Wednesday, August 28, 2013

God commanded it, the Israelites did it, and that settles it.

There's still a great deal to talk about when it comes to morality, but the previous post was getting pretty long and I had to end it somewhere. But since I brought up William Lane Craig and the Divine Command theory of morality, I can't resist making the following point.

Craig, it will be remembered, raised eyebrows when he defended the slaughter of the Canaanites as recounted in the Book of Joshua. Craig had been importuning Richard Dawkins to debate him for some time, and Dawkins used Craig's defense as a convenient excuse to decline.

Now, I'm sure Craig is personally a reasonably moral guy, and doesn't approve of genocide as a general principle. However, he's hamstrung by his biblical literalism and his Divine Command Theory. If God commands genocide, then genocide must be A-OK.

At the same time, Craig realizes that the Book of Joshua, with its blood-soaked tale of the Israelites massacring their way across the Promised Land in search of lebensraum, is horrific to modern sensibilities. Its obvious evil has to be explained away. Craig twists himself into a pretzel trying to do so.

The irony is that by acknowledging that God's command to commit genocide has to be "spun" in order to be made palatable to the modern reader, Craig is undermining one of his own favorite arguments for God's existence, the one that goes: "Absolute morality cannot exist without God, absolute morality exists, therefore God exists."

If God were the one and only source of morality as Craig believes and argues, no spin would be necessary because no-one would feel any horror at the idea of Canaanites being wiped out. You could sum it up with a bumper sticker: "God commanded it, the Israelites did it, and that settles it."

By trying to spin the story, Craig is tacitly admitting that there is another source of morality - our own human judgment. We can recognize that genocide is evil, independently of what any ancient dusty scrolls have to say. If the bible god existed, the supremely moral act would be to say to him: "Fuck you, asshole, I don't care if you send me to hell, I still won't worship you." That's what I mean by Good despite God.

Anyway, Craig's argument backfires on him and strengthens my contention that we are inherent decision-makers on morality whether we recognize it our not. Continued human progress (and even survival) depends on realizing this fact, getting better at making decisions, and doing so on a basis of rationality and empathy for our fellow creatures.

Good despite God

In a previous post, I mentioned in passing: "I would argue that even if we knew for a fact that God existed, that would not automatically make him the one and only possible source of morality." I now want to explain what I meant by this.

In the hypothetical situation I'm considering, we know without question that God exists and is as described in the bible. We know he is watching every move we make, and preparing to send us to an eternity of bliss or torment when we die. In this case, it would be pretty expedient to know how he expects us to behave, and act accordingly. But would it be moral?

The problems with the concept of God as the source of morality are well known. Not the least of them is the Euthyphro Dilemma. Either "good" is defined by what God commands us to do (the Divine Command theory of morality, followed by such notables as William Lane Craig), in which case it's morally incumbent on us to obey when God commands rape, murder and genocide, as he frequently did in the Old Testament; or God commands us to do something because it is good, in which case there is a standard of goodness that is external to God, and we should follow that standard anyway and eliminate the middleman.

There's also the "Evil God" challenge raised by philosopher Stephen Law, but I'll leave that for another time. The point I want to make here is that not only can we be "good without God", coming up with moral guidelines on our own in the absence of a divine rulegiver; we can and should be "good despite God", deciding for ourselves what is moral and immoral, even if God were to force us with the threat of punishment to behave otherwise.

I don't know if this is widely recognized terminology, but I like to make a distinct between morality and ethics. Ever wonder why professionals often have a code of ethics rather than a code of morality? Why do we have, for example, bio-ethicists rather than biomoralists? To me, the word "morality" connotes a code of conduct imposed from above in a power relationship. Parents impose morality on their children because the children are too young to figure out ethical behavior on their own.

An ethical code, on the other hand, is a code of conduct you come up with in conjunction with your peers, and then commit to live by. This, to me, is an essential part of growing up. You do the right thing because it is what you've committed to live up to, not because of external compulsion and threats or bribes.

The idea of "objective morality" strikes me as faintly ridiculous, if you mean morality as some kind of Platonic absolute, existing independently of whether humans exist or not. Morality is obviously a human concern (and a concern for any other intelligent species that might be out there). Furthermore, morality is not fixed and immutable. The world's holy books have nothing to say on stem cell research or sex change surgery, because such issues just didn't exist when they were written.

Morality is a work in progress. We are figuring it out as we go along, trying to incorporate new problems into our framework, and hopefully making net progress as we extend our concern and sympathy beyond our immediate family and tribe, to other groups, to people who don't follow our norms of sexual identity and orientation, and eventually to all sentient creatures.

The thing as, we can't help making moral judgments and decisions, both individually and as societies. It's inherent to us - perhaps it's even how morality is defined, an innately human activity. God, if he existed, could force his ideas of morality on us, but the one thing he could never do - short of taking away our free will and turning us into automata - is to make his morality our morality.

We need to understand that we are the source of our morality. We must stop hiding behind holy books and take ownership of the process. We have both a right and an obligation to make moral decisions, individually and collectively. To abdicate that right, to shirk that responsibility, is to surrender an essential part of our humanity.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Attack of the Drones

Previously I mentioned that the use of drones by the US military was one of the moral issues I was interested in exploring. Many people have a visceral reaction to drones, and it's easy to understand why.

Drones seem to turn the act of killing into something cold, clinical, and impersonal. Of course the drones, for now at least, still have a human operator - Skynet hasn't taken over yet. But there is something creepy about the idea of a man in a comfortable air-conditioned office on an Air Force base in Nevada pressing a button and dealing out death and destruction to third world villagers thousands of miles away. It seems too much like shooting fish in a barrel.

Some people seem to be okay with drones killing alleged terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but are horrified by the idea of drones operating within the US, as was rumored to be happening during the hunt for Christopher Dorner. But we obviously can't make a moral distinction based on the religion or ethnicity of the victims. Nor can we make a decision on the morality of drone use purely on the basis of our emotional reaction.

Are military drones ever justified? I think they can be in certain circumstances. There may be cases where force has to be used anyway, and drones, with their surgical accuracy, can reduce harm and death to innocent bystanders.

Offhand I can't think of any other scenarios where the use of armed drones is defensible, and I can see a big downside. There is a sort of moral hazard in not having skin in the game. When the US military knows there is no risk to the drone operator, they are tempted to be more aggressive and cavalier. War becomes a video game, and the victims are pixels on a screen, not flesh and blood.

However, drones are here to stay. Technology will inevitably make them smaller and cheaper, and non-weaponised drones will be put to many new uses, such as aeriel mapping and photography, finding lost people in the outdoors, tracking livestock and wild animals, and of course snooping and surveillance.

Which makes it all the more important that society has an open, transparent, unemotional and productive conversation about the use of drones and their potential for both good and harm.