Monday, October 26, 2009

Altruism, A Few More Comments

Storm Jingram requested that I expound on my criticism of Altruism in my last post.

Inherent to calling any act an "altruistic" one, is the belief that the act has no value to the actor. It is easy to conceive that many "atruistic" acts are indirectly beneficial, such as building a good reputation or interpersonal trust, but I've helped people out before in secret and still felt a rush of joy. Our minds may simply be hardwired to enjoy simple acts of kindness.

The problem with Altruism and other forms of morality is that there is an implicit compulsion to do those acts. It's not that you simply enjoy doing them, it's that you MUST do them if you are to be a "good" person. People will cast shame on people who don't practice "altruism". Isn't it a little ironic to use manipulation to coerce acts that produce happiness? This compulsion, this guilt, drains the joy out of the act. In the end, we are left with less kindness and less joy.

Replace "You Must" with "You Can" and it will make all the difference.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Altruism, Why Is This a Virtue?

Why is altruism a virtue? Defined as the act of doing for others when no reward is apparent. This idea is not just silly, it's damaging. Its effect on us all is recidivistic.

Inherent to the definition is that altruistic acts have no reward. If an elderly woman drops an object and I help her pick it up, have I suffered loss? Have I lost value to myself only to help her out? Can I not be motivated by joy? Can I love my neighbor, not out of moral compulsion, but because the act itself is inextricably linked to the reward of joy? If we continue to obsess that there is no reward then we kill the motivation to love. Altruism is a cancer.

What about heroism? Can we not be devoted to people, to a cause, with such euphoric passion that danger fades as a pressing concern? An idea can be more valuable than our lives. Why have we deified death as the ultimate arbiter of our actions? Remember that great man from history who changed the world because he made certain of his safety at all times? Of course not. The opposite of danger is not safety, it's boredom. Why would we discourage heroism by claiming it has no reward?

Altruism is a sham, and it blinds us to the possibilities of the human experience.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Another Nice Example of Moral Manipulation

Sam Kiley of the British paper The Times, illustrates in this article an example of moral manipulation when it comes to procuring aid for Africa.

Aid organisations and the media have inflated the scale of subsequent horror, regardless of the truth. This year the International Rescue Committee released data from its Democratic Republic of the Congo mortality survey. “Congo’s war and aftermath have killed 5.4 million,” The Washington Post yelled, quoting the IRC. Humbug.

The IRC isn’t deliberately lying, neither was the Post. But the idea that 5.4 million people have died as a result of war in Congo is nonsense. It needs to be peddled to help to generate funds to relieve the real and hideous suffering of Congo’s population, but nonsense it remains. As the IRC admits: “Less than 10 per cent of all deaths were due to violence, with most attributed to easily preventable and treatable conditions such as malaria, diarrhoea, pneumonia and malnutrition.”

The IRC is saying, really, that the Congolese are dying because they are poor. Recent work by AndrĂ© Lambert and Louis LohlĂ©-Tart shows that the rising mortality rate predates the wars there. But combine “war’’ with “millions dead’’ and you have a donation-winning headline We all do it. We use statistics to highlight the horrors in Africa to drive home the unbelievable scale of the continent’s problems. But that’s the problem: the scale has become unbelievable. Twenty-three million? From my experience of two decades’ reporting from Africa, I can say with absolute confidence that this is humbug. Did anyone count them? No.

Here in lies the problem with making a moral plea. If at first you don't succeed at sufficiently manipulating people's behavior, exaggerate. Employ some shock and awe. The flip side, as he states is that the numbers become unbelievable. When we exaggerate a moral claim, we risk that our audience rejects us carte blanche. Instead of realizing that we are exaggerating they will think we are wrong. So lunacy becomes acceptable and the truth becomes offensive.

P.S. Go back and read the article, because he does make some solid points about the use of food aid in Africa.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Spinning our Wheels

After a good talk with a good friend last night, I was convinced to break down my comments on morality and manipulation a little more. Hopefully, a few concise posts will help more understand.

Conclusion: Any concept that we are making moral progress or that humanity is moving towards some more perfect moral existence is false.

First, all morality is based on presuppositions. Thanks to some of our diligent atheist friends we know that there is no ultimate truth. All of these presuppositions are subject to doubt. None, are self-evident. These moral truths are only true because we choose to believe the presuppositions. These moral truths are only as true as we want them to be.

Secondly, the selection process of morals is endemically corrupted by the desire for power and status. Either the moral behavior serves the interest of the one making the argument, or the very act of making a successful moral argument serves to give status to the talented orator. Moral truths are not chosen through an altruistic search for truth, but to serve the interests of individuals. How can they be finding truth, when there is no truth?

No utopia, based on moral enlightenment, can ever come. Our human experience is becoming more comfortable, but it is not becoming more moral.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

George Will Sees the Manipulation

In his Sunday column, columnist George Will takes note of the poor discourse on health care/insurance in this country. Its a clash of rights claims and moral claims. "We have a right to...and if you don't see this self-evident truth then you are a..." Insert expletive here.

The use of moral absolutes has become so diluted and abused that it's not working anymore. What once held significant manipulative sway, just doesn't pack the same punch. We can see their manipulations from a mile away and we're having none of it. Morality is manipulation.

Here's Mr. Will,

If our vocabulary is composed exclusively of references to rights, aka entitlements, we are condemned to endless jostling among elbow-throwing individuals irritably determined to protect, or enlarge, the boundaries of their rights. Among such people, all political discourse tends to be distilled to what Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School calls "rights talk."

Witness the inability of people nowadays to recommend this or that health care policy as merely wise or just. Each proposal must be invested with the dignity of a right. And since not all proposals are compatible, you have not merely differences of opinion but apocalyptic clashes of rights.

Rights talk is inherently aggressive, even imperial; it tends toward moral inflation and militates against accommodation. Rights talkers, with their inner monologues of pre-emptive resentments, work themselves into a simmering state of annoyed vigilance against any limits on their willfulness. To rights talkers, life -- always and everywhere -- is unbearably congested with insufferable people impertinently rights talking, and behaving, the way you and I of course have a real right to.

Hmmm..I wonder why would people throw elbows to expand their rights? It couldn't be that they are using morality as a tool of manipulation to gain more power and status?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Calm Down About Biblical Inerrancy

This week I glanced through a column critiquing the Bible and Christianity, mostly silly, but the comments at the bottom revealed the unfortunate consequence of Evangelical Christianity's exaggeration of biblical inerrancy. Minor quibbles with certain passages had led several people to abandon their faith. The abuse of what should be a matter for faith has set up Christianity in a continual battle with scientists and secular historians. To prove biblical inerrancy is an extraordinary task, and cracks in this sweeping assumption lead thousands to shattered faiths.

Is the Bible inerrant? That is, are there errors? I have no idea because I'm not a biblical historian or theologian. My faith is that the message that God intended for us to receive has not been mangled. The key word being faith. I believe in a benevolent God who communicates with mankind first and foremost. My faith in the scriptures flows from that initial assumption secondly. Any minor discrepancy with historic records is no threat to my faith in the intent of scripture.

The problem with many evangelicals is flipping this equation around. Their faith in a benevolent God flows from their belief in inerrant scriptures. They live their lives as if the Bible were scientifically provable, and only out of that proof can they then believe in God. The Bible is true, therefore God exists. This proof relies on scientists, theologians, historians, interpreters, anthropologists, and literary analysis. It's a complex web of assumptions that exposes the faith of a biblical "primacist" to attack on thousands of points. It's unstable.

My view can be represented as such:

1. Assume God
2. If God, then A, B, C,....

The view of the biblical premacist can be represented as such:

1. Assume A, B, C, D, E,...Z...
2. If A through Z are all true, then God.

If doubt is cast on any of the assumptions by the biblical premacist, their belief in God would logically fail. To maintain their faith in God, the biblical premacist is placed in the untenable position of being anti-science or anti-historian. I believe this is why so many Christians consider evolution as an existential threat to Christianity. Because if page 1 is proved false, then pages 2-1000 are false as well and God himself is a fraud.

Placing God at the beginning of the equation makes attacks on historical accuracy or the literal interpretation of the Genesis account, meaningless. The simple beginning "God is" is infallible. What about science? Poppycock. Prove to me that the universe can be objectively ascertained. Prove to me a materialist universe. More simply, prove to me that what I see is all there is. These are workable assumptions for living, but they are silent on the existence of God.

Go one step further and believe that God is loving and communicates with us. What better way than to send the very essence of himself to live and die an insuperably heroic, passionate, and compassionate life to let us know that we can indeed warm ourselves in the glow of his perfect love.

"But the geneology on pg. 213 doesn't really work out if you assume..." blah, blah, blah, yawn.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?

Mark Regnerus, a sociologist from the University of Texas, wrote this piece in Christianity Today a few months back titled "The Case for Early Marriage". In it he points out the absurdity of promoting abstinence and delayed marriage for young Christians. This is something that I have felt for quite some time.

There are consequences to our current culture of wait, and as an economist I look for incentives. The incentives in delayed marriage not only make abstinence or chastity a longer burden, but it also changes the thought processes of young people.

If a young Christian woman believes that marriage is many years off, why would she limit her dating life to stable and pious men? Dating, without the expectation of marriage, is simply fun. Girls will be attracted to young men who are simply fun.

Unfortunately, what we are training young Christian men to be is anything but fun for young Christian women. We teach them to control their passions, making them dull. When marriage is many years off, what incentive do they have to grow up? Why put down the Playstation to study or get a job? Why have a girlfriend if you don't plan to have sex and don't plan to marry her?

Of course, these are generalities, and I don't want to focus merely on the deleterious effects of these incentives. There is the issue of passion and the human experience.

For thousands of years, most every society (any historians please correct me if I'm wrong) had young marriage. It was either young arranged marriage or young romantic marriage. Either way, they were young. Not only is it apparent from our physical urges and the lower birth complications for younger women, but the romantic notions in youth seem to imply we were meant for young love, young marriage, and young reproduction.

While the Evangelical Christian world is telling kids to wait for sex, the secular world is telling them to wait for love. Either way, the message is clear: Squelch your passions, and give into the dullness of sensibility.

These most powerful human sentiments can be the most wonderful and beautiful things. but we are told to crush them, subdue them, wait, wait, wait, and then wait some more. Wait until your heart is jaded and the love you find is pleasant but modest. Deny those sexual urges, and when you fail, feel horrible, feel guilty. Wait until you've established a career, because who needs love and passion when you can afford a comfortable lifestyle?

Where have all the real men gone? Where have all the true ladies gone? We bury them with wait.

C.S. Lewis in his book "The Abolition of Man" has a great passage that relates:

"And all the time--such is the tragi-comedy of our situation--we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more 'drive', or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or 'creativity'. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful."

Update: A reader has a blog mostly dedicated to the subject - The Unorthodox Marriage

Monday, October 5, 2009

Understanding Paul

I've written a few posts now about Christianity without much mention of scripture, so here it is. My favorite book in the Bible, being Romans, is often difficult to understand, but I have found it extremely enjoyable to reread over and over again. Every time I'm exposed to a new philosophy I go back and find it even more compelling than the last time.

First, let me provide a couple definitions - "the law" - the moral system passed down in the Jewish tradition - "sin" - error as a result of man's inherent naivete/hubris

In Romans 7: 7-11, Paul captures the points I've been making about the failure of morality:

"What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, 'Do not covet.' But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire."

Paul is stating that the focus on the law took his eyes off of understanding what is beneficial and instead focused it on the law itself. The moral law itself was leading him to do that which is not beneficial. He continues...

"For apart from law, sin is dead. Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death."

He goes on in verses 14-24 to speak how he struggles in a tug of war between the good that he can see and sense, but he is bound by the slavery to the law.

14 "We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15I do not understand what I do. 16For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good." [He struggles to do the good that he can sense]...18.."For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out."

23 "but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members." [He can see what is beneficial, but morality works against that.]

and finally, in verses 24 through 8:1-4, he begins to show us the way out.

What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God - through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God's law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus [no longer bound by morality], because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit"

The law, or morality, is no longer necessary because Christ has demostrated that everything the law has tried to manipulate us into doing could be done without it. Perfect goodness, doesn't need morality, only humility.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

A Christian Should be a Skeptic

It has been ingrained in the minds of many anti-intellectual Christians to fear the words doubt and skepticism, but we are damaging ourselves by not employing them more often. Not only do we fail to deepen our own faith, but we hurt our desire for intimacy with God by not being suspicious of what "the world" as it is called, teaches us.

The renowned skeptic, Neitzsche, says in his "Beyond Good and Evil":

"All the moralities that address themselves to the individual, for the sake of his "happiness", as one says - what are they but counsels for behavior in relation to the degree of dangerousness in which the individual lives with himself; recipes against his passions, his good and bad inclinations...little and great prudences and artifices that exude the nook odor of old nostrums and of the wisdom of old women"

Modern Evangelical Christian culture teaches us to nudge each other, especially our kids, towards a higher "morality" by appealing to self interest. The underlying premise being that achieving Christian morality leads to a higher level of happiness. Don't look at girls that way or you will ruin your future marriage. Don't dress like that or all the dregs and perverts will fool you and seduce you. I think that Neitzsche captures this situation pretty well.

I have met plenty of Christians, and experienced personally for myself, who wondered why they were not that happy even though they had managed to quell many of their passions and were living according to much of the Christian code of morality. The problem is simple, and I will use the moral formula from an earlier post again.

A is true, and B is true, so action C is a moral behavior.

The underlying assumption that the Christian has made is that obeying the moral constraint leads to happiness. This is the folly. The Christian must believe that behavior C is beneficial on it's own. While many Christians will claim that they believe that C is indeed beneficial, they also simultaneously believe that NOT C is also beneficial. This belief that C and NOT C are both beneficial is the real problem. It is not a lack of faith in A and B, but a lack of skepticism on NOT C.

As an example:

I hate cauliflower and I love steak. Do I need will power to choose steak over cauliflower? Not at all. I know that I like steak more than cauliflower in every possible situation. I also like Dr. Pepper. I like it too much and drink it too often. In fact, I'm on a no Dr.Pepper diet currently. I like the weight I lose when I quit drinking Dr. Pepper, but I also really like the taste of it. I've gone on and off Dr. Pepper several times over the last ten years, but I've obviously never quit forever.

My problem is that both drinking it and not drinking provides happiness (or utility), but the rewards are mutually exclusive. As long as Dr. Pepper remains my indulgence of choice and my remedy for tiredness, its grip will stay tight. Does it really wake me up? Is it really as refreshing as I think or has clever marketing made me believe this? Is it a placebo effect? I'm not sure, but I know that skepticism is my way out.

Now to the main point. In my lifetime the presentation of consequence-free and unbridled sexual activity has been one of the most pervasive points of contention. Is it true? We are presented with information that as long as we use protection it's only our moral hangups that prevent us from enjoying this unequaled pleasure. How can we know that the self interest of the "authorities" isn't clouding their analysis? Does it give them power and status for us to believe them?

Much like the Christian will at times get a rush of euphoria from conquering a sinful behavior, is it also possible that the status and ego boost given to us through a sexual conquest really mask a growing emptiness. Much like the Christian who is purging sinful desires in hopes of recapturing that temporary bliss, is the sexual conquistador on the same path, hoping that the next conquest will satiate that growing sense of purposelessness? Is it an endless path of constantly chasing the next temporary high?

The rest of the world is skeptical of Christian ideals, but are we skeptical of theirs? Do we actively tear down what they preach? Do we demand proof? Should we hide our children from "the world" or should we mock its self serving manipulation?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Morality is Manipulation, Part II

In part I, discussed how an individual can break down moral boundaries by casting doubt on the underlying presuppositions. Now for the manipulation. Not only are morals susceptible from within a person, they are suspectible to attack from outside as well.

Using the same formula as before:

A is true, and B is true, so action C is a moral behavior.

Not every person has the same mental capacity or the same zeal for rigorous intellectual pursuit of consistent logical behavior. Because of this, some are better at changing minds and others are more likely to have their minds changed. Those who are better I will call "authorities" and those who have their minds changed I will call "followers".

The problem is that authorities are not altruistic, and in regards to spreading the one objectively true morality (A and B) they may balk because it doesn't serve their interests or preferences. If it is in the interest of authority figure X that follower Y not practice behavior C, X will use its authority power to persuade Y not to practice behavior C. Moral laws break down because they do not serve the interest of the authorities. Follower Y is not aware that they are serving the interest of authority figure X, only that the authority figures makes sense.

Jesus saves his anger for authority figures alone. The Pharisees and the "Teachers of the Law" lord their expertise over their people and coerce them to beleive and practice things that serve to maintain the status, power, and wealth of the authority figures. Jesus eviscerates them on several occassions. As for today we have "name it and claim it" preachers, media propagandists, and Global Warming theorists :)

Other forms of blatant manipulation come to mind, but we all, in subtle ways practice this. Parenting is the profession of this practice. How do I get my son not to hit the other son? Moral imperitive. How do I keep them out of the street? A car WILL hit you (with high probability). It's exaggeration, manipulation, and a whole menagerie of half-truths and cliches. If anyone has any better ideas please let me know.

Morality breaks down because talents are dispersed. If we assume that the strong will accumulate more resources by the sweat of their brow, and that the smart and industrious will join them by focusing their faculties, then we must accept that the crafty and surreptitious will do it by changing our morals through manipulation.