Friday, July 18, 2008

The next taboo to go: incest

Rod Dreher asks the key question: "If God doesn't exist (that is, if there is no such thing as absolute moral truth), why shouldn't the woman have sex with her brother?" This in response to an article from the Times Online about a British academic who had "consenting sex" with her brother since they were teenagers and saw nothing wrong with it.

There are certain human activities that there is no strictly rationally reason to condemn, but have been universally abhorred by civilized people. One of them is incest. Another is cannibalism. The only objection you can have against them is a religious one. Yet there are still people who claim who reject religious explanations for things who want to condemn them.

But it won't last long.

41 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sidebar
MC: The only objection you can have against them is a religious one.

Duh, how about genetic problems from inbreeding and mad-cow/scrapie like problems with cannibalism?


Let's stop for a second and analyze Mr Cothran's argument.
1) Some behaviors are more or less universally considered icky.
2) There seems to be no rational reason for this revulsion.
3) The only possible explanation is that God doesn't want us doing it.

In short, if it feels bad, don't do it.

But the converse of this argument, if it feels good, do it, is also condemned.
See, e.g., just recently

John Ellis said...
It assumes that humans have no control over their behavior, and merely act upon instinct - if it feels good, do it.

So I don't get this at all. Incest and cannibalism are horrid sins to which we have an ingrained aversion. What good is a sin for which there is no temptation? Pretty easy to resist those.

jah

PS There have been studies I am sure about siblings separated at birth and raised apart. What sort of feelings do you think such people might have about one another if they meet later on? What about adopted non-blood related children who are raised together? I could look up some studies and report the results, but what's the point?


jah

Anonymous said...

Suppose I was foodless with others somewhere (say a plane crash in the Andes, winter snowstorm in the Sierras, besieged city in wartime) and I died. If my body could save others' lives and prevent their succumbing in turn, I would have no problem with cannibalism (I also regularly donate blood and am a potential organ donor). But I agree with Mr Cothran, the concept of eating someone's body and drinking their blood is a bit off-putting.

jah

KyCobb said...

I find it truly bizarre that Martin can't think of any rational reason to object to cannibalism. How about that, if cannibalism was ok, that logically means people should be slaughtered like cattle for food? As I would prefer not to end up on someone's dinner plate, I think that's a perfectly rational reason to oppose cannibalism, whether there is a God or not.

Martin Cothran said...

Kycobb,

Are you saying that if laws against cannibalism were taken off the books, people would immediately begin slaughtering each other? I find that hard to believe.

If people didn't end up slaughtering each other, but only, say, ate people who had already died, would that be okay?

Kycobb said...

Martin,

Of course, excepting the tiny percentage of Jeffrey Dahmer's, people in the U.S. would not start killing each other for food if cannibalism were legal-almost everyone here finds the notion revolting. There are very sound, rational reasons not to eat people who have died. One, as previously noted, is the threat of disease. Second, most people would suffer severe emotional trauma if someone ate their dearly departed.

I was answering your question based on the hypothesis that cannibalism would be a normal activity, like eating steak, since you took the position that, rationally speaking, there is nothing wrong with it. Cannibals would want fresh meat from healthy carcasses, and there are only so many healthy, young victims of accidents or murders. Logically, then, if cannibalism were ok, some people should be raised like cattle to slaughter for food. I don't want to take the chance that I would be one of the cattle, so I have a rational basis for opposing cannibalism.

Martin Cothran said...

Disease? I doubt there are greater risks of disease in human flesh than any other, but surely we have the technology to deal with that.

And emotional trauma? Did cannibal tribes have any greater incidence of emotional trauma than we beef-eaters do? Besides, some vegetarians would have emotional trauma if they ate beef. That doesn't prevent others of us who don't have such scruples from having it available to us.

Let's say people wouldn't slaughter each other, that there was safe human meat--no health risks, and there were some of us who suffered no emotional trauma. Is it okay then?

Haven't you ever seen the movie "Soylent Green"?

Anonymous said...

For the sake of argument, let me for one accept Mr Cothran's scenario and assume that there is somehow some source of human meat. Despite having no religious objections, I am willing to grant that I, and again for the sake of argument, most people, would not eat human meat. [I've already alluded to three recent documented cases of otherwise unexceptional humans resorting to cannibalism.] Perhaps now Mr Cothran can express his argument in simple and direct enough terms that I can understand what he is trying to say.

And again, at the risk of opening up tangents, I can usually better understand by considering similar and dissimilar situations. Two examples:
1) Given the same assumptions above (no disease, law, religious etc concerns), would most people willingly eat kittens and puppies? [1]
2) Presumably there is some point to Mr Cothran's speculation. "Since most people have a built-in aversion to cannibalism, therefore ..." Let's try the converse, once Mr Cothran expands on the above and see if the related conclusion results: "Since most people have a built-in desire to have sex, therefore ..."


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Fresh Kitten Meat
A Delicious And Succulent Kitten Meal The Whole Family Will Love.

Kitten Fried Kitten.

Crispy persian kitten breasts are a great entre to serve at dinner parties. Easy to prepare and cook, you can even make them a day in advance to save time. Watch your friends devour these fried kitten breasts as the succulent juices flow from the tender meat with each and every bite.
INGREDIENTS

* 30 saltine crackers
* 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
* 2 tablespoons dry potato flakes
* 1 teaspoon seasoned salt
* 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
* 1 egg
* 1/4 cup vegetable oil
* 6 skinless, boneless persian kitten breasts

DIRECTIONS

1. Place crackers in a large re-sealable plastic bag; seal bag and crush crackers until they are coarse crumbs. Add flour, potato flakes, seasoned salt, and pepper to bag and mix well.
2. Beat egg in a shallow dish or bowl; heat oil in a large skillet over medium high heat.
3. One by one, dredge kitten pieces in egg beat, then place in bag with crumb mixture, seal bag and shake to coat.
4. Reduce heat to medium and cook coated kitten in skillet for 15 to 20 minutes, turning frequently, until golden brown and juices run clear.

jah

Anonymous said...

I honestly don't understand Mr Cothran's argument. Will anyone venture an explanation of these points?

MC: "The only objection you can have against them is a religious one."

1) We'll skip why the only explanation can be religious for now. [Although I can think of other ones.]

2) What is a "religious objection"? It seems to me that it must be an objection that is based on one's religious beliefs. Yet Mr Cothran states that (perhaps I'm misunderstanding his last sentence?) even people who claim not to have religious beliefs still reject cannibalism. So how is this a religious objection if they don't have religion? [I have a wild suspicion but would like someone else to elaborate.]


jah

Anonymous said...

Forgot to add.

3) Cannibalism is abhorred by "civilized people" according to Mr Cothran.
a) What is the difference between "civilized" and "uncivilized" people?
b) Why does one class of people have a religious objection and not the other?

jah

Kycobb said...

Martin,

No, cannibalism is not ok, and there is a rational basis for objecting to it without religion. You hypothesize "safe human meat"-but that requires objectifying humans as a commodity-meat. Once people have been reduced to commodities, in any context, you run the risk that further indignities to their personhood can be rationalized, and that is not a risk worth taking. In order to ensure that my worth as a human being is recognized, I want to live in a society in which every person's worth as a human is recognized.

Martin Cothran said...

KyCobb,

I'm not talking about eating live humans: I'm talking about eating dead ones. That's what cannibalism is.

Are you seriously saying that human rights extend to dead people? Are you sure that is the position you want to defend?

Martin Cothran said...

Jah,

What is a "religious objection"? It seems to me that it must be an objection that is based on one's religious beliefs. Yet Mr Cothran states that (perhaps I'm misunderstanding his last sentence?) even people who claim not to have religious beliefs still reject cannibalism. So how is this a religious objection if they don't have religion?

Exactly. The whole point of my post is that people without specifically religious beliefs reject something that requires a religious reason and that insofar as they do that they are being irrational.

Anonymous said...

kycobb,


Since you bring up MC's "safe human meat", consider also this:

Science 11 April 2003:
Vol. 300. no. 5617, pp. 227 - 228
DOI: 10.1126/science.300.5617.227a


GENE EVOLUTION:
Cannibalism and Prion Disease May Have Been Rampant in Ancient Humans
Elizabeth Pennisi

Some call it the laughing disease; others, kuru. This neurodegenerative disorder is universally fatal and 40 years ago killed almost 10% of a small New Guinea tribe called the Fore. Now molecular biologists propose that similar epidemics plagued prehistoric humans. Both then and more recently, kuru, a prion disease, was transmitted through cannibalism, Simon Mead and John Collinge of University College London and their colleagues claim in a report online in Science this week (www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/1083320). They base their conclusions on the worldwide distribution of variants of the prion gene.

The work lends support to the idea that ancient people once regularly munched on their peers. This conclusion will be controversial, says John Hardy, a geneticist at the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, Maryland. Nonetheless, "I think [Collinge and colleagues] might be right."

Until 50 years ago, the Fore reportedly had a tradition of eating the dead. In the 1960s, Carleton Gajdusek of the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke in Bethesda demonstrated that kuru was an infectious disease: Once cannibalism was banned, kuru disappeared.

Gajdusek blamed a slow-growing virus for the disease, but now the prime suspect in kuru is a malformed miniature protein called a prion. Contorted prions cause other, native prions to misfold, clump together, and kill brain cells. A similar process is believed to cause Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) in humans and scrapie in sheep. Although some prion diseases occur spontaneously, in many cases, humans or other animals contract them by eating infected tissue.


jah

Anonymous said...

MC: The whole point of my post is that people without specifically religious beliefs reject something that requires a religious reason and that insofar as they do that they are being irrational.

I'm still not getting why it has to be a religious reason. How does one go from "eating people is disgusting" to concluding this opinion is based on some religious reason?

For the above mentioned Fore people:
In contrast, various traditional cultures are known to have encouraged their members to eat part of their kinsmen's corpses out of respect for the deceased in a practice known as endocannibalism. For example, Foré women of New Guinea, who dispose of the dead, ritually ate their deceased relatives' brains.

http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/society/A0810201.html

jah

KyCobb said...

Martin,

Of course dead people don't have rights-I didn't say that. We as a society, however, protect corpses from abuse to protect human dignity. Just because the meat is dead doesn't change the fact that it is human meat. Once humans have been reduced to meat for consumption-the most degrading concept imaginable-its that much easier to justify other assaults on human dignity.

If you continue to insist this is an irrational concern, I recommend you read William Saletan's May 27 2008 article on slate.com titled "Meat Wagons" which discusses the view of dying people as commodities-failing organ banks-and the pressure to begin earlier and earlier intervention-not to save the person's life-but to preserve their organs for use in other people.

Anonymous said...

MC: The whole point of my post is that people without specifically religious beliefs reject something that requires a religious reason

Why does it require a religious reason? How is something determined to be a religious reason?

As far as I can tell, religions do not make a big deal of prohibiting cannibalism. It is not referenced in the 10 commandments or 7 deadly sins. Almost all pre-Christian (and pre-Jewish) civilizations such as Chinese, Greek (some well known homosexuality), Roman, Egyptian (some well known incest), did not practice cannibalism.

What does it mean to say there is a religious reason?

I can understand someone saying that there are religious reasons why Jews wear yarmulkas, Moslems face Mecca to pray, neither eat pork, Catholics may give up meat for Lent, etc, but how is avoiding cannibalism related to religion?


Anyone?

Mr Cothran has totally ignored all the scholarly research involving cannibalism and summarily pronounced that it is taboo for religious reasons. Surely someone can expand on that?

And what about individuals such as the aforementioned Dahmer or cultures which do not have this taboo? How are these observations explained?

Am I (and kycobb) the only ones befuddled enough not to get Mr Cothran's point?

[I do agree that objection to cannibalism is not rational - it is usually a deep seated revulsion based on emotion and not rational thought. Whom you fall in love with is also not determined by rational considerations, but I don't see that there is a religious reason for this either.]



jah

Martin Cothran said...

Okay, I see one problem. You are interpreting me as saying that I believe that people actually do reject cannibalism for religious reasons. That is not what I am saying. I am saying that the only justification you could have for condemning it--the only one that makes any sense--is a religious one.

It is irrelevant to this argument whether people in fact do reject it for this reason. The point being that you can't find any other valid reason for rejecting it than a religious reason.

I used the term 'taboo' for a reason: it involves a stricture or ban for cultural/religious reasons. In its anthropological or sociological sense this word involves some sense of a sacred ban. You could say, well, it could be a cultural stricture as opposed to a religious one, but, as T.S. Eliot pointed out, culture and religion are ultimately two sides of the same coin: fundamental cultural commitments are themselves grounded on religious convictions (that is, commitments that are ultimate or metaphysical in nature).

Martin Cothran said...

KyCobb,

We as a society, however, protect corpses from abuse to protect human dignity.

And why do we protect human dignity?

kycobb said...

Martin,

we protect human dignity because we each want to be treated with dignity, whether we are religious or not.

Martin Cothran said...

KyCobb,

That sounds suspiciously like "do unto others as you would have them do unto you".

kycobb said...

Martin,

The Golden Rule is a common principle in ancient Greek philosophy. It has nothing to do with the Gods, but is instead a common-sense rule for human interaction, thus it isn't a particularly religious concept.

Anonymous said...

I'm tempted to write something on sociobiology and cannibalism and incest taboos (there is actually a large literature on the subject). However, 1) I'm lazy, and 2) Martin will just pretend not to understand. Therefore, I give up. Have a nice day, Martin.

Anonymous said...

Good lord.

From incest to canibalism? Is that really a rhetorical trip worth taking?

Rod Dreher: "If God doesn't exist (that is, if there is no such thing as absolute moral truth), why shouldn't the woman have sex with her brother?"

I say pass...whether God exists or not.

I'm a Christian, but I can't turn to the Bible for help with this moral problem...unless somebody can explain to me who Cain's wife was. It would seem that Christian morality is at the very least, vague on this point.

But there is sufficient reason in natural law to make incest objectionable...at least, that which produces offspring.

Some religion apparently condones incest...but only if read literally.

Martin Cothran said...

Hmmm. First we profess not to understand me, and then we accuse me of pretending not to understand. I actually thought we might be getting somewhere here.

At least I was enjoying the dialogue.

Anonymous said...

MC1: I am saying that the only justification you could have for condemning it--the only one that makes any sense--is a religious one.

MC2: The point being that you can't find any other valid reason for rejecting it than a religious reason.

MC3: fundamental cultural commitments are themselves grounded on religious convictions

Kycobb has been working on MC2 and MC3 is best left till MC1 is done.

Yes, I was misunderstanding Mr Cothran's English. So let's proceed from MC1 above.

The widespread aversion to cannibalism is clearly not based (at least entirely) on a rational basis. The typical reaction to cannibalism is a much more visceral revulsion.

1) Why is the only justifiable condemnation attributed to some religious origin?
Is it postulated that any non-rational decision must have a religious basis? If yes, why?

2) How does this argument apply to the distaste must people feel for the idea of eating kittens? This is a similar albeit weaker reaction. Is there also a religious connection here?

3) Moslems and Jews don't eat pigs. This can straightforwardly be described as a religious decision - eating pork is proscribed by their religious texts. Where are the appropriate religious strictures against cannibalism?

4) If anti-cannibal sentiments are ascribed to religion, why is cannibalism (the eating of an available dead human) emotionally regarded as so more more heinous an act than murder (the taking of a human life)? Why do cannibals (and child molesters) have to be separated from the general prison population whereas murderers roam freely?

5)


jah


Dialogue? or soliloquy?

Anonymous said...

5) What about the Aztecs? Why are they exempt from this condemnation of cannibalism?

jah

Anonymous said...

Another discussion that Mr Cothran has apparently walked out on. Well, it's his blog and he can do what he wants. I'm not sure why he feels that the only sensible explanation of an aversion to cannibalism must be religious in nature (or that there can be no rational explanation for an aversion to cannibalism). It's not for want of trying on my part; I've tried to explain my confusion in many ways and asked many questions but gotten precious little in response. I had hoped that an explanation would be a trivial effort for a renowned educator and lobbyist. But Mr Cothran again seems unwilling and/or unable to oblige. Perhaps his blog subtitle should change from "Observations in Defense of the Obvious" to "Constant Repetitions of What's Obvious to Me".

The only religious text that I know of which is even remotely related to cannibalism (similar to a number of instances of endocannibalism) is:

For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.

I imagine that for likewise ineffable reasons this also epitomizes to Mr Cothran that the only sensible objection to cannibalism is religious.


jah

Martin Cothran said...

Jah,

Are you always this impatient? You need a garden or something. I will get to this, but I am trying to get out of town on a trip. It may be a day or two.

Hodgson said...

I wonder if the controversy wouldn't be clarified by placing the question in its more general aspect:

What rational basis is there for any morality whatsoever? By what reason is anything prohibited other than simple preference and the power to enforce the prohibition?

Some have suggested that the rational reason to forbid is to prevent harm to what is valued. But the question remains: Valuable to whom? Certainly not to everyone, since there is nothing valued that has not been violated, nothing forbidden that has not been done.

But even were a revulsion universal, it would prove nothing. Reason is not a democracy and therefore not susceptible to unanimous votes.

I believe the correct conclusion is that morality cannot be rationalized. It is a system derived from axioms that are themselves as arbitrary and impermanent as the authority that established them.

kycobb said...

Hodgson,

You are wrong. A rational human wants to be happy. In order to be happy, he needs to be able to engage in the activities which make him happy. Rationally, he is most likely to be able to engage in those activities if he lives in a society that respects his right to pursue happiness. The likelihood that the society he lives in will respect his right to engage in the activities which make him happy is increased if that society respects the human right to pursue happiness in general.

I expect your next objection will be something along the lines of "what about the person who derives his happiness from raping children? You are just making arbitrary rules that deny happiness to some people." However, appropriate rule making is not arbitrary, because human behavior is deeply rooted in our biology as social animals. We could not have survived as a species if the vast majority of humans did not work and play well with others, because the survival of small hunter-gatherer groups depended upon the cooperation of everyone to provide sustenance to the group. This is especially true of babies, who are completely helpless and utterly dependent on others when born.
Thus a great deal of our happiness is derived from the happiness of others, especially our loved ones, and to maximize human happiness we can rationally restrict the ability of the few sociopaths to seek happiness by hurting others. Biological facts provide the foundation for a rational moral system-its not arbitrary at all.

publius said...

The Bible: It is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies. -- Mark Twain, Letters From the Earth

Who is Cain's wife? Isn't Sarah also Abraham half -sister? Gen 2:13 Say, I pray thee, thouart my sister: that it may be well with me for thy sake; and my soul shall live because of thee.

Anonymous said...

The Ken Ham Creation Museum says incest was spiffy a-ok early on. Here is the text of one of their displays:

"Genesis 5:4 teaches that Adam and Eve had sons and daughters, So, originally, brothers had to marry sisters. Before jumping to conclusions, realize that:
All humans are related. So whenever someone gets married, they marry their relative.
One of the most honored men of the Bible, Abraham, was married to his half sister. It wasn't until much later that God instructed the Israelites not to marry close relatives – a principle we follow today.
When close relatives marry today, there is an increased likelihood of deformities in the offspring because of the mutations (mistakes) that have accumulated in the human race since Adam's sin. The closer the relatives, the more likelihood that such people will have similar mistakes. If these mutations are inherited in offspring from both parents, then there is an increased probability of major physiological problems.
The farther back in history one goes (back towards the fall of Adam), the less of a problem mutations in the human population would be. At the time of Adam and Eve's children, there would have been very few mutations in the human genome – thus close relatives could marry, and provided it was one man and for one woman (the biblical doctrine of marriage), there was nothing wrong with close relatives marrying in early biblical history.
In present usage, the word incest includes both the marriage of close relatives and any sexual activity between close relatives who are not married. Sexual activity outside of the bounds of marriage, whether between near relatives or not, has been wrong from the beginning. Marriage between close relatives, however, was not a problem in early biblical history.
Since God is the One who defined marriage in the first place, God's Word is the only standard for defining proper marriage. People who do not accept the Bible as their absolute authority have no basis for condemning someone like Cain marrying his sister."

Hodgson said...

"Biological facts provide the foundation for a rational moral system-its not arbitrary at all."

But if this is true, why do the biologists not demonstrate this foundation with its correct derivative moral code--and end all moral controversies?

publius said...

Ken Ham= an ignorant, flaming-monkey and his creation museum a temple to the credulity.
To quote Michael Bakunin: God And The State;" God is certainly the most jealous, the most vain, the most ferocious, the most unjust, the most bloodthirsty, the most despotic and the most hostile to human dignity and liberty-Jehovah had just created Adam and Eve, to satisfy we know not what caprice; no doubt to while away his time, which must weigh heavy on his hands in his eternal egoistic solitude, or that he might have some new slaves. He generously placed at their disposal the whole earth, with all its fruits and animals, and set but a single limit to this complete enjoyment. He expressly forbade them from touching, the fruit of the tree of knowledge. he wished, therefore, that man, destitute of all understanding of himself, should remain an eternal beast, ever on all-fours before the eternal God, his creator and his master. But here steps in Satan, the eternal rebel, the first freethinker and the emancipator of worlds. He makes man ashamed of his bestial ignorance and obedience; he emancipates him, stamps upon his brow the seal of liberty and humanity, in urging him to disobey and eat of the fruit of knowledge."
Also to quote my favorite polemist: Christopher Hitchens; "Ethics do not require that lies be told to children by evil old men."

Hodgson said...

"God is certainly the most jealous, the most vain, the most ferocious, the most unjust, the most bloodthirsty, the most despotic and the most hostile to human dignity and liberty. . . ."

God may conceivably be all those things--or be simply imaginary. But the question at hand is not whether God is good or real but what, in the absence of such an authority, can rationally determine morality.

HP Lovecraft argued once that the foundation of non-religious morality is the good of mankind--that morality should be premised not indeed upon some immovable cosmic or materialistic reality but upon our own collected preferences.

The trouble lies in attempting to extract from "human good" a system that everyone regards as good. Disagreement arises because human good cannot be irrefutably determined.

And so, I fall back on my earlier conclusion: that the only irrefutable definition of morality is simple preference enabled by power. He makes law who can. And although his good may not be your own, you have no argument to offer other than your own contrary wish and a material struggle against his government.

Anonymous said...

H: HP Lovecraft argued once that the foundation of non-religious morality is the good of mankind--that morality should be premised not indeed upon some immovable cosmic or materialistic reality but upon our own collected preferences.


There obviously is no one human derived moral system with which everyone will agree.

Of course, even if there is an absolute right and wrong (someone please define what that even means), there is again obviously no way of demonstrating or determining what such a morality is.

The main difference between the two approaches is that those following a human based system acknowledge that their system is neither perfect nor unique, whereas those adhering to an absolute standard know they are correct. I imagine that Jim D. Adkisson was following his absolute moral code when he murdered two and injured more at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church.

There is no physical way of evaluating morality; it is a case of judgment. Some people prefer to follow the humanistic Golden Rule (or a variant, such as doing unto others as they want); others prefer an unquestionable standard, such as slaughter all infidels or filial sacrifice; and others are simply amoral.


jah




jah

Hodgson said...

jah: "The main difference between the two approaches [religious and secular moralities] is that those following a human based system acknowledge that their system is neither perfect nor unique, whereas those adhering to an absolute standard know they are correct. I imagine that Jim D. Adkisson was following his absolute moral code when he murdered two and injured more at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church."

The thoughts that people have about their moral systems are not at issue. What is in question is the justice of deriving any moral system whatsoever.

Whether a morality is believed perfect or imperfect, unique or derivative, affects not at all the practical consequence of its enforcement, and does not dispense with the question: What reason do you have for thinking anything right or wrong?

It is this question--that of authority, legitimacy--that is actually magnified by confessing that a morality is imperfect and derivative. It very legitimately leads those who suffer under it to wonder why it should not be substituted with something else. And when such a conviction arises, it is useless to protest that you have virtuously maintained your morality's imperfection.

As for Jim D. Adkisson, I confess that I'm not familiar with his case. But I'm not under the impression that violence is limited or even particular to religionists or moral absolutists.

Consider: Even if a person believes that his moral system is an imperfect human invention, he may kill for moral reasons just as though he thought them the dicta of God. Indeed, if he will not do so, then of what force are his convictions? of what effect his laws?

Anonymous said...

Hodgson: It is this question--that of authority, legitimacy--that is actually magnified by confessing that a morality is imperfect and derivative. It very legitimately leads those who suffer under it to wonder why it should not be substituted with something else. And when such a conviction arises, it is useless to protest that you have virtuously maintained your morality's imperfection.

I'm not sure I understand your point.
You sound adverse to change. There is nothing wrong with changing a moral code. It's an imperfect world. You seem to be suggesting that only justifiable moral code is an absolute one. But there is no way anyone can logically demonstrate that he has access to the one true moral code. Of course there is no true justice in this world. Any human system, such as the criminal courts, which judges people will sometimes fail. Should no one ever be convicted? We execute people on the basis of "no reasonable doubt". Certainly innocent people have been executed by the government.
Any sense of morality is based on certain assumptions. One is that harming other people is not good. Another is that preserving my people is more important than the preserving more other people.

jah

Hodgson said...

jah: "But there is no way anyone can logically demonstrate that he has access to the one true moral code."

Thank you. That was precisely Mr. Cothran's (and my) point.

He argued, you will remember, that in the absence of an absolute authority, it is impossible to say with more than arbitrary assumption that something (such as incest, cannibalism or bestiality) is wrong. And since you agree that an absolute moral code cannot be logically demonstrated, there is no further dispute.

To recap what I said earlier, the only foundation (God or no God) for morality is preference (God's or man's). And these moralities are distinguished as law by power. Among humanity, various moralities are advocated, each sounding very just to their advocates, which are endlessly disputed by war.

I believe the distinction made concerning religion is that God serves as an absolute power and law-giver, and therefore as an ultimate moral frame of reference. But it is not clear to me that this affects the warring state of humanity so much as it does the warring state of individual conscience, which may ease itself of many qualms when it believes it has no higher judge than itself, the state, the multitude or any purely earthly source.

Anonymous said...

hodgson: I believe the distinction made concerning religion is that God serves as an absolute power and law-giver, and therefore as an ultimate moral frame of reference.

I am certainly willing to agree that an absolute moral standard is better than human-derived relative one.
But how can something be measured in the above "ultimate moral frame of reference"?
I realized this is the key component of my dissatisfaction with claims of an absolute standard.
As an analogy (so it can't be pushed too far), suppose I have a clock which I suspect may be faulty; I want to check whether every tick of the second hand is really a second. I know that "[t]he second is the duration of 9 192 631 770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom". If we accept that as an absolute standard, of what use is it to me? None. I can't purify or store cesium and can't count or measure the interval described above. So all the advantages of an absolute standard are moot.
The same is true for moral standards. I have no way of measuring them, so from a practical perspective, for me they might as well not exist. Even worse, there is more than multiple groups with competing ideas of morality which change over time.

jah


http://www.bipm.org/en/si/si_brochure/chapter2/2-1/second.html

jah

Hodgson said...

jah: "If we accept that as an absolute standard, of what use is it to me? None. . . .
The same is true for moral standards. I have no way of measuring them, so from a practical perspective, for me they might as well not exist."

I have nothing to object. My purpose was not to persuade anyone of a belief in God, but to argue that morality has no material basis and that, as a consequence, moral judgments are no less suppositious than religion.

As for how religion provides an absolute morality where reason cannot, I suppose various kinds of answers might be given according to various religions, sects and temperaments.

But although this certainly touches the latter half of Mr. Cothran's assertion (reason cannot provide morality; but religion does), I see no reason to take it up myself. My interest lay in the former.