23 December 2009

causations of ethical foundations

"I myself am incredibly skeptical of the ability of most human beings to do much of anything helpful or cooperative at all, much less not kill and maim each other in the absence of even the most basic rules to the contrary, regardless of their source material"

I wanted to clarify or expand this point to see what it was I mean by it. Primarily, what I am referring to is the large percentage of Americans, or presumably other nationalities within constitutional mandates, who have imbued their founding documents with divine aspirations or at least divine inspiration in order to solidify the meaning of such documented legal frameworks as binding laws for themselves. Regardless of the endless and meaningless discussion over whether these were religious or secular men who wrote the Constitution, it seems trivial to apply the same "rigorous" logic that applies to the writings contained in the Bible (that they must be the infallible word of god) to the Constitution several centuries later. It is sufficient for my purposes to say merely that there is a percentage of people who find it compelling that men could not reason to these mighty principles of liberty on their own and require the intervention of a higher power to be cognizant of reasonable boundaries for ethical governance and justice.

What is curious about that line of thinking is that it fails to expound upon what precisely the form justice takes. There's a great legal debate surrounding the Constitution involving positive and negative social rights and whether the Constitution even speaks to the former at all or whether these must be established and brought into form by social institutions, or at least lower levels of government, or whether the guarantees against negative social rights (that your right to freedom or vote cannot be infringed for particular reasons for example, such as your ethnicity or religious affiliations) entrust the government with certain positive powers to expand upon those guarantees. What is interesting about a debate like that is that it easily applies to any sort of canonical document, such as a religious text. Whereby it becomes clear that a religious institution celebrates a particular variety of "negative" faith by providing a list of what not to do, and instructs a basic level of duties in the positive ledger (tithing, alms to the poor, prayer, etc), it rarely clarifies for most people the means of establishing a just world. In the absence of a clear role in positive form, one which I think you could argue can be assembled by examining the exemplars provided (although because those exemplars vary, so too would the ethics one would construe from them), it becomes a game of judgment and guilt in avoiding the negative. I suppose we benefit by having a world which most people perceive it sufficient not to rape women or to kill each other as a moral framework, and in a more advanced sense, perhaps not to cheat on committed relationships (for reasons why though, see anthropology, I don't think you will find one in religious scrolls). But even the positive duties are empty vessels for many, lacking the context and lacking the genuine concern for the welfare of others, the empathy, it is an easy move to consider some less fortunate soul to be guilty of some affront and have them slain or judged as less entitled to basic liberties and happiness. This is not, to be clear, the duty of religious peoples everywhere, but it is clearly a practice that is widespread in history. Lacking an understanding of why certain duties are "good" or certain actions are "bad", a sense of tribalism can be injected without any harm to the internal framework of someone who otherwise finds themselves as "ethical" and sees no harm in torturing people of another faith or nationality or in crusading to eradicate those other faiths and ethnic backgrounds.

So while it is perhaps to our benefit to allow people to delude themselves by establishing an infallable source of law and justice, it does not then proceed to deny those same people the duty of 1) determining its proper form (harder than it sounds, much) and 2) seeking to establish it internally (amongst like-minded people) and 3) seeking to establish it externally where appropriate or reasonable. That is, if some people want to claim that a law against murder has a religious foundation, I have no problem with that excepting that they then would be able to demonstrate rather easily that there are compelling secular reasons not to permit murder (and that they presumably don't seek to establish some religious exemption to allow themselves power of life and death but nobody else). They would then have to realize that the metaphysical justifications involved in equating abortion to murder or the far more specious constructions involving vague religious texts on homosexuals, racial characteristics, on the role of women, or prohibitions against alcohol and other recreational practices (pre-marital sex, drugs, movies/music, etc) which are not expressly forbidden even within their own theological realm, in spite of the interpretations of some "fundamentalist" religious orders, have a higher order still of reasoning needed to make them applicable to society as a whole and in some cases, even as applicable rules within their own society. Personal biases may be permissible, if repugnant, but using theological and divine inspiration to justify them should not be. This should be called out before it provides us with bad policy and injustice, as it has frequently done historically. That is a sufficient role of negative duties that religious institutions (and governments) have either lacked or practiced rather imperfectly in pursuit of a variety of supposed positive ends. When we have a society that can explain in an internally consistent way why it is beneficial not to slaughter and abuse one another, even out of desperate times perhaps exempting self-defensive measures, it may be enough to ask whether people then can practice more fully their positive duties toward one another. Typically, societies that are in relative prosperity are in this happy state of affairs where most people are contented with these negative freedoms not to be killed and abused or defrauded by others and can freely invest in their happiness and self/mutual development. I suppose therefore if people must insist that this is a divine inspiration in order to continue existing in a state of affairs such as this, I will be satisfied that they continue to support it in that limited way. I don't think that this source gives them or us a satisfactory role as the arbiter of good will and good judgments such that we would have an infallible fountain of justice however and so when such people might conflate their divine inspirations into a single document as though their divinity possesses the same logical operations, they'd better have a damn good reason to do it.

In other words, if someone wishes to expand upon what they see as "god's justice" they should be able to tell us first why that would have anything to do with "man's justice" and should be able to tell us also how they know with certainty that their source is divine anyway. I am content to have a society of people who don't do negative things to each other because they have some religious objection. I'm not sure I can find a religious justification to deny positive liberties to "other people", including depriving them of their lives and livelihoods in addition to their abilities to contribute to their own happiness (and presumably that of others as well). Perhaps I'm not looking hard enough at the textual sources. Since it seems clear that this is one of the primary uses of religious texts both historically and in modern societies (to deny things to other people), I have little confidence in the ability of (most) people to make just and fair decisions in the absence of a few basic restrictions of things they absolutely should try really really hard not to do for starters.

Put into the practical world, I don't particularly care if people enjoy or use religion responsibly anymore than I would care if people used alcohol or consumed meat (if I were a vegetarian myself for the latter point). I don't particularly care if they espouse their views as religiously based for public consumption or if they maintain these views privately. What I would ask is that they drop the assumption that simply because they have found enjoyment or balance through the application of some theological pretext that this should be a compulsory attitude for other people who either hold distinct religious views or whose views consist of the total absence and unconcern for faith-based life. And the snobbish attitude that attends to that assumption that they are the sole keepers of a moral sensibility for all peoples everywhere. They have found something which seems to work for themselves. If they want to sell others on the viability of these strategies, then by all means they should do so. At their own expense and with the freedom of others to disagree and find what they have to say disagreeable.
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