Tuesday, August 9, 2011

No, YOU Shut Up! - What is Good, Baby Don't Hurt Me

This is part 2 of my response to part 2 of Justin's response to my response to his question. Just read this if you want to read the full post to which I am responding.
Yet, you have not accounted for why it would be good for humanity to survive. You assume we ought to.
Well, that's a separate question though, isn't it? I could go into many reasons why I think it should . The most basic reason is that as a human, it's hardwired into my DNA to make my species want to continue on beyond me. Any species that didn't develop that basic instinct must not have gotten very far. I could give other reasons, of course. I mean, without us, who the hell is going to make beer, for instance? And who's gonna drink it? Think about it!
This assumption is not arrived at by way of reason.
I didn't really have to strain my brain all that hard to come up with the reason above. Keep reading for more reasoning.
The brick mill owner who enslaves his workers has every reason to do so in light of the profits cheap labor helps him bring in. He does not offend reason by enslaving people.. his end is profit and cheap labor simply makes sense.
This is why religion makes me sad. Do you really want to stand by that statement? You can't think of how reason could make him see the error of his ways? Again, I could elaborate, but let me just give a couple reasons why slavery is bad. If we live in a world where slavery is tolerable, then who's to say that you won't one day be a slave? Also, look at the long-term impacts of slavery just in this country alone - a price which we all pay for in some way (some much, much more than others though, of course). I mean, think of all the brilliant African Americans who could have gone on to create and invent all sorts of things to help our society, but they never even got a chance to get an education as a result of the grip of slavery that lingered long after it was legally abolished.

If this brick mill owner were to tell me that he doesn't offend reason, then I'd say that his reasoning is incredibly short-sighted and based more on selfishness than reason.

It's funny that you would mention slavery though. Ever read the works of Frederick Douglass? He claimed that the worst slavemasters were the ones who were religious. In other words, I do not accept your assertion that the error of slavery can't be deduced through reason alone, and I think that if one were to take a broad view of the issue, religious faith has a pretty poor track record of leading people to discovering the evils of slavery.
People ought not be valued only for their utility. The life of a child ought not be compromised for the sake of profit. Reason does not tell me this; I assume it. And without that assumption, I can reason myself to just about anything.
I agree that people can reason themselves into just about anything if they start with the conclusion and then work their way backward. I disagree that you can't use reasons to conclude these things, and I find it both false and distressing to think that we need to believe things in which there is no evidence (have faith) in order to figure it out.
You pointed out a handful of the atrocities humanity has perpetrated upon itself in your post. All of these things are tragic for the very reason that they are a departure from basic value.
Of course, but what made them depart from basic value? Because their faith told them that they'd have rewards after they die if they do - even though there wasn't any evidence for that. That was my point of bringing them up, and this point does nothing to contradict what my point was - that faith so easily motivates evil. If those people did not believe that their evil deeds would grant them rewards in the afterlife, then what other reason would they have for doing them?
You are suggesting that, regardless of it’s strategic impact, something about using flying planes into populated areas is bad. Yet you’ve not given me a foundational reason to think so.
I used the kamikazes because by that point, they didn't have much actual hope in winning the war, so it was only a good strategy in the sense that it only created terror and cost more lives. I suppose a kamikaze attack could be a good thing if you're fighting for a good cause and it could actually lead to victory. You know, like that drunk dude in Independence Day.

But here's the thing, and I apologize if I'm bringing a lot of baggage from debates/conversations I've had with other Christians. Even if you're right, and I haven't given you a "foundational reason" you're still nowhere near having one yourself beyond simply asserting that you do. I mean, I could say that atheism is better because it provides us laser guns for the inevitable alien invasion, but until I start showing you some laser guns and evidence of the oncoming alien invasion, it's a pretty moot point, isn't it?
Alongside the travesties you cited, consider some even greater and more pervasive atrocities propagated by the species we ought to preserve…What makes such a species worth preserving?
Because that's hardly the whole picture of what we've done and what we're capable of accomplishing. We've also gone to the moon, ya know. I think that any species that can do that can do so much more, and all too often, faith is what stands in the way of us living up to our true potential. (See the long history of faith's battles against scientific discovery.)
After years and years of war between cylons (created by humanity) and humanity, the cylon asks if humanity has ever asked itself why it deserved to survive… poignantly, the commander does not have an answer.
I applied for that Captain of a Spaceship position, but I couldn't get in because of politics. I would have had an answer for them.
But you didn’t figure it out. “I should help blind women” is not a conclusion you came to after years of study and careful consideration of societal norms and/or cost-benefit analysis.
Aren't you turning the idea of reason into something unnecessarily convoluted? Yesterday I decided to have a big breakfast because I knew that I wouldn't have lunch until much later than usual. I didn't sit around the house drawing up charts and graphs in order to reach this conclusion - and I didn't need years of study to reason that it was good to help a blind woman.
“whatever is helpful for the greatest number of people is what’s good.” I honestly don’t understand this and could use an example of where or how you see this played out. It sounds like the kind of thing that could spell trouble for minority groups like the elderly, who make up only about 8% of the earth’s population and take a great deal of money, time and energy to care for. Can you please elaborate?
It could only be trouble for groups like the elderly if you don't take into account the fact that we're all going to be old some day if we live long enough. As for minority groups, you'd have to ignore the fact that they are part of our society and what effects them ultimately effects all of us in the long run. Will there be situations where some people might be hurt in order to benefit the group? Unfortunately, the answer to this is yes, but I'd wager that you'd be willing to let an old man die if it saved the lives of a thousand other people.

Still, I'd rather use reasoning to make those tough choices than wait for some god to tell me what's what - or better put, some PERSON to tell me what the god said is what.

22 comments:

Matthew said...

I know you didn't say this was the case, but the discussion seems to be polarized into terms of faith vs logic. While I agree that logic is superior to faith, I just want to point out that the two are not always clearly distinct. Most decisions are a combination of reason, faith and/or assumption. Although you dismiss it as selfishness, Justin is right that the brick factory owner is using logic. You just disagree with the ethics behind that logic, and his assumptions about what is *best*. The 911 hijackers used logic too. They made a calculated risk to sacrifice their lives for a reward in the afterlife (assuming this was their motivation... not sure I actually believe it was or not). You (and I) just think their logic was flawed because it was based in an unfounded assumption based on their faith. Likewise, conclusion based entirely on reason and logic, yet devoid of faith can still be incorrect. I think this is less likely than a decision based entirely on faith, but logic is not immune from error. Ted Kaczynski and PETA come to mind.

On the other side of the coin, you state that faith has the strong potential for producing evil. Since, reason/logic can also produce evil, why is reason and logic any better? Is it simply a matter of probability? Faith is more likely to produce evil than reason alone? How do you know this?

In terms of forming an ethic, it seems to me that your answer of, "faith is unncessary" is the best answer but it doesn't get us to why reason/logic devoid of faith is any better.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

Good points.

I would say that faith is worse because faith is all too often a conversation stopper. Why do I do X? Because God said so, that's why! Whereas if a person solely uses reason, it's at least more likely to be questioned and analyzed.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

Although you dismiss it as selfishness, Justin is right that the brick factory owner is using logic.

True, but my point was to debunk this statement:

"He does not offend reason by enslaving people."

I'm saying that it's absurd to say that reason can't give a foundation for determining what is good and what isn't.

Brandon said...

I'm somewhat surprised there's no mention here of Jeremy Bentham and Utilitarianism. That seems to be what you're proposing, yes? Seems an explanation of Bentham's philosophy or Utilitarianism as a whole would better answer Justin's question.

I'd also like to propose that there's murky water when you try to equate (though perhaps this isn't what you were trying to do) evolutionary tenancies with Good. Evolution is necessarily random (otherwise you have some sort of creationist hybrid). A common mistake is saying because evolution works through Survival of the Fittest, and fittest must mean best, or most deserving, then whoever has survived was "supposed" to survive, which is silly. Because we have in us a drive for our species to survive does not have anything to do with whether it's "good" for us to survive or not. Or at least it seems to me.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

there's no mention here of Jeremy Bentham and Utilitarianism

Honestly? I'm unfamiliar with him/it.

Evolution is necessarily random

Not really. The only "random" thing about it is the mutations. If you want to say "unguided", then I'd agree with that.

Because we have in us a drive for our species to survive does not have anything to do with whether it's "good" for us to survive or not.

Fair point, but I did give some other reasons why I think we should survive at the end of my post. As for pointing out our "drive to survive", that was just to illustrate that there's something deep down in us that makes us want to seek what's good that doesn't require a supernatural explanation.

Brandon said...

Just quickly looking up utilitarianism on wikipedia, the first line is "Utilitarianism is an ethical creaturistic theory holding that the right course of action is the one that maximizes the overall "good" consequences of the action." and a few sentences later it says " Bentham, who was the most influential proponent of this idealogy, i believe, used the language of "Greatest possible Happiness", so would have said something like it is good "whatever provides the greatest possible happiness for the greatest number of people". Later he modified that and included the least amount of suffering for all things which are able to suffer.

This is really influential and important in the philosophy of ethics. I figured you were familiar with it. I actually thought that's what you were directly referring to when you said "whatever is helpful for the greatest number of people is what’s good."

I'll be happy to concede to Unguided, though I still feel happy with random, for if it's not random, then there is a goal or purpose, perhaps it's just semantics, though.

As for the survival of the fittest comment, that was mostly just me being annoyed with people who use survival of the fittest to justify oppression of the unfittest. That's not what you were doing; i still wanted to point it out though.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

Good stuff, Brandon. Thanks for your feedback. I should definitely look into it, and while I wasn't familiar with the idea, I've obviously read/heard from people who were influenced by it - enough so to influence me.

Matthew said...

Brandon,

Some technical clarification... The selection part of "natural selection" and "sexual selection" implies that the evolution of a species is not random. Something is being selected for through a natural (unguided) mechanism. That mechanism is believed to be random genetic mutation. However, the environment often favors a specific form or function. It is not random chance that fish, and sea dwelling mammals both have a similar body shape. There is a strong selective pressure for hydrodynamics and fin shaped appendages. But, the underlying genetics that produce very similar body styles is quite different between fish and sea mammals. The genetics of each group arose through random mutation, but only individuals with a very specific body style are selected for. Thus, you see two genetically distinct groups who have each evolved a specific trait independently, suggesting that evolution is not random, even though the underlying mechanism may be.

as for utilitarianism, to borrow an example from Justin... wouldn't it be best for the largest number of people in a society to institute a euthanasia policy at some age above productive and/or childbearing years? Benefiting the heard sounds great until you ask a specific person to harm themselves for the greater good.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

I realize that this was directed at Brandon, but...

wouldn't it be best for the largest number of people in a society to institute a euthanasia policy at some age above productive and/or childbearing years

There are all kinds of ways of being productive. If an old person is only capable of sitting around and telling old stories, they're still providing something useful to others.

I like the "greatest happiness for the greatest number of people" idea. I can't see how offing grandmas and grandpas left and right would lead to anybody's happiness.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

Oh, and Matt, if you scientists are so smart, how come I don't have a flying car? Huh? Gotcha!

Matthew said...

Lance,

Can you agree that the "greatest happiness for the greatest number of people" is entirely subjective if not impossible to define? Who is to say what will produce the greatest happiness?

IMO this ethic is even worse than faith. Allow me to put words in your mouth.

me: Why do I do X?
you: Because it makes everyone else happy, that's why!
me: So what? it makes me/my family/my minority group miserable.
you: but there are only a few of you. It will benefit everyone else!


Talk about a conversation stopper.

Oh, RE flying cars... I told you before, they are called airplanes. Check and mate.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

Can you agree that the "greatest happiness for the greatest number of people" is entirely subjective if not impossible to define?

Yes, but it's only a starting point. From there, we use reason to figure out some consensus and the best way to get there. With faith, it's all about following the will of something that some authority figure who claims to speak for a magical being.

Oh, RE flying cars... I told you before, they are called airplanes. Check and mate.

OH YEAH? Well why don't I have an airplane then, huh? And why don't I see half-car/half-airplanes anywhere?

Matthew said...

Yes, but it's only a starting point. From there, we use reason to figure out some consensus and the best way to get there. With faith, it's all about following the will of something that some authority figure who claims to speak for a magical being.

I don't think faith always works that way. Surely it does in some communities, but no one person has a monopoly on divine revelation. For most people, faith is a starting point too. From there, they use reason to figure out a consensus and the best way to get there.

OH YEAH? Well why don't I have an airplane then, huh? And why don't I see half-car/half-airplanes anywhere?

Because you are a communist hippy teacher and you don't make enough money. And the legislators decided that emissions from half-car/half-airplanes were too high and mass production would be bad for the majority of the population.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

I don't think faith always works that way. Surely it does in some communities, but no one person has a monopoly on divine revelation. For most people, faith is a starting point too. From there, they use reason to figure out a consensus and the best way to get there.

Fair point. Again, this comes back to my original objection to the statement that "faith is bad". It's just too simple. However, I still think that reason is superior to faith, and ultimately, I reject Justin's main thesis that reason cannot bring us to reasons why we should do good for our fellow human beings.

Matthew said...

agreed.

It's been fun reading this back and forth. I'm curious how Justin will address the universal truth question.

Lance Christian Johnson said...

My guess? He will curl up into the fetal position and wet himself. That's what I'm counting on happening.

rickc said...

Hey there,

I appreciate the conversation on both these sights. I've been a fan of Justin's music for quite a long time and I actually think I remember going back and forth with you on his message board years ago. But I like your willingness to at least discuss the issues.

I just wanted to make a few observations. It seems to me, and you can tell me if I'm wrong about this, that your main beef seems to be with religion/faith stopping people from asking hard questions, the pursuit of knowledge or something similar to that. Or that, ultimately, faith stops the thinking process because all these people of faith just say 'goddidit' and for them that ends the conversation. But does this necessarily need to be the case? I think of Francis Collins who was the head of the Human Genome project for 15 as an example. He is a man of faith but it doesn't seem to have hindered his ability to ask question and pursue scientific goals.

And I would grant your point that for the most part 'faith' is unnecessary for very many goals. Does Dr. Collins need faith to do his work? By no means, but it also doesn't seem to hinder him in his pursuit of knowledge, and could in fact give him motivation for his pursuit.

Also, by 'faith' do you mean it as a synonym for religious belief? That seems to be what I'm picking up. Because I would like to say that everyone operates on some kind of faith. I mean, take the origin of the universe. Some well known scientist believe in a multi-verse though we have no way of knowing that it's correct. So, until we have proven it, they are operating on a sort of faith that it's there. Because let's face it, there are just some things that science can't ultimately answer. You are an atheist. Ok, well enough, but are you an atheist with some modicum of faith that you're right about there being no God/gods?

It does trouble me how religion really does seem to stop a lot of people from critically thinking about issues. I see documentaries interviewing Christians or other religious leaders and I'm often just embarrassed for them. I mean, even Paul gave his readers the advice not to just listen to anything that comes to them but to 'Test them all, and hold onto what is good, reject every kind of evil" (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22). Would you be more comfortable with someone who practiced their faith with that in mind?

I ask because faith/religion doesn't seem to me to be just about a list of rights and wrongs or do's and don'ts, but belief about ultimate reality and our destiny beyond the life lived. Does that belief inform decisions about how to behave, it certainly can, but that is not the end of it. But you repeatedly go back to the idea that you don't need a divine being to tell you how to behave. And I agree with you and I think Christian theology would probably agree with you as well (see Romans 1-3). But religion seems to also want to get beyond simple doing right and doing wrong. Whether it's goal is harmony with the universe and attaining ultimately enlightenment or to be set right with their creator, the belief goes beyond a set of rules.

Now, I realize that many people do reduce it to just that, and many have used it for justifying evil acts. But I think that's why Justin was pointing out that we, as people, can use a lot of things to justify evil acts.

rickc said...

It also seems that he was trying to point out that there is a point beyond mere reason where one stops and questions the rightness or wrongness of his or her actions. You give the example of one person dying for 1,000 and that certainly seems a reasonable action, but just because reason dictates that it is the best possible course doesn't make the taking of that one life good by any means. Perhaps the sacrifice is good, but I certainly still wouldn't want to be the person that pulls the trigger. So it seems, that beyond reason, there is something that pulls at our heart strings about what is good and evil.

Anyway, those are just some questions and thoughts. Again, I appreciate you guys going back and forth, I like reading the two of you and I'm glad that faith hasn't been the conversation stopper here.

I also like your comments on the comics. I'm a huge fan but I'm living overseas and it's pretty hard to buy comics here. I haven't been collecting for a few years and was wondering your opinion of the Planet Hulk saga a few years ago and whether it's worth picking up on the Marvel app for ipad. Or if you have any suggestions about a good story arch in the last 3 years that would be great.
Be well
Rick

Lance Christian Johnson said...

Thanks for the comments, Rick. Unfortunately, I missed out on "Planet Hulk" but I definitely know that it has its fans!

rickc said...

Lance, I had tried to post twice. The first had several questions. Did that not go through?

Lance Christian Johnson said...

It went to my SPAM folder. Thanks for the heads up. I'll try and get to it and comment later (if necessary).

Lance Christian Johnson said...

Hey Rick,

Let's see if I can hit on all your points.

Francis Collins who was the head of the Human Genome project...is a man of faith but it doesn't seem to have hindered his ability to ask question and pursue scientific goals

Absolutely. However, this can be measured in degrees. There are plenty of people who don't even care about the genome because they are simply satisfied with the notion that God made us and then leave it at that. Obviously he's willing to explore things a lot further. But still, even he finally gets to a point where "Goddidit" is the answer.

Also, by 'faith' do you mean it as a synonym for religious belief? That seems to be what I'm picking up. Because I would like to say that everyone operates on some kind of faith.

Sure they do, but yeah, I'm talking the religious kind. Me having faith that the sun will rise in the sky tomorrow isn't the same thing as somebody having faith that Jesus came back from the dead.

Some well known scientist believe in a multi-verse though

I know that some have postulated the possibility and have demonstrated that it's possible (on paper, anyway). I don't think that they have faith in this though, and if it turned out that the numbers were wrong on how they came up with that, they'd abandon that idea. It's not like they're holding Crisis on Infinite Earths up as some kind of holy book and don't question it. (You mentioned comics - hope you get the reference.)

Ok, well enough, but are you an atheist with some modicum of faith that you're right about there being no God/gods?

Only in the same sense that I have faith that I'm right about there not being any leprechauns. Sorry to give such an Atheist 101 answer, but until I'm giving a good reason to believe in God that's based on evidence, I'm just going to assume that he doesn't exist.

(1 Thessalonians 5:21-22). Would you be more comfortable with someone who practiced their faith with that in mind?

Well, if they actually did that, then I'd argue that they'd abandon Christianity as well.

Whether it's goal is harmony with the universe and attaining ultimately enlightenment or to be set right with their creator, the belief goes beyond a set of rules.

I will grant you this, but ultimately I find all that to be nothing more than navel contemplation.

So it seems, that beyond reason, there is something that pulls at our heart strings about what is good and evil.

I agree, but I think that this is easily attributable to what's hardwired into our DNA. We survived by being cooperative, so we have an innate need to try and do what's right for us as a species. I don't think that any mystical or supernatural explanation is necessary. Sure, it might seem like there's some higher power at work, but it also seems like something must be pulling the sun across the sky. What seems to be true isn't necessarily an indicator of what is true.