote, Man is the measure of all things. In practice, I believe that's true. We — "Man" — must seek out moral truth, whether by reason alone or through spiritual insight or by some other means.

But out there, just beyond Man's grasp, is that moral truth that transcends Man. We neither create it nor modify it; our part is to uncover it and submit to it.

I wasn't expecting the dialogue to go in the direction it has. I thought we all agreed on the existence of objective moral standards, but disagreed on their origins. I assumed too much. Instead I find myself trying to persuade you that an objective moral standard exists … the assumption on which my post was founded.
Q

 
At 1:44 PM, October 06, 2005, Blogger CyberKitten said...

Q. Have you read Plato? He said something similar about transcendent 'ideals' (IIRC) which sounds a lot like what I think you're getting at. Never did get on much with Plato though. His postulation of 'ideal forms' existing in some trnscendent realm always left me cold. How did he know such things existed? Where did they come from?

You said: "A transcendent definition exists, objectively, against which any given culture's definition can be measured. But that transcendent definition is not directly known to us; we have to search it out."

If such a definition is not 'directly known' (can you explain what you mean by that) to us how do you know it exists? You put forward the idea and then provide no evidence. Just what exactly is the transcendent defintion? Where is it? How does it exist (it's an idea after all) separate from us? I'm presuming you mean that the ideal exists within God? Obviously I cannot agree with that assumption.

You said that: sexual equality is necessary component of justice

I agree with you. However, how can we propergate such an idea when the Catholic Church rejects it? Indeed a fair proportion of Christian Churches reject the idea of sexual equality. This is hardly a good example of transendent values - especially if they are being mentioned in any way related to God.

You said: "Instead I find myself trying to persuade you that an objective moral standard exists … the assumption on which my post was founded."

Unfortunately (and I do actually mean that) I really don't believe that there are any objective moral standards. You only have to look back in our own societies to see how morality has changed over time. Today's morality is yesterday's hanging offence and tomorrow's sniggering in the playground. We all have an idea of what morality should be in an ideal world - but that doesn't make it so and it doesn't make us right.

I can't help feeling that I'm giving you a hard time & I really don't mean to.

Sorry.

 
At 5:08 PM, October 06, 2005, Blogger Juggling Mother said...

Ah ha, a comment by mary P on Aginoths blog just reminded me that I could indeed take someones life in cold blood.

Euthanasia (or indeed suicide) should be a human right in my book. Yes I would happily give that injection.

i think this may need to be kept for another day though;-)

WV: ixlcxxjx - now that must be a crime against vowels rights!

 
At 9:35 PM, October 06, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Cyberkitten:
I suppose you're giving me a hard time. You haven't exactly rolled over to concede that I've overwhelmed you with the compelling logic of my position.

We've clearly established that you don't believe in objective moral standards. Since I assumed in my post that we were agreed on that point, you didn't find my post persuasive. I don't think there's anywhere to go from here … until such time as I revisit the subject from a fresh perspective, as I inevitably will.

But I will briefly respond to this point:

You said that: sexual equality is necessary component of justice. I agree with you. However … a fair proportion of Christian Churches reject the idea of sexual equality. This is hardly a good example of transendent values - especially if they are being mentioned in any way related to God.

Ghandi once said, "The reason I am not a Christian is, Christians." His point was that Jesus himself is profoundly appealing, but Jesus' followers are terribly off-putting.

That might sound like an indefensible position, but have you ever read the Gospels? They contain layers of theological overlay, admittedly. Still, as I remarked to Aaron earlier, the voice of Jesus is distinctive enough to cut through the dogma and grab you by the throat even now, 2,000 years after he proclaimed his message.

I invite you to search the Gospels. You won't find a single statement of Jesus that demeans women (quite the contrary!), or expresses contempt for homosexuals (which Aaron previously identified as a black mark on the Church's record).

There are texts which you might take offence at, to be sure. If you present me with an actual text from one of the Gospels, I'll be happy to discuss it with you.

I know this doesn't address your real point — that the values I profess are not universally accepted — but we've already discussed that subject in detail and we're beginning to go round in circles.
Q

 
At 3:29 AM, October 07, 2005, Blogger CyberKitten said...

I'm more than happy to discuss the Gospels with you. Maybe you should post a Blog about them & see where it leads rather than tagging the discussion onto this one?

 
At 5:19 AM, October 07, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

You're right, of course. But from my perspective, that was a reasonable response to your remarks about the Church's attitude toward sexual equality.

I have been thinking about beginning a series of posts on the Gospels. See the new post.
Q

 

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