Immoral: Inexpedient. --Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary
The Enlightenment, which began roughly with the publication of Copernicus' heliocentric theory in 1543 and was punctuated by such seminal events as Newton's Principia which set out natural law in mathematical exactitude, the American and French Revolutions which heralded the end of the 'divine right of kings', and Darwin's Origin of the Species which exploded the belief that man was a special creation of God, was that period of human history in which the religious worldview, which had been predominant since the beginning of human culture, began to be significantly challenged by the secular one. This latter worldview -- also known as humanistic (human-centered, rather than God-centered) or scientific, was ushered in by the recognition that the universe was controlled not by God sitting in his Heaven and pulling the strings of his celestial stones and earthly puppets, but rather by an impersonal natural law in which humans were no longer the apple of an Omnipotent Being's eye, but simply unimportant specks on a lonely chunk of rock. The shock to the human ego of this recognition is still reverberating thru society, and there remain a substantial number of people who have not yet accommodated themselves to it. More particularly, it has given rise to what I call the Illuminati Conspiracy Theory, which sees the crumbling of religion not as a natural result of scientific knowledge which renders religious explanations both wrong and silly, but rather as the result of a conspiracy hatched by an organization founded by Adam Weishaupt on May 1st, 1776, whose members called themselves the 'Illuminati' because they considered themselves illuminated by secular knowledge, and who, by means devious and unethical, allegedly created a multigenerational 'Luciferian conspiracy' to undermine religion by injecting the culture with socialism, drugs, sex, rock 'n' roll, witchcraft, television and just about everything thing else that seems to undermine the religious worldview.
But if adherents of the Illuminati Conspiracy Theory are wrong in their interpretation of events -- as they clearly are in my opinion -- their propensity for seeing conspiracy as an important thread in history during the last two centuries has had a very salutary effect in drawing attention to the linkage of many events and exposing some very real conspiracies -- or at least 'workings together' -- whose nature is not entirely clear, but which possess an intimate relationship to bankers, Jews, political insiders and major social problems and historical events. (I have investigated the Jewish aspects of these events in my lengthy essay "The Case Against the Jews" found on my website (www.thebirdman.org).) But while this topic is a fascinating one, in the present essay I wish to focus on an equally important contribution by the religionists, to wit, their concern with the problem of morality in a world which is in the process of throwing off religion and making the transition to the secular worldview.
Now before proceeding further, we should ask whether it is really true that religion is giving way to secularity -- after all, we often hear that large numbers of people believe in God and that churches are flourishing. But the answer is to be found in human behavior: Where once daily prayer was universal, reference to God was frequent, and people prayed for God's help, now daily prayer is virtually extinct, reference to God is rare except in expletives, and if people want the equivalent of 'God's help' they turn to the Yellow Pages. That is, people once regarded God as looking over their shoulder and directly participating in their lives, but now, while people may pray from time to time, their faith has come to rely primarily on the second rather than the first half of Cromwell's admonition, 'Trust in God, but keep your powder dry.' Another way to illustrate my point is that, while God was once thought to work miracles, the phrase 'miracle of modern science' shows clearly that, no matter what people say they believe, God is no longer regarded as the source of miracles, or indeed of anything much at all. This point is reinforced by the fact that, if a scientist should hold prayer sessions as part of his work, his colleagues would mock him unmercifully and he would probably soon be out of a job. Post-Enlightenment philosopher Nietzsche succinctly summed up the situation when he declared in his famous epitaph to religion that 'God is dead'.
The problem of morality in the transition from the religious to the secular worldview does not primarily involve what we might call 'core morality' or the basic rules of society (no lying, no stealing, no cheating, no rape, no murder, etc) since they are either enforced by what might be called 'judicial morality', ie, moral rules that have been rendered into law, or else are so much a part of everyday life that transgressors will learn from the reaction of others that such behavior is generally not in their best interest. Rather the problem of morality in this transitional period is primarily a problem of 'fringe' or 'philosophical' issues which each of the various religions has 'settled' in its own way, but which are now open again as the result of religion's demise. (Such issues might well be called matters of manners rather than morals, but some of them, like sexual behavior, have become so hotly debated and so closely associated with morals that 'manners' seems too weak a term.) These issues are primarily comprised of recreational disputes, including sexual behavior, drugs and gambling; and value-of-life issues, including abortion, capital punishment, racial relations, animal rights, children's rights, and conscientious objection. And it is with reference to these fringe disputes that religionists are most often heard to bemoan the world's immorality.
It is worth remarking that, while fringe issues are treated in widely different manners by differing societies and religions, core morality is pretty much the same everywhere -- a fact which is the basis of ecumenism, or the belief that religion is 'really universal'. The reason for the universality of core morality -- and for that matter, one of the most important reasons for the universality of religion itself, which has been the customary vehicle for imparting moral rules (after all, making rules 'holy' is a good way of impressing believers with their importance) -- is that morality is a product of social evolution, just as living things are the product of physical evolution; and societies which have not embraced core morality have simply not survived. Accordingly, no matter how 'irrational' religion and its accompanying moral code may seem, the reason it has remained an integral part of society is because it has provided an important element of social utility. The importance of these facts to atheists and others who are hostile to religion should be obvious: Don't undermine religion until you have something better to offer.
It is worth observing that cultural conservatives have often attributed the current moral climate to the abandonment of 'absolute morality' (ie, a moral code which allows no exceptions) in favor of what might be called 'ethical relativism' or 'relative morality'. And while it is certainly true that the demise of 'absolute morality' has tended to leave people somewhat at loose ends morally speaking, particularly in the 'fringe' areas, relative morality has had the desirable effect of forcing a rational examination of codes that have otherwise had only the support of (irrational) religion and its ethereal Policeman. The result has been a growing recognition that morality is, in fact, relative in a number of ways. These include the following:
* As awareness of different cultures has grown, there has been a growing recognition that morality is relative to culture -- for example, the drinking of alcohol is a serious moral offense in Islamic countries, tho a social necessity in our own; while in our own country the smoking of marijuana is a serious moral offense -- at least in terms of judicial morality -- but is part of the culture of Islam.
* Even in the case of 'absolute' moral codes, prohibitions are always relative to circumstances, even if this is not formally stated: The prohibition against killing, for example, has always been qualified in cases of war, self-defense, the execution of criminals, and similar situations.
* Another and somewhat more subtle way in which morality is relative is that moral rules cannot be judged in isolation relative to some other moral code, but only relative to the functioning of the moral system of which they are a part. For example, we cannot say that the Arab practice of cutting off the hand of thieves is 'wrong'; rather we must look at the effect of the moral rules of the Arab culture on the Arab people: If they 'work' (ie, if the Islamic system is positive for the Arabs' social happiness), then it must be called 'good'. True, a different moral system might bring greater social happiness, but this is speculative, and in any event ignores the fact that the Arab system is the product of more than a thousand years of experience. It may be brutal; but Arabs are brutal people, and thus a brutal system of morality may be just the thing required for Arabic social stability.
* Yet another way in which morality is relative is that even core morality may change with circumstances, tho it is usually less fungible than other moral rules. For example, in considering the general prohibition against killing, we note that life, like any commodity, becomes less valuable when it is plentiful; so in densely-populated societies like Japan, life is less valued, with the result that suicide, abortion, contraception and the like are viewed with much less concern than in America, where population densities are much less, where the anti-abortion movement inspires great heroism, and where wrongful-death lawsuits can bring millions.
Moral traditionalists have decried relative morality by saying that to abandon absolute morality and adopt 'situational ethics' is equivalent to no ethics at all. In the sense that this implies that morality has no hard-and-fast rules, they are quite right; but in the sense that this is bad, they are mistaken to be alarmed. To explain, we must understand that morality is what philosophers call 'consequentialist', ie, morality functions only by a process of punishments and rewards which are meted out as a consequence of one's actions. Secular social morality, for example -- ie, 'the law' -- functions by punishing violators with fines, imprisonment or similar unpleasant consequences. Likewise, Christian morality functions -- in theory at least -- as meting out rewards (Heaven) or punishments (Hell) in an afterlife as a consequence of good or bad behavior, respectively, with occasional supplementary rewards and punishments by God as he intervenes in the affairs of men and -- so it is said -- answers their prayers. I summarized the consequentialist view in Mortal Words by saying, "There is no right or wrong -- there are only consequences." There is, however, a slightly more informative way to put the matter: Morality is a matter of weighing risks against rewards. The point of a moral system such as Christianity or the justice system, then, is to make the risks of undesirable behavior appear too great relative to the rewards.
The concept of risk versus reward as fundamental to morality is important in accounting for the differences among the moral systems of different societies. To explain, we note that the game-theoretic rational calculation of risk vs reward -- usually done intuitively -- constitutes a comparison of the expected reward -- namely, the amount to be gained (G) times the probability of success (P) -- with the expected risk -- namely, the amount to be lost (L) times the probability of failure (1-P); ie, the dirty deed will not be done unless GP is substantially greater than L(1-P), particularly since the determination of P is intuitive, and may be significantly in error due to the potential perpetrator's lack of needed information or risk-weighing smarts. This then throws light on the following important facts:
* The risk-vs-reward analysis of morality explains why more primitive societies, such as the Arab, are so brutal in their punishments: Because the police forces (or whatever passes for such) in these societies are less sophisticated in determining the perpetrators of crimes, it is necessary to make the punishments harsh in order to compensate for the smaller likelihood of a criminal's detection, ie, L must be made large in order to compensate for the smallness of (1-P) in order to create a risk L(1-P) which is sufficiently large to discourage criminal behavior.
* The risk-vs-reward analysis of morality explains why Jews are often seen as 'money-grubbing' and 'immoral' without usually being criminal: Because of higher intelligence and/or better information (compare the Rothschilds and their legendary communications network) they are usually better at judging odds, and will thus take risks that their gentile counterparts will not, while avoiding ones that gentiles might wrongly think are worthwhile ones. A good example of this is the inventor of 'junk bonds', Michael Milken, who opened the financial markets to high-risk capital ventures, yet was regarded as 'evil' and was prosecuted for this reason, tho he was never sent to jail for his 'evil', but only for technical violations which amounted to trumped-up charges.
It is often heard from believers in relative morality that one should not be 'judgmental' about others' behavior; and this has been an extreme sore point with moral traditionalists who regard such relativism as a green light for 'anything goes'. As we have seen from our above analysis, however, while it is true that there is a sense in which relativism permits that 'anything goes', relative morality does not result in 'anything goes' for the simple reason of consequences. To this we might add the additional important point that there is a difference between being (morally) judgmental and simply disliking something: This is illustrated in the case of homosexuality, where liberals decry the 'judgmentalism' of traditionalists, but do not perceive (or do not wish to perceive) that the question is not one of moral judgment so much as it is a matter of taste -- most people don't like to see men kissing, walking down the street naked or -- especially -- acting in ways that make them vectors for deadly diseases.
An important factor in a person's moral behavior is the degree of development of what we usually call 'conscience'. Contrary to popular belief, conscience has nothing to do with religion per se, but is rather a product of training in childhood. Specifically, because adults are much more perceptive than children, it is easy for them to catch their children when they disobey the rules which the parents have laid out; so that as the child keeps getting caught (and punished) for disobeying the rules, he eventually develops an aversion for disobeying them, and a fear that, if he does, he will be called to account for it. This -- which the child generalizes to include the rules and laws of society -- is known as 'conscience', and is what HL Mencken called 'the little voice which tells us that we just might get caught'.
The observation that society has become much more immoral in the last half- century is usually attributed by cultural conservatives to the abandonment of religion, but has probably been significantly aided by the failure of recent generations to instill conscience into their young, perhaps because of the liberal notions of child-rearing popularized by Dr Benjamin Spock in his perennial best-selling book Baby and Child Care. Another possible cause, particularly among blacks, is the proliferation of single-parent households, usually headed by a female, which lack the higher-quality child supervision that two parents can provide, as well as a strong male who can provide adequate discipline for unruly older children. In fairness to the religionists it could be argued that there is a larger sense in which the failure to instill conscience may be caused by the abandonment of religion, since the religious marital commitment 'to have and to hold, till death do us part' has been undermined by secular divorce laws in which separation has become relatively easy; but the fact remains that the instilling of conscience is not fundamentally a religious function, except perhaps in Catholic school ("Nun o' that now, ye little Divil!" (Thwok!))
But if the development of conscience has nothing to do with religion, and if judicial morality -- which again has nothing to do with religion -- at least theoretically provides the punishments and rewards required for civilized behavior, then should we not simply conclude that religion is irrelevant to morality and has nothing to teach us as we make the transition to the secular worldview? As it happens, the answer is no. To explain, we first note that if a moral code is to be effective, there must not only be an authority willing and able to mete out punishment, but the authority must know when violations occur. And with our judicial system as it is presently functioning, it is the rule rather than the exception that offenses go unpunished; and in fact the police and lawmakers are often themselves the greatest lawbreakers. This, in combination with the fact that children are failing to develop consciences, means that morality is in tatters. So how, then, did religion in its heyday prevent this sort of situation from occurring? The answer is that, in addition to providing moral rules and the penalties for breaking them, religion made certain that its 'authorities' would know of every moral violation; for God, like Santa, keeps track of who is naughty and nice; and punishments, if not forthcoming in this life, will be assured in Hell. This, of course, is nonsense from the scientific view -- there is very little evidence of an afterlife, and what evidence there is does not support the notion of Hellfire and Brimstone or the constipational fantasies of Jerome Bosch -- but it has been enormously effective in reinforcing the conscience, and thus of making people behave themselves even when 'no one but God' could see them.
Here, then, we have identified the unique element which religion provides to support morality, to wit: a God who looks over everyone's shoulder. So the question becomes, Is this the effect which secular morality must reproduce in order to stanch the moral stench? That is, must we have God rise again from the dead in the form of Big Brother, requiring us to say goodby forever to most forms of privacy? My cautious answer is yes, but with the caveat that -- unlike in the world of 1984 -- there should not be two classes of citizens, the Watchers who have privacy (and who will thus not be held accountable for their immoral behavior), and the Watched who do not. I shall not debate the merits of my position except to say that, first, I know of no alternative if society is to be moral, and second, that there is not really any reason for most privacy except in the sense that one may wish to be isolated so as not to be distracted. As to the latter point, even our most intimate moments -- excreting and making love -- are done by everyone, so what is there to hide? And as to our most intimate thoughts, either they are mundane and can profitably be forgotten, or else they are worth knowing and should be shouted from the rooftops.
In view of the above, it is amusing to note that there have been secular efforts to provide the feeling of 'God is watching'. One we have already mentioned is Santa, who helps to insure that, in the words of poet Eugene Field, "Jes' 'fore Christmas, I'se as good as I kin be". Another effort was a children's book which I remember being read to me when I was a toddler, and which told its young readers that, when you're bad, 'the Watchbird is watching you' (It didn't work on me because I couldn't understand how a watchbird could be watching, and my mother couldn't seem to explain it to me.) Unfortunately, however, these methods have proved rather ineffective, so as a result we are now being subjected to unpaid- for-merchandise detectors, security cameras, infrared sensors, helicopter flyovers, drug-sniffing dogs, and you name it. Accordingly, all it seems we need is for Big Brother to stop setting fire to religious compounds and start catching the Bad Guys, such as the politicians in Washington.
In passing, it is notable that an important element of my early academic work was a working-out of the basic ideas which I have expressed in this essay, except that they occurred in an entirely different context -- my work on the logic of natural language. More specifically, some two decades ago I published a paper in a major academic journal entitled "The Logic of Relative Modality and the Paradoxes of Deontic Logic" (Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic, January 1980). In this paper I demolished 'modal logic', ie, the 'logics' of necessity and possibility -- logics which, as I recall, were propounded by Aristotle and continue to be written about in the academic journals -- by demonstrating that all statements of necessity and possibility are actually statements of 'relativity', ie, to say something is 'necessary' or 'possible' is simply to say it is 'necessary' or 'possible' relative to something else. For example, to say, 'It is necessary to dress warmly' is a covert assertion that 'It is necessary to dress warmly in order to stay warm'; while to say 'It is possible to lift a thousand pounds' is a covert assertion of 'Under (ie, relative to) certain conditions (eg, possessing a block and tackle, or being on steroids), one can lift a thousand pounds.' This, however, allows us to collapse all statements of necessity or possibility into simple if-then statements, eg, 'If you want to be warm, then dress warmly', or 'If you want to lift a thousand pounds, see Arnold.' The relevance of all this to morality is that moral statements are generally statements of necessity, eg, 'It is necessary to obey the Ten Commandments.' Thus by reducing moral statements to statements of relativity, and then further to if-then statements, it becomes clear that morality is just a matter of consequences. In fact, we can now state positively that one cultural conservative was clearly wrong when he joked that the Ten Commandments were not intended as 'The Ten Suggestions', for that is exactly what they are -- ten suggestions as to how best to get along in this crazy world.
Besides demonstrating from an independent perspective that morality is relative rather than absolute, and that a great number of logicians have their heads firmly up their butts, the importance of my logic work is that it enabled me to solve two important paradoxes associated with both modal logic and morality -- Hintikka's Paradox and the Paradox of the Good Samaritan -- by demonstrating that under my deconstruction of modality they were no longer paradoxes. In spite of all this, however, the revolution which I attempted to foment single-handed in the halls of academia has apparently gotten nowhere, as demonstrated by the fact that, to my knowledge, there has not been one single published paper referring to my own; and by the fact that, when I sent Hintikka a copy of my paper, he replied (and this was the complete message), "Keep me on your mailing list."
Now where did I put my revolver?
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