Thursday, January 3, 2008

What is morality?

There was recently a stupid and offensive little blog exchange inspired by an old post, Zoophilia, written by PZ's seventeen year old daughter, Skatje.

The hathetic Salvador Cordova quote-mined the post and started drawing flames from PZ's loyal readers. Here's the mined quote:
"Sexual relationships between humans and animals come as such a shock to people, but it doesn’t to me. There can be very deep, meaningful relationships between humans and their pets." -- Skatje Myers (daughter of Darwinist PZ Myers)

Salvador didn’t link Skatje's post knowing that his readers wouldn’t bother to check out the integrity of his quote. Skatje was not expressing any desire to engage in bestiality. She came to this conclusion:

That said, I remind you that my position isn’t based on my own personal wants. I just don’t see any reason to ban it other than the same reason things like homosexuality and sodomy were banned: it’s icky. I think it’s bad practice to put social taboos into legislature when no actual logical argument can be made against it.

Is spite of Skatje Myers' well thought out blogpost I think one of her statements is wrong and it points to one of the dangers we atheists are walking into when we try to reason through morality. When Skatje says "no actual logical argument can be made against it" she's wrong. I've got one for her, a very important one that she missed, and I'll get to it soon. However, I first want to note that Vox Day, who apparently reads PZ's blog religiously, jumped into the shit hole with Sal and wrote this post, Atheist Dad of the Year, which he starts off with his typical vile provocations:

If I were ever to have attacked atheism by arguing that on the rare occasions when atheists manage to successfully reproduce, their children would likely grow up possessing beliefs that are utterly immoral by Western moral norms and abhorrent to the average individual, many people would howl that I was unfairly engaging in baseless conjecture, regardless of the logic presented.

Vox Day then makes the same mistake that Skatje makes and compounds on it with even bigger philosophical errors, like this:

The ironic truth is that Miss Myers is absolutely correct; once the basic concept of Natural Law is abandoned, there is no rational basis for banning anything from necrophilia to cannibalism other than a vague sense of "ickiness" inherited from preceding generations possessed of a more conventional morality.

The errors in that one short paragraph are almost too numerous to elaborate on. However, here too is Skatje's error: "...there is no rational basis for banning anything from necrophilia to cannibalism other than a vague sense of 'ickiness'..."

That is simply not true. There are logical reasons for discouraging bestiality, necrophilia and cannibalism and we can now see what our ancestors couldn't. Here is one logical reason to avoid sexual relations with animals: It could introduce new sexually transmitted diseases into human populations. There are probably other reasons I can't see. However, it's believed by many that AIDS originally came from monkeys and that syphilis was originally spread by shepherds after having sex with their sheep before any alleged Christ was ever born.

One of the things you need to think about when pondering what is and isn't morally wrong is how we got our moral inclinations and icky feelings in the first place. They are, by these two different viewpoints with the same error, either a product of evolution or god-design. They make much more sense as evolutionary in origin and if you try to read God's mind to figure them out you wind up with a really fucked-up God.

Our ancient ancestors didn't know about bacteria and virii and all they could do was make a general observation that populations that engaged in behaviors like bestiality, necrophilia and cannibalism suffered, perhaps, they might easily imagine, punished by some god for such behavior. [UPDATE: As the Barefoot one notes in the comments, this explanation isn't necessarily certain, it's just a possibility that I think likely.]

Douglas Adams, as I already noted in my post, Atheist vs. Atheist, pointed out this phenomena long before this debate erupted in his 1998 speech called 'Is there an Artificial God?':

"So, my argument is that as we become more and more scientifically literate, it's worth remembering that the fictions with which we previously populated our world may have some function that it's worth trying to understand and preserve the essential components of, rather than throwing out the baby with the bath water; because even though we may not accept the reasons given for them being here in the first place, it may well be that there are good practical reasons for them, or something like them, to be there. I suspect that as we move further and further into the field of digital or artificial life we will find more and more unexpected properties begin to emerge out of what we see happening and that this is a precise parallel to the entities we create around ourselves to inform and shape our lives and enable us to work and live together. Therefore, I would argue that though there isn't an actual god there is an artificial god and we should probably bear that in mind. That is my debating point and you are now free to start hurling the chairs around!"

Vox Day sees morality as actually coming from that fucked-up God and not merely the human imagination's creation of an artificial God to explain what our ancient ancestors did not understand. He explains his accusation this way:

What many of her critics and defenders alike fail to realize is that the pedagogical failings of the Atheist Dad of the Year are not revealed by Miss Myers's argument that she does not believe dog-bothering should be illegal, but rather by the fact that she does not believe it is morally wrong.

How does Vox know what she thinks is or isn't morally wrong based on her post? And what makes anything morally wrong? As I said in my previous post, Claiming the moral high ground, morality is about the group, and more, it's about society and even the whole of humanity. It's about how we treat others, how we live together and work together.

Sex really isn't the victimless crime we like to think it is because of sexually transmitted diseases. Things that seem private and inconsequential can still have effects on the group you live with. And that's probably one of the reasons that monogamy became a moral virtue and another reason, besides assuring we invested in our own genes, why we evolved sexual jealousy. If my wife gives me a sexually transmitted disease it's another reason to feel my trust in her was betrayed.

Laws against such things are usually futile, that I agree with, but not every moral inclination and behavior has to be backed by laws. Morality only partly comes in the form of sympathy, empathy, moral philosophy and adopting laws and traditions. It is a wider collection of feelings and rules that regulate our behavior than that, but there is always some idea of negative consequences for doing the "immoral."

In modern times the issue of "sexual morality" is more confusing than it ever has been in the history of the planet because technology has changed the way we live. In general, with condoms and birth control, we can eliminate many of the negative effects going against our "sexual morality" that has probably evolved to protect us. However, sometimes we only think we can and we find there are other, unforseen, reasons for our moral traditions. Thus, none of us should really speak about it with as much confidence as Vox Day does except when we're saying, in general, nobody should judge anybody too quickly.

To Vox, morality is a set of rules given by a higher authority; God. And if God told Vox to start killing young children, Vox admits he would do that. But I don't think that Vox could come up with any clear list of moral rules or come up with any clear source, like the Bible, that would have all the rules we actually use.

Salvador Cordova and then later, Vox Day, misrepresented Skatje because they wanted to infuriate PZ. The difference is honesty and their desire not to enlighten or educate, but to do a kind of harm. The defenders of "Christian morality" here do not seem to care about telling the truth. From my point of view they were acting immorally. So, how can I judge them?

What is this morality I use? It's like art, we know it when we see it but can't quite define it. It's what, in movies, makes the good guys, "good" and the bad guys, "bad." It is learned from movies and from people around us. It's the way everyone else thinks we should be and the way we think everyone else should be. It's what a prude uses to rationalize being a prude and a way for some people to feel superior to others. It's "Jealousy with a halo," as H. G. Wells once said. [Note to the Barefoot one: This is my way of saying you can't know all this for certain.] And Pig-fucking ignorant preachers will wave the Bible around and tell us to obey the Ten Commandments and get right with God, but the Ten Commandments are an inadequate guide to modern morality - yet still, even by Ten Commandment standards, Sal and Vox have borne false witness.

As Christopher Hitches, and many others before him, have pointed out we had laws against murder and other crimes since the dawn of civilization, long before Moses allegedly came down from Mount Sinai with the Commandments. In ancient cultures like China, India and Egypt (where Moses came from) there were already many systems of laws in existence. There have been laws against murder since tribal times because most people object to being murdered, not because God said so. Similarly, there are laws against stealing because we object to having our hard-earned property stolen.

There is "progress" is physics, chemistry and science in general, but is there such a thing as moral progress? I think there is when we bother to think these things through and do it correctly. In theory there could be such a thing as a "science" of morality, by that I mean a "discipline" or school of thought, based not just on trial and error, but on a systematic and methodological experimentation with the testing and validation of theories. But in practice, the subject is just to wide and variable for the human mind to get around it all. So, it's our novelists, and to a lesser extent our screenplay writers, who do the thought experiments that guide a lot of us.

Take some small example of social behavior as a model, traffic laws and driving behavior, and we can see there is a balance between safety and getting where you want to go with as fast and as conveniently as possible. We probably don't have perfect traffic laws, but we might evolve something close eventually and we do seem to get better with them over time. Whatever scientific and mathematical system of probabilities that might improve your probability, increase your chances, of safely getting where you're going by car could, in theory, be applied to every other area of life and increase your chances of having a long, happy, life well-lived that is a benefit not to merely yourself but others around you. Imagine a kind of cosmic economic model.

But even if our attempts are less than perfect just by honestly trying to figure it out we become less unconscious and ignorant than we presently are. We find some balance between treating others well and treating ourselves well. After all, you don't want to be too moral because you'll cheat yourself out of much life.

In practice we all have to stumble and guess our way through life without the traffic signals and clear rules of the road we get on the highway. All human beings are going to be partly ignorant regarding all the moral rules you live by, and therefore we have no right to make any kind absolute judgment upon the process for others in the kind of cases where Sal and Vox passed their judgments.

9 comments:

The Barefoot Bum said...

Sorry, Norm, but you've missed the mark, at least regarding your criticism of Skatje Myers' argument. (I heartily agree that Sal and future baby killer Vox Day are indeed vile scum.)

First, Skatje is arguing that bestiality should be legal; your legal/moral distinction is inapplicable.

Second, your assertion,

Our ancient ancestors didn't know about bacteria and virii and all they could do was make a general observation that populations that engaged in behaviors like bestiality, necrophilia and cannibalism suffered, perhaps, they might easily imagine, punished by some god for such behavior.

is a classic example of the adaptationist fallacy applied to social evolution. The assertion that our ancestors made some general observations and that those observations are the proximate cause of our present socially-constructed moral beliefs each require independent substantiation. To observe that there is (or might be a) a reason for some evolved feature is not by itself justification to that the feature evolved for that reason.

Twenty lashes with a wet noodle, administered by the ghost of Stephen J. Gould!

Skatje's analysis is unsubtle, but so is your own. Supplying "reasons" to justify moral beliefs is a tricky business because there are reasons for and against every moral belief. We don't have a solid foundation for moral reasoning like the foundation of observation and experiment we have with science.

Skatje is correct by implication at least in that the "ick" factor is a reason for banning bestiality. It's not a reason I personally find at all persuasive, but it's a reason. Sktaje is therefore not correct when she goes on to say that there's no logical reason.

But your own analysis is equally unsubtle. You've identified one more reason, and then you simply stopped there. You need to exhibit a little more bend-over-backwards scientific honesty in your moral analysis to avoid Cargo Cult Science; this time I will call on Dick Feynman's ghost to administer the fettuccine flagellation.

To perform a reasoned moral analysis we must look at all the reasons, for and against, and weigh them. Furthermore, we must look at the nature of the reasons: For instance, the possibility of introducing a new STD is very indirect (not to mention enormously rare), and mitigating indirect risks is notoriously difficult.

Last, I think you're entirely unjustified in calling Skatje's post in any way dangerous. It's not dangerous to be mistaken or even superficial in a skeptical environment, because the whole point of skepticism is that nothing is taken on authority. Indeed we have to have the freedom to be mistaken, without being overly criticized for our mistakes. Without such freedom we will be paralyzed by conservatism.

normdoering said...

The Barefoot Bum wrote:
"Skatje is arguing that bestiality should be legal; your legal/moral distinction is inapplicable."

It doesn't matter what she's arguing or if she comes to the right or wrong conclusion because she made an wrong statement. She said: "I just don’t see any reason to ban it other than the same reason things like homosexuality and sodomy were banned: it’s icky. I think it’s bad practice to put social taboos into legislature when no actual logical argument can be made against it."

That line, "no actual logical argument can be made against it," is false. I made an argument against it. It may not be enough of an argument for banning at this time and place since laws do cost money to enforce, it would be almost impossible to catch people until after it was too late and it may not be worth doing.

I'll save the rest of my comments for later.

The Barefoot Bum said...

It doesn't matter what she's arguing...

Your statement about the moral/legal difference is still inapplicable.

she made an wrong statement

No, she didn't. Normally, since I like you and you're a smart guy, I wouldn't be this strict with you, but you're not reading her with the precision you hold her to. (And you spend more words criticizing her than you do slamming Sal and Vox put together. This irritates me.)

Let's carefully parse Skatje's statement: "I just don’t see any reason..." Are you claiming to a mind reader? Do you know what reasons Skatje sees?

She then goes on to say "I think it’s bad practice to put social taboos into legislature when no actual logical argument can be made against it."

Again, to assert she's made a wrong statement, you would have to know what she thinks.

Furthermore, she presents the concept as a conditional, albeit using idiomatic English, but all of us here are educated native speakers. In more formal terms, "If there is no logical argument against a taboo activity then it's bad practice to legislate against it."

This statement is not susceptible to scientific proof, but it hardly seems objectionable.

Now, it is the case that Skatje is speaking somewhat imprecisely. The juxtaposition of a logical reason with the use of "no logical reason" indicates to the charitable reader — let's say arguendo someone reading the blog of a bright 17 year-old who might not have many years experience in philosophical argument — that the writer may have made a poor choice of words, meaning to say "objective" instead of logical.

Now, it is the case that Skatje has not thought through the issue quite as thoroughly as possible: she missed what seems a rather esoteric objective reason. But, frankly, your contribution to the discussion doesn't justify a tenth of the words you've spent on the case, especially since a) the post is six months old, b) you're coming to the discussion in the context of Sal and Vox's unconscionable slander c) your reason is in fact esoteric and d) your reason doesn't come anywhere close to actually controverting her larger point that it appears irrational to legislate against bestiality.

You're on the wrong side on this one, Norm, and you've jumped onto the side that's been already been irredeemably slimed, and without a really super-strong argument.

I'm your friend, I like you, I think you're a smart guy. I'm trying to help you out here.

normdoering said...

Sorry, barefoot one, but I don't think you get it. You say things like: "Are you claiming to a mind reader? Do you know what reasons Skatje sees?" and "... to assert she's made a wrong statement, you would have to know what she thinks." But I don't think that matters. It's not about what she actually thinks, it's about what I think she should think if she wants to consider that matter fairly. It's a somewhat glaring omission to miss that this is a practice that has introduced new diseases into human populations.

Other than that, you make some good points.

devon said...

To me the most glaring reason to legislate against bestiality is that it's simply more efficient to have a blanket law against it then to try and determine when an animal has been raped and bestiality has become animal cruelty.

It comes down to the rights of animals and philosophy and makes everything more complicated. Get rid of bestiality laws and there would have to be laws concerning what different types of animals can be considered in a "sex" class of animals and whether work animals, pets, or cattle can fall under the sex class.

Would animals fall under rape laws then? How do you establish consent when an animal can't talk? We have safety regulations for pets, work animals, and livestock, we would need regulations for sex animals that would conflict with prostitution laws (which one could argue should be legal as well) and all of this just for the incredibly small percentage of the population that wants to have sex with animals and probably has been doing so without getting caught for some time.

Skatje said...

Diseases spread from animals to humans is a consideration I made post-publishing. Someone brought it up, I considered, and it hasn't changed my mind. The post is rather informal, something I whipped up as a quick response to FTK. I hadn't expected so much attention, or I may have paid closer attention to detail.

Anyway. I thought that other commentors have discussed diseases and thoroughly explained my position enough that I didn't feel in necessary to edit my post and expand on it.

Basically, can you name any diseases which were transmitted to humans from animals by sex?

I remind you that AIDS is a terrible example, since people in Africa hunt and kill primates and AIDS is transmitted through blood too. I think it's more like that blood was the way it was transmitted than sex because depending on the size of animal, it probably could either rip a human's arms off or skitter up into a tree before a person even got his johnson out.

I just don't think that bestiality is going to cause many diseases to pop up that we wouldn't get by handling, disposing of the corpses of, disposing of the feces of, or eating animals. So if you can name a case where this is untrue, please do.

normdoering said...

Skatje wrote:
"...can you name any diseases which were transmitted to humans from animals by sex?"

Maybe, but not yet. I thought it was generally assumed that most sexually transmitted diseases originated with humans having sex with animals. Syphilis, I've heard, comes from cows, Clap from goats, Gonorrhea from sheep, Trich-chicken Herpes from pigs and HPV from dogs.

You're the first person I know to express doubt about this. And you have good reason to, there is a lot more transmission of bodily fluids going on on farms than sex, a farmer with a cut on his hand milking a cow might do it.

And most of those examples are so old it's impossible to know how they started. It should be questioned. Why do we assume this? It would take a lot of genetic detective work to come up with a merely probable answer.

One area of research I think might elaborate the danger is if there are any new STDs of animal and sexual origins. I assume there are.

There are lots more uncommon newer ones. The newest one that I might be partly aware of is sexually transmitted Q Fever:
http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/321878

The report linked above is from the Communicable Disease Control people at the Department of Pathology, University of Adelaide, in Australia. They found a new one in 2000, the sexual transmission of Coxiella burnetii from a man with "occupationally acquired" Q fever to his wife.

From what I've heard, but I'm not sure of this, the "occupationally acquired" phrase used in the report is a euphemism in this case.

Aquaria said...

Both the ick factor and disease arguments miss the point, the one that Vox Day and the rest don't want to have discussed because it's, you know, RATIONAL:

Bestiality, pedophilia and necrophilia are morally wrong because all of those acts involve one party seeking sexual activity with entities incapable of granting full, informed consent (or at least perceived to be not quite ready to give it, in the case of stat rape cases). Consent is why homosexuality can be moral and legal and those others cannot be--ever.

For the record, Vox Day's an idiot for a lot of reasons.Thinking that not believing in an invisible space god is irrational pretty much exemplifies Exhibit A for me.

normdoering said...

Aquaria wrote:
"Bestiality, pedophilia and necrophilia are morally wrong because all of those acts involve one party seeking sexual activity with entities incapable of granting full, informed consent..."

A dildo can't give consent either, so, is using a dildo immoral?