“Think Again” Again

Last month I gave a presentation to the Humanist Association of Manitoba on the subject of skepticism. It apparently garnered some negative feedback from a small Steinbach newspaper.

“Think Again”
Michael Zwaagstra

Being skeptical of skepticism

Skeptical of skepticism? Really? See, that’s not a good way to start us off.

Earlier this year, I wrote about my visit to a Manitoba Humanist Association event in Winnipeg. Last Saturday, I decided to attend another event to find out more about their ideas. The keynote speaker at this forum was Gem Newman, founder of the Winnipeg Skeptics Group. Newman spoke for approximately an hour about what it means to think skeptically.

Much of his presentation was solidly argued. He explained skepticism does not mean doubting everything nor should it create an impossible standard that cannot ever be met. Newman was quick to reject so-called “radical” skepticism, whereby our very existence is called into question.

Not so-called by me! I didn’t mention “radical skepticism”; I briefly touched upon philosophical solipsism, and I didn’t reject it as false: I rejected it on the grounds that such speculation is not useful. Regardless of whether we live in the Matrix or are enthralled by a djinni, the universe certainly behaves in a fairly regular fashion, and our fellow human beings certainly seem to think that they’re real. It could all be a fiction—but if so, who cares? If a real universe is indistinguishable from a glorious fiction that is perfect to the last detail, what does it matter? As Tracie Harris once quipped: “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck… then why would you assert it’s a god disguised as a duck, rather than a duck?”

Newman suggested we should look for plausibility, falsifiability, evidence and sound reasoning in all ideas. If any idea fails to meet these criteria, then skeptics should withhold belief until it is satisfactorily proven. Newman also emphasized the need to avoid logical fallacies such as attacking a straw man, engaging in ad hominem attacks and begging the question.

Given these points, it was unfortunate that Newman did not do a better job himself of avoiding the logical fallacies that he identified.

Ooh, ouch!

For example, Newman stated he rejects cultural relativism (the belief that no one culture is superior to any other). He gave the example of female genital mutilation, which is still practiced in many countries around the world, and stated that this practice was morally wrong regardless of the cultural beliefs of those performing the mutilation.

Actually, if you look at the slides, I said that I mostly rejected cultural relativism. Really, I should have said moral relativism (again, with the “mostly” caveat), because I do believe that people’s actions should be understood in their greater cultural context—but I believe that slavery, for example, is wrong even where it is culturally acceptable. Although Zwaagstra’s definition of cultural relativism as “the belief that no one culture is superior to any other” is also a little rough, so whatever.

Before the real fireworks begin, I should mention that the cultural relativism comment was a one-bullet-point remark on a list of things in which I disbelieved, which was located on the last slide of the presentation. When I was putting the talk together, I intentionally placed some contentious items onto this list in order to generate discussion afterward. Success!

Cultural relativism was actually the one that I was shakiest on, and the item on which I could probably most easily have my viewpoint swayed. So bring it on, Michael!

During the question and answer period, I asked Newman whether his rejection of cultural relativism meant that he believed in moral absolutes and, if so, what he based those moral absolutes on. Instead of a straightforward response, Newman gave a convoluted answer in which he argued that rejecting cultural relativism does not necessarily lead to moral absolutes. He then engaged in the logical fallacy of attacking a straw man by stating that the “Thou shalt not murder” commandment of the Bible was not a moral absolute since God ordered the Israelites to kill the Canaanites.

However, this was a mischaracterization of what the Bible says since it makes a clear distinction between the unjust taking of a human life (murder) and killing someone during a battle or in self-defence. All murder is killing but not all killing is murder. The Bible never condones murder but it does allow for circumstances where it is justified to take someone’s life.

Although I readily admit that I did meander a bit in my response to his question, I think that my main point was fairly clear: if you agree upon a value set (we should strive to minimise human suffering and maximise human happiness, for example), then you don’t need cultural relativism, because you can evaluate the ethical character of practices objectively—although we may never reach objective morality, as we don’t have a system in place to quantify moral actions, we can at the very least approach it. Although Zwaagstra accuses me of begging the question, here, finding moral premises on which (almost) everyone agrees is as simple as the finding lowest common denominator in their value set: we want to avoid pain and seek pleasure.

It is, of course, possible that I am a moral relativist by Mr. Zwaagstra’s definition. But I don’t think so. I’m simply stating that in order to make objective moral evaluations, we first need to agree on the premises of the argument in order to demonstrate the conclusion. For example, this is a logically valid syllogism:

Human beings should strive to avoid actions that cause suffering.
Genital mutilation is an action that causes suffering.
Therefore, human beings should strive to avoid genital mutilation.

Like all valid syllogisms, if you agree to the premises, you must agree to the conclusion. But, unlike the supposedly objective Christian ethical system, a consequentialist ethical system can use evidence to support its positions, and will reject positions that are found to be unsupported. Why should we strive to avoid actions that cause suffering? Because it makes for a more productive, healthy, and happy society.

When I pressed Newman further on how he can reject moral absolutes without accepting cultural relativism, he stated we can only make moral judgments if everyone agrees on the fundamental premises behind them. Of course, this was a classic example of the logical fallacy of begging the question. Since people in other cultures reject the premises of Newman’s morality, how can he possibly make a moral judgment about their behaviour?

By the end of our dialogue, Newman came close to acknowledging he really is a cultural relativist since his entire basis for judging the moral values of other people rests upon the need for everyone to accept the same moral premises as his.

Clearly, atheists such as Gem Newman are forced into contortions of logic when trying to explain how it is cultures that condone spousal abuse are inferior to those that uphold the equality of men and women. In contrast, Christians have no difficulty rejecting cultural relativism since God, as the supreme moral lawgiver, has decreed what is right and wrong.

Clearly.

I disagree that contortions of logic are required, but let’s assume that they are! Let’s say that atheists have no way of judging right from wrong. Does that make Christianity true? That would be an argument from final consequences, which I happened to discuss in the talk! (And let’s ignore for the moment his implicit assertion that upholding the equality of women is a desirable thing; of course I agree that it is! You can even find support in the Bible, if you cherry-pick hard enough! But the misogynistic passages far outweigh those that are egalitarian.)

I find his assertion that the God of the Bible has decreed right from wrong to be hilarious, and his argument with respect to “thou shalt not murder” absurd. The statement is not an objective moral statement at all, because it is entirely dependant upon context: it is equivalent to saying “sometimes, you shouldn’t kill people”. Irrespective of the fairly persuasive arguments that the original phrase in Hebrew was simply “thou shalt not kill”, it requires each person to differentiate murder from other types of killing. If the “supreme moral lawgiver” has provided clear grounds for objectively distinguishing murder from non-murder, I would love to hear it. Clearly, some killings are justified and some are not. Can you objectively tell the one from the other? How?

Perhaps the psalmist really was on to something when he stated, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding.” (Psalm 111:10)

Ah, excellent: ending with a Bible quotation that says that everyone who is afraid of your particular god is therefore wise. I love the quotation game!

If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers; Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth; Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him: But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die; because he hath sought to thrust thee away from the LORD thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. (Deuteronomy 13:6–10, KJV)

Hey, he started it!

Honestly, I’m somewhat startled that Mr. Zwaagstra spent more than half of his editorial harping on cultural relativism, as it had very little to do with my actual presentation.

But I’d certainly be interested in your thoughts, dear reader. Am I wrong in rejecting moral relativism?

Hat tip to Helen Friesen, who sent me a copy of the article.


Addendum (16 August 2011): Although I have a (very minor) quibble with Sam Harris about morality*, I think that his TED Talk on The Moral Landscape does an excellent job of addressing the problem of an objective, secular ethical system.

Bravo.


* I agree with him on just about everything that he says. However, I think that before we start evaluating moral claims objectively, we must first agree upon a set of values. He seems to select “maximal well-being” (for humans, other animals, etc.) as his primary value, and I have no problem with that. I just think that it’s important to distinguish between values (what we’re trying to accomplish) and ethics (how we go about accomplishing them), and I think that this distinction could have been defined a little more clearly. Given a common set of values, it is possible to evaluate ethics objectively.

But, as I said, that is the most minor of disagreements.

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3 thoughts on ““Think Again” Again

  1. A few things:

    a) Is there a link to the Michael Zwaagstra’s full article, or is it only in dead-tree-form? I’m not accusing you of quoting out of context or anything; I’d just be interested in seeing the full article

    b) I thought that your presentation was perfectly fine (full disclosure: I read the post but did not listen to the audio so I don’t know what your tone was). Assuming that your tone was comparable to your skepticamp presentation, I think that it was very reasonable, and east to follow. You’re clear, mostly-concise, not inflammatory at all. I really don’t see how someone could have a problem with it, _even_ if they disagreed with you

    c) It seems to me that Zwaagstra’s harping on Cultural Relativity is a fairly heavy-handed attempt at the sort of proselytising-apologetic that religious folk tend to use when they’re taking a particular tack. You know what I mean, when religious people try to convince you that you _really do_ believe in Jesus, you’re just publicly rejecting him for whatever reason. Religious people, in general, tend to place way too much importance on the “absolute moral-giver”, and spend way too much time trying to prove it, instead of being reasonable and looking at something from a not-so-single-minded point of view.

    I find no conflict in rejecting cultural relativism. Religious folk don’t seem to get this. For one, in my experience, when people say “relativism is wrong” or “morals are objective”, etc, what they actually mean is context-independent. This is obviously wrong, because any context-dependent rule can be rewritten into a set of context-independent rules. For instance, Zwaagstra claims that “Thou Shalt Not Murder” is different from “Thou Shalt Not Kill”. As far as I see it, you’ve got two different ways of wording this:

    1) “Thou Shalt Not Kill”, with an exception for murder. OMG MORAL RELATIVISM BAD BAD BAD

    2) “Thou Shalt Not Murder” and “Thou Shalt Sometimes kill”. Two context-independent rules (if you assume “sometimes” is replaced wiht a list of acceptable contexts) that are 100% equal to #1, but apparently not evil and relativistic.

    Maybe it’s my analytical programmer nature, but to me, morality isn’t this big mystery people seem to think it is. Simple premises: Golden Rule, Maximize global wellbeing. Minimize global harm. From this you can derive almost all of what average people consider ‘moral’ behavior. Making morality out to be some sort of weird philosophical absolute vs relative debate just muddies the issue. Especially considering that this was not the main thrust of your talk, harping on this artificial point strikes me as intellectually dishonesty, and as far as I’m concerned, doesn’t warrant wasting question time that could be better spent on other peoples’ questions.

    As an aside, I agree 99% with Sam Harris’ TED talk.

    tl;dr: I think the whole “are morals relative” debate asks the wrong question, ergo it doesn’t make sense to say that you’re wrong for rejecting moral relativism.

    1. Hey, Tim. This is actually the full text of his article, in order, interspersed with my commentary. Surprise! There is apparently no freely-available online version, but a very kind member of HAM was incensed enough to type it up verbatim and email it around. (For this reason, it is possible that some transcription errors were made.)

      Although I think that my commentary constitutes fair use, I didn’t want to antagonise anyone by posting it as a block and encourage copyright trolling.

  2. I never really understood why religious people feel that without a set of rules dictated by a supreme being, we have no real reason not to go around punching each other in the teeth. Like, really? (Side note: don’t punch people in the teeth, and not for moral reasons – nasty infections usually result!)

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