We all make mistakes in life. We all from time to time fail to live up to our values or fail to act upon our best judgment. We may from time to time transgress upon others. We may from time to time fail to act when we should. We are all human and none of us are perfect.
It does help one to become a better person to look back at one's past failures and to address what could have been done better. The point should not be to constantly be reminded of one's shortcomings. It is certainly not helpful to constantly be looking to the past. This will certainly not change a thing. At the same time though, it is not a good idea to ignore the past altogether. We should be able to look back from time to time and to learn from our past failures so that we can try to work towards a better future.
In the tradition of several religions including Christianity, one's ethical failings are called sins. I was raised Catholic, so my own experience with addressing personal sins is partially through the Catholic institution of confession. Within Catholicism, addressing one's personal sins is important and there are multiple things that need to be done. One must repent directly to God and ask for forgiveness, one must ask the parishioners in mass to pray for them (everyone says a scripted plea for prayer at the same time) and one must confess their sins to a priest and receive counseling.
Within the Catholic tradition, there are several so-called sacraments, where it is thought that one meets God more directly than at other times. Confession is one such sacrament. It is not sufficient for one to confess their sins to God in private. The dogma of the Church says that one must openly confess one's sins to a priest. Now, this confession may very well be anonymous. In fact, it often is. There is often a dark screen that divides the confessor and the priest. It is quite common these days, however, for confessions to occur face to face. Priests are trained for this and are strictly forbidden to disclose anything that they hear during confession. Despite this, many people have been hurt because of information they provided in confession made it into open knowledge.
The question is why is it necessary to confess one's sins to another person? And more importantly, why is it necessary for this person to be an official member of the Catholic Church leadership? There is no reason for Catholic priests to have control over people's lives in this way. It is certainly beneficial for one to address their own sins and to repent for the sake of trying to be a better person in the future. It is also beneficial to many people to openly confess their sins to others so that they can receive counseling and fellowship and for mutual understanding of personal shortcomings. This being said, there is no reason why one must confess. There is no authority that knows what is best for everyone. The Catholic Church is certainly a man-made institution. All priests are only sanctioned by this man-made leadership to have authority over people's lives.
When I realized that the Church leadership was not necessary for me to address my sins and when I realized that I did not need the help of a priest in order to work towards being a better person, I began to further realize that the Catholic Church had nothing to offer me that could not be found in more reasonable and more modern institutions.
Marriage is a very important part of human society in all cultures. It is natural for men and women to pair up and to signify their love for each other and to cement the intended monogamy of their relationships through official matrimony.
When I was young and growing up within the Catholic Church, I was taught some inaccurate things about marriage. One strange and needlessly restrictive marriage rule I was taught that only marriage within the Catholic Church is valid in God's eyes. My mother even went so far as to say that all marriages must be performed physically inside a church and presided over by a priest. Basically this means that only marriages sanctioned by the Catholic Church would be real and all others would be false. So for all people who were married in other churches or by a justice of the peace were not married at all but were living together in sin.
I was taught that it was a horrible sin to ever have sex before marriage and that this was the main reason why so many people go to hell these days. With the belief that most people I knew who claimed to be married were actually living in sin because they were not married in the Catholic Church, this had the effect of making me look down upon most people because they were not Catholic. There would be many perfectly good married people who I knew that, because they were not Catholic, I would think of them as living in sin.
This was how I thought of things for a few years when I was young. I began to seriously doubt this dogma when I was about 12 years old. I knew there had to be a stark difference between those who made no attempt to be married and lived promiscuous lives and never loved anyone versus those who were, in their own eyes, very much married. They were told in their religion that they were married so how could they not be? Later I also came to see anyone who was married in the legal sense as also married since there is no reason to believe otherwise.
I now see that these restrictions on the definition of marriage were created centuries ago by church leaders who wanted to control aspects of people's personal lives. They wanted the sole authority to determine the rules for marriage. They did not want any important social function such as marriage to be out of their control. So if any marriages were performed out of their jurisdiction, then these were not marriages and they said the marriages were not recognized in God's eyes. This is completely false. I am glad I was able to realize the universal importance of marriage as a social custom and not as something that must be sanctioned by religious authorities.
Three weeks ago, I made a case for the natural rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. What this means is that it is morally right for us all to 1) respect other's choices in what to do in their life 2) treat others as you would want to be treated, which presumably is to not cause suffering and instead to try to make happiness available to others 3) respect the lives of others, which means whether another lives or dies is their own choice and it is morally wrong to think you know better than someone else whether to end their life.
This does leave some unresolved questions. For one thing, it is clear that it is impossible to act this way all of the time because the right to freedom often conflicts with the right to happiness in many situations. So which right is more important? I will address this in a future posting. Today I want to begin to address another important question: what kinds of individuals do these rights apply to? Do they apply only to humans? Do animals also have the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? If so what kinds of animals? Do microbes also have rights? Do nonliving things have rights? You see, we have to draw the line somewhere and this line should be drawn from reasoned principles rather than from immediate appearances.
There is a long history within human ethics of only applying these rights to other humans. This humanist ethical theory is actually a significant step forward from those employed long ago (centuries ago or decades ago or maybe even now in some places in the world) where not all people have rights. It was often the case that most people didn't have rights. We have come a long way to the current day where in the developed world where human rights are near universal. This obviously isn't the case everywhere in the world and this obviously doesn't mean that the more developed parts of the world are free from injustice. Not at all. But I think it is important to recognize the progress that has been made for human rights.
Now, some will recognize this but then argue that there is much more that needs to be done to extend rights to animals. Throughout the world, even in the most advanced societies, animals are bred, owned, raised, and killed for food with little or no regard to their well being. They have no rights at all. They often seem to live in constant suffering. Is this morally wrong? I will say that there is a clear moral wrong in that if we are eating this food, if these animals were raised in squalor for no reason other than to maximize profit, then this is morally wrong. If the squalid conditions of livestock contributes to unhealthy food, then this is morally wrong. If anyone is harming an animal for no good reason, then this is morally wrong. This behavior could lead one to harm humans after all.
Few will argue with what I have said here, but for animal rights activists, this misses the main point. They will not disagree that these acts of animal cruelty or neglect are morally wrong for the reasons that I have stated, but they will say that the gravest moral wrong is what is happening to the animals, not the effect that this has on humans. They will say that animals are ends in themselves. They point to the fact that animals appear to experience pain in a way similar to our own experiences and argue that this means that we should treat them as we wish to be treated. They say it is morally right to respect their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
I find flaw in this argument because it is too simplistic. If you look at my reasons for natural rights, it all begins with experience, which is a nonphysical concept. I know that I have a physical body, but I also know that my experience of positive feelings and negative feelings and my experience of seeing and hearing and making choices is beyond my physical body. There are physical processes that go on within the body that cause me to experience things, but these processes are not the same thing as my experience. So when my body is cut and my nerves react accordingly, this alone is not the same thing as my experience. My experience of pain is caused by this, but it is altogether nonphysical. It follows from this that it is possible for some bodies out there to not have the corresponding experience of pain when they are hurt. They appear to experience pain, but this is only an appearance.
Take for example a computer program of a cow. I can program this to appear to be in pain, but it is obvious that there is no actual experience of pain that corresponds to this. And if I were to take a hammer to a computer, it makes a sound when it is smashed just as a live cow makes a sound when it is cut or hit, but is there an experience of pain coming from either the computer or the cow? It is quite reasonable to assume that all humans have this experience since I am a soul connected to a human and thus I will conclude that all humans have souls. The question is though, do animals have souls? Do computers have souls?
I will say that a being has a soul if it has certain built-in functional capabilities that allow for body-soul interaction. One important quality is nerve endings that will serve as a way of communicating positive or negative valence to the soul. Both humans and animals have this. A computer could be build that has this as well. Another thing that a body needs is the ability to identify similar beings in order to extend the natural rights to them. Again, humans have this, many animals do, and robots could be built to have this quality as well. Finally, in order for body-soul interaction to truly work such that all beings can know how to extent natural rights to each other, they must all be able to understand future possibilities and also be able to to communicate complex possible future states to other similar beings.
I'm sorry, but without this a being cannot act morally and therefore it is unreasonable to extend morality to these beings. There quite simply is no soul there. There is no experience of pain or happiness or anything else, regardless of appearances. Advanced linguistic research has shown that only humans have the ability to communicate possible future states of affairs in an open ended way. No animals can do this. Therefore I conclude that only humans have souls. I do not see a reason to extend natural rights to animals. Humans have the natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but no animals have these rights.
What does the word “saint” mean to you? What do you think it means to say that this or that person is a saint? Is a saint a great person who leads an exemplary life? Is a saint a person who is no longer with us and who did great things when they were alive? Who makes the call on which individuals can rightly be called saints? Is it a judgment call of the individual? Is it God alone who weighs a person's every action during their time on earth and then bestows this label upon the worthy?
I ask these questions because belief in saints was a part of my Catholic upbringing and I now see that my former beliefs regarding saints did not make much sense. The word “saint” does have important uses in the secular tradition. This is an informal title, almost like a term of endearment, for someone that you think lives a very good life and whose example we should follow. Such a person, perhaps deceased or perhaps not, would be deserving of this title if they are (or were) unselfish, hard working, helpful to others, humble, ascetic, and there are other attributes one could name. Of course nobody is perfect but we do have a need to identify people who lead exemplary lives and the word “saint” is useful for this.
This use of the word “saint” is similar to how it is used in the Catholic tradition, only therein it is far more official and specific in meaning. A saint must be a deceased person who was very virtuous and faithful in their life. They must have had strong faith in God and also lived altruistically. And it is part of Catholic dogma that God alone designates certain deceased people as saints. A saint must be able to answer prayers among the living and to work miracles. I guess it seemed to me at the time that the saints in heaven formed a kind of exclusive club. They listened to prayers among people on earth and prayed for us themselves. They had special powers to intercede in our lives because they were given this power by God.
In my 20's when I slowly turned towards Deism rather than any form of Christianity, I stopped thinking about saints. I really didn't focus on what the myths I was told about saints really meant or where these myths came from until I read about the history of sainthood within the Catholic church (which is also quite similar with some other Christian denominations, such as Orthodoxy). It turns out “saint” comes from the same Latin root as the word “sacred”, which originally simply meant devotion. So a saint was originally just someone who devoted their live to what they saw as holy. Early Christians began the sainthood tradition by remembering great people who had passed away and calling them saints. These people were not always highly ethical people in the way we would judge this today. They were in fact often zealous in their beliefs and highly prejudiced against those who held differing beliefs. Some were violent and murderous, but just as long as they worked towards advancing Christianity, they were held in high regard and thus called saints by later generations.
Over the centuries, the concept of sainthood evolved into a myth where the faithful thought that God alone had always been the one who decided which dead people were designated as saints. Along with this came the idea that God communicated this to the leaders of the Church, notably the Pope, who then communicated this to the masses of faithful so that they can all follow in lockstep.
I do think that the word “saint” is useful in identifying people who seem to live great lives and who's example we should try to follow. On the basis of evidence, there is no reason to assume that God designates anyone as a saint. There are certain people that we can call saints just as there are certain people that we can call heroes. But we should keep in mind that nobody is or was perfect and that these designations that we bestow on people are our own creation based on our own limited understanding of others.
Have you ever thought of the afterlife? Have you considered the idea that a part of oneself could endure after death? I wrote a few months ago about how one can come to realize that there is indeed an essence of their self that is nonphysical. Now, with this in mind, it is at least logically possible for the soul to endure if one's physical body dies. This is mostly speculative. There have been reports of out of body experiences and of ghost and such, but I will say that these reports are unreliable. There are, however, certain philosophical conclusions that I have come to that tell me that it is likely that there is a sort of afterlife. I will explain my reasons for this in future posts. Today I want to take a look at some common conceptions of the afterlife in organized religion.
In the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, there are the concepts of heaven and hell. These concepts also exist in some forms of religious Taoism (also known as Chinese folk religion to distinguish it from philosophical Taoism, which is related but altogether distinct). Heaven is thought of as the best possible existence, one of eternal happiness and lack of suffering, which one may earn by living a virtuous life. In different religions and different denominations, the virtues that get one into heaven can be quite different. In many forms of Christianity, faith in God alone gets one into heaven. From my own Catholic upbringing, I was taught that faith in God and the church matter in addition to altruism and charity and avoiding sin, though repentance can erase sin. Hell is thought of as the polar opposite of heaven. Hell is eternal suffering and torment and one is punished with this fate by living a life of sin and/or lack of faith.
What I always thought was unjust with this conception of the afterlife is that the two possible fates are diametrically opposed to each other and each of them is eternal. Whatever one's standing with God or God's commandments is at the moment of death determines their eternal fate. At this point, there is no going back. One can live for thousands of years in the torment of hell and there is no chance of repentance. Also, in the eternal bliss of heaven, there is no possibility of conflict and absolutely no uncertainty. Anyone in heaven, as so defined, would probably not have free will as we now know it because this would include the freedom to sin. What would we be if we didn't have freedom and everything was determined for us? This existence does not really sound like the best possible world.
There are other conceptions of the afterlife that are popular in major world religions besides this idea of eternal heaven and hell. The Dharmic faiths of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism involve reincarnation, in which after one dies, one's spirit can be reborn in another body, and this may be a human body or an animal body. The idea is that over the course of many, many successive lives one can come closer to the universal spirit or to nirvana or perhaps to some other ideal.
To me, this is doubtful because I think it is only reasonable to conclude that humans have souls and not animals. There has always been a growing number of people in the world, so for reincarnation to be true, there has to be many people in the world who are living their very first life, not yet reborn. Also the idea of unification with a universal spirit seems to me counter to the concept of the soul as I understand it. The Buddhist conception of the soul may be nonphysical, but they do not believe that there is any part of it that is enduring and they also believe that nirvana is a kind of extinguishment. To me, the Hindu and the Buddhist conception of the soul and afterlife run counter to the conclusions I have made.
In summary, I don't particularly like any conception of the afterlife across the major world religions. If there is an afterlife, as far as I can speculate from my philosophical conclusions, it likely involves an enduring soul that still has free will and thus probably will need some sort of a body, but this is not likely any body in the world as we know it. This existence will neither be eternal happiness nor eternal suffering, though I believe both happiness and suffering are part of the existence just as they are for us here. There is more that I could speculate on this topic but I will save that for another day.
This post continues the series where I take a look at popular ethical theories to see how reasonable they are. Today's subject is rights-based ethical theory, in which goodness is defined as respecting a being's rights while violating a being's rights is evil. Within a system of rights, what makes an action right or wrong are the consequences, or perhaps the expected consequences, that an action has on the rights of beings. Rights based ethical systems are therefore consequentialist. In this sense rights theory is similar to utilitarianism, which was discussed in an earlier post.
The work of seventeenth century philosopher John Locke has been very influential in the theory of rights. In his book Two Treatises of Government, Locke writes:
To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man. A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection.” (Chap. II, Sect 4).
Here Locke is saying that people are naturally equal and naturally free. From this Locke concludes that people have a natural right to life, liberty, and property. This may seem perfectly reasonable to many people. It certainly does to me, but it is important to understand why it is reasonable.
To be perfectly honest, the idea that people are naturally free and equal cannot be true in a purely physical sense. I mentioned this a while back – in the purely physical sense free will does not exist. I previously provided reasons for believing that people have souls as beginning with spirituality. If there is a nonphysical essence of people, then this essence can be equal for all people. If the only thing about people is the body, then there is no grounds for saying that all people are equal because, quite simply, this can not be true in a physical sense. We are just different from each other and our bodies are not equal. Our souls, however, can be equal. Also through spirituality, one can come to realize their own free will. If one realizes that all people are equal and free by nature, then it is easier to see the rational basis for Locke's assertion of the natural rights of mankind.
One problem that needs to be addressed, however, is what exactly are rights? People may have rights within a given legal system created by man, but it is hard to see how anyone can actually have a right in purely physical sense. What is a right? If we have them, then where are they? Rights do not exist in a purely physical sense. Although people often talk of having certain rights, this is certainly not true in the physical world. A person can have physical things like arms and legs, but no part of a person’s body can be identified as a right. Likewise one can physically posses things like clothes or books, but rights are not things that physically exist. The literal use of the word “right” in this context is physically impossible, but those who believe in rights may respond by arguing that this is a figure of speech. One way of giving the word “right” a meaning that is physically possible is this: when someone says that X possesses the right to Y, this means that they believe that it would be better if everyone does not interfere with X’s use of Y. In this situation, X can represent the speaker or another person or a group of people or any number of animals or inanimate objects. Y can represent X’s life, freedom to do something, or some physical object. In the current post, I am only trying to make the case that people have rights, in the sense of the word explained above. I will deal with the question of whether animals or any inanimate objects have rights in future posts.
So now we know what is meant when we say someone has a right to something. What is meant here is a relation between the person and their ability to do something without others getting in the way. Under rights based ethical theory, goodness is equated with having rights. As mentioned in previous posts, there are other theories for how goodness should be defined. Some argue that goodness is the state of being virtuous. Some argue that goodness is doing one's duty, regardless of the consequences. Believers in utilitarianism argue that goodness is simply a measure of happiness. I argued in prior posts that for all three of these ethical theories, the definition of goodness must be ultimately arbitrary in the purely physical sense. I argued that the only way for goodness to have a non-arbitrary definition and to instead have a definition that is a mind-independent fact is for it to ultimately derive from the nonphysical. Well, we should by now know what is nonphysical. It is the soul, that which makes all people equal. It is also our free will.
Another important nonphysical attribute is a sense of right and wrong. We all have this sense. When we are happy, we know this is good. When we suffer, we know this is bad. This is not to equate happiness with goodness as utilitarians do. What I am arguing is that there is an aspect of the personal experience of positive feelings that is nonphysical, just as the soul is nonphysical. This is called valence. When the physical body is in a state of happiness, the soul experiences positive valence. When the body is in a state of sorrow, the soul experiences negative valence.
So if we take into account all the nonphysical attributes, we have the soul, free will, and valence. Ethics can only be non-arbitrary facts if they derive from these three. They are all important, so one cannot be justified in simply equating goodness with nothing more or less than positive valence as the utilitarians do. The other two must be taken into account when judging the moral worth of actions as well. The value of the soul can be taken into account by noting that it is the nonphysical essence of the body. In human form, we do not have direct access to other people's souls. If we want to respect other souls, we need to respect other people's bodies. If the body ceases to live, then we don't know what happens to the body, but we may assume that it is negative. Therefore it is best if we respect other people's use of their own life. This means that people have the right to life. Also, since people are naturally free, we may say that it is best if we do not unnecessarily hinder the bodies of these people in achieving their goals. Therefore we can say that people have the right to liberty. And it is also best if we allow others to find their own way to achieve positive valence. Since positive valence is caused by happiness, this means that we should allow others to pursue happiness. In other words, people have the right to the pursuit of happiness.
So there you have it. This is the detailed reasoning that leads to the conclusion that people have the natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This is just as John Locke said, though the reasoning outlined here is more detailed than Locke provided. This is also one of the main arguments made in my forthcoming book “Seeking a More Enlightened Worldview”. The book will provide an even more detailed case for natural rights than what is written here, and I am still working on perfecting this.
Categories: Freethinking Awakenings, Traditional Religion is Flawed
The Bible is probably the most influential book in history. I wrote a few weeks ago about how far too many people assume that the Bible is the word of God. It really isn't. There are a lot of things said in the Bible that are far too commonly believed this day and age. Especially the things that the Bible says many, many times over and over throughout many of its constituent books. Take for instance the assumption that Jews are the chosen people of God. Most books of the Old Testament either directly state that Jews are the chosen people or this is assumed somehow in God's preferential treatment.
(I should mention briefly that the “Jews” were originally one of the twelve tribes of Israel, all tribes of which were the chosen people of God. Ten of the tribes were lost, probably assimilated into the Assyrian culture, and the two remaining tribe merged to form the Jewish tribe so this is why we currently call them “Jews” rather than the term “Israelites”, which is used often in the Bible.)
I've already provided arguments for why the Bible is not a reliable source. Aside from that, it simply does not make sense to think of God as favoring any people over another. The best conclusion that one can come to is that God created all people equal and there is no reason to think that God would favor one group, tribe, ethnicity, or race over any other. All are equal in God's eyes (I don't think of God as actually having eyes, so this should be interpreted as symbolic).
The assumption that Jews are the chosen people of God among many people, Jews and non-Jews alike, has led to horrible consequences in the modern world. Many Christians believe that Jews are the chosen people but that they rejected Jesus (despite the fact that nobody who knew Jesus has been alive for nearly 2000 years). The fact that the Jews rejected Jesus means different things to different Christians. Some believe they will go to hell, others believe that they will one day be forced to convert to Christianity.
Regardless of what they believe the ultimate fate of the Jews will be, modern Christians by and large believe that Jews still have some special privilege in God's eyes and are deserving of special respect. This has led many influential Christians to blindly support the modern state of Israel no matter what evils the Israeli government and military are responsible for. The belief is that God still favors the Jews and favors the re-establishment of Israel as a necessary prerequisite for end-times. The belief among these Christians may well be that God intends to force the Jews to be Christians one day or to send them to hell or whatever, but for some reason they believe that God favors them today and that their modern country needs protection at all costs. These are weird beliefs that have led people to support the atrocities that the Israeli military has caused.
The belief that makes the most sense is that God favors all people equally and does not favor any one government or military. God certainly does not favor people killing others in thinking that they are doing God's holy work or getting God's favor.
As mentioned elsewhere within this website, I am in the process of writing a book that will explain my worldview, which seeks to unify ethics, spirituality, and Deism. This project is years in the making and I still have much to do. Although I do have what I would consider a completed manuscript, I also have a long list of issues with this manuscript that covers every chapter. I'll say that I need to work through a lot of these issues and the manuscript needs to be improved before I can proceed with publication. Many of these issues require me to conduct some significant research, which takes time. Also, after I work through some of these issues and improve the manuscript, I still need to get several more people to review it and to give me feedback. I would like some college professors to read it in detail and to give me constructive criticism. The book does not have to be perfect in order to be published, but I would like it to be as good as possible.
The manuscript covers a wide range of subjects and tries to show how they are related, so this is by no means a small task. I want to know more about the theory of knowledge, more about ethical theory, more about arguments for and against the existence of God, and more about the findings of modern science with regard to the mind, consciousness, quantum mechanics, and relativity. These subjects are all covered in my book and I want to know what I am talking about.
Another big issue I am dealing with is the audience that I am writing for. In order to deal with these complex subjects in the level of detail that the deserve and in order for me to make a good case with my arguments, I have to get very technical and philosophical in my writing. There has already been much written on the subjects that I am dealing with, and a lot of this is highly detailed and academic. The detailed, rigorous academic work is what is accepted by the experts in these fields. I need to convince these experts that I have some idea of what I am talking about. For these reasons, I have to write to an academic audience in a highly technical and philosophical language.
The problem with this, though, is that this kind of highly academic language would not be understandable for most people. In order to really understand this kind of writing, one would probably have to be familiar with a lot of philosophical concepts and terminology and also be familiar with many of the philosophical debates that have been ongoing within academic circles. So obviously, what I write for an academic audience is not the best thing to try to present to a general audience. Most people who are interested in my book are interested in religion and ethics and will probably have some understanding of philosophy and modern science.
When I say “general audience”, what I mean is an educated and curious adult audience. There are many, many people who are not going to be interested in any book that deals with weighty issues such as these. But there are still lots of people who are educated, or in the process of being educated, and might be interested in reading a book that questions the merits of traditional religion while still arguing in favor of a higher power. There are a lot of people who might be somewhat familiar with Deism and would be interested to read about how it can be combined with spirituality and humanist ethics. Today it seems the only worldviews people know about that combine belief in a higher power with ethics and spirituality are traditional religions. This, it seems to me, is one reason why traditional religion is still quite popular. People have many questions that are important to life and they don't see a way that they can receive and answer to these questions without turning to religion. I am trying to broaden the scope of modern Deism to include areas that still only seem to be covered by traditional religion.
So to write for this more general, but still educated, audience I will need to write another book. I will have to split my current manuscript into two separate ones. The two books will cover much of the same subject matter, but will have different focuses. One will be for the academic audience to show that there is philosophical rigor to these ideas, and one will be more accessible to a general audience and will focus a bit more on how people can use these ideas to improve their lives. The general audience book will only lay out the arguments in layman's terms without getting too deep into philosophy, but will have a reference to the academic book for anyone who wants to read more on the subject. Some people, I imagine, will start with the general audience book and then will take up the academic book. I am also thinking that somewhere down the line, I might create a book for younger audiences. I can't think of any Deist themed children's or young adult books. I think we could use some.
I have a lot of work to do in order to make this a reality and I continue to rely on the help of others in this ongoing effort.
This post continues the series where I take a look at popular ethical theories to see how reasonable they are. Today's subject is utilitarianism, under which goodness is thought to more or less be the same thing as pure happiness, pleasure, or some other positive feeling while evil is equated with suffering and pain. The implication of this is that the best way one can act is the way that provides the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest amount of people.
This theory has always enjoyed a lot of support in various cultures throughout the world. Probably the reason for this is because for rulers to govern and make rulings based on utilitarian principles is the most convenient way of promoting and preserving social cohesion among the populace. This is because rulings that are intended to benefit people the most are naturally going to be the most popular.
There is, however, an apparent downside to utilitarianism. If one equates goodness with happiness or pleasure alone, then the value of life itself may be just an afterthought. For example, if an innocent person is accused of murder and an angry mob is certain he is guilty, then it might, under the assumption of utilitarianism, be the best thing to do to let the mob kill him. This gives happiness to the mob, while only giving some suffering to one person. The total happiness, added up from all members of the mob, is far greater than the suffering of the wrongly accused.
This scenario does seem unjust to many people, and there might be merit to this intuitive conclusion. In order to analyze whether utilitarianism makes sense though, I am going to try to look at how this theory is constructed and the reasons for believing in it or not believing in it. First, it is important to point out that utilitarianism is a type of consequentialism, which is an approach to ethics where the actual consequences or expected consequences of an action are what matters in judging moral value. In past weeks, I took a close look at both virtue ethics and duty ethics. Both of these theories are supposed to judge moral worth without consideration of the consequences of situations or even the expected consequences, but I argued that this is false. It only makes sense for a theory of ethics to be based on consequences, so on this utilitarianism makes sense.
Now let us look at the reasons for believing in utilitarianism. Many people will say that happiness is good, but in a purely physical sense, nothing is intrinsically good. Looking objectively at the concept of happiness, an unbiased observer should see that it is simply a state of the physical body that is no more intrinsically preferable than the states known as sorrow or suffering. Now, the Nineteenth Century British philosopher John Stuart Mill argues that because happiness is the only thing that is universally desired by all beings that it is reasonable to equate goodness with this. The problem with this is that it is purely descriptive of the physical world because it defines goodness as a measure of happiness, which is an arbitrary definition. Although this definition is objective, it is also true that suffering is a purely physical concept just the same as happiness and it would be just as objective to define goodness as a measure of suffering.
This gets back to the example above where the life of the person who was wrongly accused did not have any inherent value under the assumption of utilitarianism. There are those who believe that life does have value and that this should be taken into consideration, along with happiness, when judging the moral worth of actions. This theory, which is clearly at odds with utilitarianism, is called the theory of rights, and I will analyze this in more detail in a future post.
But regardless of whether one defines goodness as an amount of happiness or wishes to take into account other factors, such as people's lives, the fact is that it is difficult to see how any definition of goodness can be both objective and avoid being arbitrary. In truth, any purely physical definition of goodness would have to be ultimately arbitrary. Although it may sometimes seem like happiness is inherently good and suffering is inherently bad, goodness and evil can neither be found in any material thing nor any physical action through any amount of objective investigation. This means that if one is arguing in favor of a definition of goodness that is purely physical then this can only be a personal opinion, as opposed to mind-independent fact. If one insists that happiness is good and that this definition is not arbitrary, then goodness must ultimately be something ontologically distinct from the physical world.
How can one come to know about something that is not physical? If indeed there is anything in existence that is not physical, then it is difficult to see how people, which are physical things, can come to know about them. But if goodness is to be a real thing, not arbitrarily defined and not a figment of someone's imagination, then it must be nonphysical. If goodness is real and is nonphysical and if we can somehow come to know about this, then it is possible that it is directly related to the physical concepts of happiness and suffering, though it seems equally possible that goodness is also related to human life.
In summary, utilitarianism makes some sense in that it is a consequentialist theory, yet it does seem to lead to unjust consequences because it does not put special emphasis on people's lives. Also, this theory does provide a clear definition of what is good and what is evil, though on purely physical grounds this definition is completely arbitrary. There are countless theories of ethics that one could formulate that equate goodness with something besides happiness, such as freedom or authenticity. In order for a definition of goodness to avoid being arbitrary and instead to be representative of reality, it must be nonphysical. So this means that if goodness is real then it cannot be purely a function of the physical world. How can one come to know about this? If there are nonphysical ethics, then how do they relate to the physical world? These are questions for a future post.
Do you ever wonder why there are so many denominations of Christianity? There are hundreds of different conceptions of what is means to be Christian and the followers of any of of these are so often quite certain that their doctrine and dogma is correct. There are the Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Baptists, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses, etc. Followers of any one of the denominations can point to specific Biblical passages to justify their religious doctrine and dogma.
There is wide disagreement across the many denominations regarding the meaning of Bible verses. There are several reasons for this. The Bible was written thousands of years ago, originally in Hebrew and Greek, and the translation into English is often difficult. Much of it was also written poetically and in vague symbolic language so there are very many ways of interpreting any passage. Also, the Bible is very large and this allows the faithful to pick certain passages out and emphasize their interpreted meaning as a guiding force while ignoring the rest. Even within any denomination, there is much debate amongst the faithful regarding exactly what specific Bible verses mean and which are more important than others. This debate has in the past led to sharp divisions within denominations and to the formation of new denominations, each with their own way of reading the Bible and with their own favorite passages and interpretations.
Over the centuries there has been an enormous amount of debate and open conflict over the meaning of the Bible, and this continues to this day. There may be a wide variety of ways of interpreting the Bible and of practicing Christianity, but nearly all Christians do seem to agree that the Bible is the word of God. Not all Christians believe that the Bible is infallibly true, but many do believe this. And those who take a more moderate position that the Bible has some flaws still believe that the word of God can be found within the Bible if one looks carefully enough. Those who don't believe that the word of God can be found in the Bible in any form are probably not Christians.
The root of the problem of Christianity is the underlying assumption that the Bible is to any extent the word of God. This belief cannot be justified by anything close to strong, reliable evidence. We can have strong and reliable evidence from historical records that the Bible is a collection of writings that originated over several centuries and each of which were written by humans. The evidence strongly suggests that each book was written by humans who were flawed, as we all are, and who had some specific motive in mind when they wrote it. In many cases this motive was political and cultural, including the majority of Old Testament writings whose purpose appears to have been to promote social cohesion among the tribes of Israel.
Some parts of the Bible can be historically verified, but even then they often only half-truths. There are a lot of stories in the Bible that are supernatural and thus can not be seen as reliable. These stories almost certainly were made up. There are many other stories that report on events that are physically possible, but these events are of no relevance to our lives outside of historical speculation. If one is interested in historical records, then it makes sense to put just as much emphasis on the self-histories compiled by other groups of ancient times that were enemies of the Israelites, the people who wrote the Old Testament.
As a Deist, I know that God does not reveal Itself through written texts that must be believed by people through nothing other than blind faith. I have come to realize God through observation and reason, and I no longer have a need for the Bible as anything other than an interesting yet only partially reliable historical record. I know that the word of God will not be written in plain text in a book because it is written into the reality in which we are living.