New Book Published: “In Pursuit of What is Right”

Moral philosophy and answers to moral questions have always fascinated me. Part of it is because of living in an Islamic society that always claimed the likes of me (gays, atheists, liberals) were immoral, bad, wrong etc. This book was my wish, I wrote it to express myself the most, how I came to find reasonable answers for the sadistic nonsense thrown at me (at us) by the fundamentalists and fanatics.

I have tried to write for all those who may have the same problems, those who wish to find answers to moral questions in a logical way, and wish to see how we, human beings, have progressed towards these answers.

Find my book on Amazon Kindle: “In Pursuit of What is Right: The Progress of Moral Thinking (An Introduction)

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Introduction to Logical Fallacies (Workshop Style): Appeal to Authority

The fallacy that the notion X is true, only because authority Y says so. No matter who the authority is, God, Prophet, holy book, the President, or Mr. John Smith; the authority still needs a reason to believe the notion, and that reason has to be clear. Sometimes, the reason is perfectly clear. A doctor has a specialty and a definite insight into the illnesses s/he has specialized in. It is perfectly reasonable to assume a specialist has good reasons for her claims. Therefore it won’t be fallacious to back a claim about one’s health and cite the doctor as the source of it.

To make this more clear, we could put it this way: Authority cannot be replaced as a premise of an argument, or as the reason behind a claim. However, a legitimate authority can be put as the source of reasons behind a claim.

Example: There is quite an interesting issues on morality which could be pointed out under this fallacy. A lot of moral claims given by fundamentalists turn out to be purely fallacious, on both fronts: replacing the authority with reason, or appealing to an authority which by no means is even remotely close to being a specialist on the subject of moral claims. Sometimes it is even worse, the authority turns out to be completely devoid of any sense of morality.

One of these particular issues is the law itself, when the law is presented as the only reason for the correctness of a notion. In a back and forth conversation with some pro-guns after the shooting in Sandy Hook elementary school (in 2012), they kept pointing out that “We have the right to have guns, our constitution is clear about it.” and I kept asking them “It’s true that the law in US allows people to have weapons, but why do you think it’s the right thing to do? Why the law is right? What is the reason?”

The law does not make a notion automatically right simply because it is “the law”. There are reasons behind what our politicians decide to legislate, and simply pointing at a certain law does not make a similar claim right.

Perhaps the worst of all appeals to authority are the claims from religious fundamentalists on the subject of moral values. In arguments with religious fanatics, “X is wrong” is a notion that is usually backed up by “Because God has commanded it”. Obviously God (any God) is by no means a legitimate authority on moral subjects. Most of it could be because God never seems to clearly answer questions about his reasons for a particular commandment[1]. And moreover, by reading most religious books we immediately realize that most Gods are worse than psychopaths, how could they ever be a legitimate authority on moral subjects?

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[1] Compare this with the case of  legitimate authority who specializes on a subject. For example a scientist on his/her specialty  A legitimate authority is always prepared to provide reasons for what s/he believes.

On the Dangers of Abandoning Reason for Comfort

Often, religious people proudly talk about being calm and collected, and attribute it to their faith. Regardless of whether it’s true (Who’s to say someone like Sam Harris is not calm?), I wish to argue that even if true, it is not a virtue, but quite the opposite: It is wicked and foul, the surrender of one’s humanity into slavery.

This happens in Abrahamic religions in general, but as you may have noticed, Islam is my particular target, since even the name “Islam” come from the Arabic root “salama” which means surrender. For centuries, Muslims have been proudly claiming that this God (Allah) has sent them all they need, the most complete religion (A verse in the Qur’an says: “Today I completed my religion for you and finished my blessings upon you” [Almaedah, verse 3]). This means that Islam dictates their lives, from how to have sex, what to do during sex, what to do after sex and so on, to how to enter somewhere (with the right foot, and no I’m not joking).

The same thing, perhaps to a milder degree, but the same in essence none the less, happens in Christianity and Judaism. Yet again that God is very concerned with what people do with each other in bed, how they live their lives and how they end it. Does this make us act better as human beings? I have argued before that such is not the case. But does this make the religious more calm, more collected? Perhaps. Is that calmness good? Not at all.

There is not a day that passes by and I (as a none believer, and a sane human being) am not in mental anguish. Every action that I prepare myself to do, every interaction that I have with others, I keep thinking to myself if I have done the right thing. I keep thinking if my reasoning was right, if I acted correctly. There is not a day that passes by and I do not regret, and take lessons from, some of the things I have done wrong in the past. Every time I make a claim, I keep weighing it, trying to make sure I say the right thing, that I do not lie or not be dishonest.

I wonder what would have happened if I had surrendered my wits, my sanity, to an authority by means of faith? Obviously I would have been sure of the things I was doing, after all, they were the commandments of someone utterly righteous. They would have been my moral duties.  What if I was commanded to mutilate my baby boy’s (or girl’s) genitalia? No problem. I would have been happy to do so. What if I was commanded to behead my son (Qur’an: Assafat, verses 101-107)? No problem, I would have been more than happy to do so for such righteous being. And I would feel no guilt, no shame, no regret doing those things. In fact, I would have felt happy to please such being, my master, who literally owned me, whom I had surrendered to.

The thought of being as such makes me shiver. No, thank you. I’m glad I am in mental anguish. I’m glad my conscience is not numbed, is not surrendered into the slavery of a tyrannical sadistic master. I’m glad if I am not perfect, at least I can try.

The Bankruptcy of Relativism

The idea of relativism, the idea that “The truth of statement X depends on one’s perception” seems very plausible to most people. Ironically, most people think that whoever uses the phrase more is a better intellectual. This may in fact be because of their tendency towards the middle ground fallacy, which states that having the middle ground in different arguments has more credibility.

But whatever the reason, relativism in its naive fundamentalist (“taken to its limits” as Blackburn (2001) puts) form has serious logical and consequential problems. This essay will first focus on these problems, and after rejecting the naive form of relativism, it will be focused on the question “Is there any relevant form relativism?”.

This is just the way we do it here: In other words, cultural relativism. The best way to discuss this is to first give a good description of what cultural relativism is. In book III of Herodotus’ “Histories” (Blackburn, 2001; Harris, Jr, 1997), he mentions an incident that happened during king Darius’s reign in Persia. The Persian empire at the time was the closest to a multi cultural society that we could find, and all the people had their own cultural behaviour and beliefs.

One day, Darius summoned two groups of people, some Greeks who were present for a conference, and an Indian tribe named “Callatiae”. Darius first asked the Greeks how much money would make them eat their own fathers instead of cremating them after they were dead? To which they replied no amount could make them do it. Then Darius turned to Callatiaens and asked how much money would make them cremate their fathers instead of eating them after they were dead (which was their custom)? To which they cried out loudly no amount of money could make them do it.

Herodotus then concludes that “I think Pindar was right to have said in his poem that custom is king of all.” What could be the problem with Herodotus’ conclusion? The simple fact that he does not argue based on any reason, why customs are the ultimate rules and should be obeyed. He does not ask the important question “Why is this the right thing to do?”, or “What are our reasons behind doing this?”.

Another example can easily illustrate this: Stephens (1967) trained some rhesus monkeys to avoid an object, then placed an untrained monkey in the cage. If the new monkey tried to touch the object, the others that were trained not to touch it acted with hostility towards him. After some time, the new monkey started increasingly avoiding the subject. When compared to a control group, these monkeys did not show interest in touching the object, even if they were alone.

If the monkeys were capable of reasoning, and had the free will provided by that, they could have argued if there is any good reason to touch the object or not. Cultural relativism reduces the ethics and values to an authoritative state dictated by the society. This would also mean that we have to consider some things, that we all see easily and intuitively heinous, to be plausible, good or at the very least none-condemnable. Things like child abuse, homophobia or sexism that happen to be very common all over the world, and particularly stirred into the cultures of African or Middle Eastern countries.

This brings us to another side of the relativity argument. Often, the fact that there are controversies in answering the question “What is the right thing to do?”, and that we have never found the way to discover the right thing to do, are regarded as evidence for cultural relativism. But as Harris, Jr (1997) argues, the argument is fallacious: The conclusion simply does not follow. If we don’t know what is the actual right thing to do, and/or even if we have not yet found any way of knowing that, it does not mean that relativism is true. It can only mean that we don’t know what is true.

Everything” depends on one’s perception: This is only taking cultural relativism to the extreme. As Blackburn (2001) puts it, this type of relativism is only subjectivism. Aside from the consequential problem that came above, which in this case goes to the extreme (i.e. now each person can justify any action based on their liking), there is a severe logical problem with being a total subjectivist. If the statement “Everything depends on one’s perception” was to be true, then the truth of that statement itself has to be subjected to one’s perception. And if X says that that statement is false, and Y says that it’s true, then it is both true and false at the same time, which is logically impossible. Moreover, if X says that the statement is false, does that mean that X is right?

Can relativism be relevant?: Like many other things, cultural relativism and subjectivism can in some stances be valid or relevant. But they are only relevant when the truth of a statement is only dependant on what it is relative to. This is an obviously trivial statement, in fact it can logically be considered a tautology. But it may not be so much of a useless statement.

Consider the case put forward by West (2009) about the convergence of corporate governance. As he puts it, there is not a one-way model of corporate governance, but there are many. For instance, what is called the Anglo-American model of governance is more or less based on Utilitarianism, while the European/Japanese corporate governance is closer to deontological morality.

This fact begs answering the following question: “Is convergence to one model justifiable?”. If the answer to this question differs based on the society that the company is working with, and if the success of the company is dependent on it matching with the underlying perception of the society, then it seems that at least from a Utilitarian point of view we have to reject the question. In this case it seems Utilitarianism ironically vote against itself in the societies that have more people with deontological views.

References:

Blackburn, S. 2001. Ethics: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford. US.

Harris, Jr, C. E. 1997. Applying Moral Theories. 3rd ed. Wadsworth. USA. CA.

Stephenson, G. R., Starek, D., Schneider, R., Kuhn, H. J. 1967. Cultural acquisition of a specific learned response among rhesus monkeys. Progress in Primatology. Stuttgart. pp.279-288.

West, A. 2009. Corporate Governance Convergence and Moral Relativism. Corporate Governance: An International Review. 17(1): 107–119

With Great Power, Comes Great…

No, not “responsibility”. What comes with great power is great “authority”, and that does not create greater responsibility, not necessarily. It would only create great responsibility if the one with power is a moral being. Without morality, there would be no responsibility: If Spider Man was to be a psychopath, he would never have felt any reason to go out in a dark, cold night to fight with a thief in a dark alley.

This is the reason why we should care whom we elect, and where we do that. Giving authority to those who do not care, will never create the best possible outcome.

And more importantly: This is one good reason not to choose any religious person to a place of authority, especially when they are extremists: What they do not have is the mind of reason, which is the only possible guide to being “good”.

Arguing With Theists (2)

This particular set of conversations happened in a sunny Wednesday, I was on my way to the library to start a new essay on History of economic thought. It started by what seemed like a peculiar and noticeable advertisement to my Christian marketer friends, whilst I was prepared for it, for I had seen it before. Where I come from, this is taught at schools!

What is it? A simple question: “How do you see yourself in the mirror?”

The “right” answer to this question varies, because it might be asked by a psychologist, or a friend, sometimes there is no right answer for it. But when religious marketers ask this, I think the “right” answer would be something like: “I don’t see myself in the mirror, because I’m a vampire!”

But, that would not lead to an argument, which I usually would like to have. Therefore, my answer was fairly simple, but provocative: “An Atheist!”

The guy asking the question (by the name Scott, I found out later), was holding a piece of paper in his hand. Hearing my answer, with a bit of hesitation, he said: “Well, write it down, every answer is a good answer!” Sure, but I think later he might have changed his mind!

Then again a semi debate started, I don’t clearly remember the first bit of it, but I think he asked me how we came to be? And when I said Evolution, I was surprised by him stating: “I don’t believe in big evolution, just small stuff!” I thought morons only lived in some parts of US!

I did not linger on that subject, because what could I say? “You’re a moron big guy! Have a good day!”?

I went straight to my favourite topic: Morality. And he went straight for “Objective” moral values, as expected. He asked me whether I believe we have objective moral values or not? And I said no, I don’t think we have objective moral values. He went for an example about murder, and then thought he had proven himself right. Of course, if you have followed my blog, you know that I gave my example about Incest. (On The Fakeness of the Concept of Sin)

He hesitated a bit on my argument, and I think it was at that time that a girl (who was another marketer standing there) jumped in between our conversation. She was the one that suggested “Whatever makes us be closer to God is morally acceptable, and whatever pushes us away from him is a Sin.” I did not continue that, because at the time I was not ready for that part, I just said that I have to think about that.

Then I moved on to the next part, which was about the degeneration of religious ideas. I gave my example about the rate of interest. Scott came up with a brilliant statement: “Maybe those who thought interest was a sin were corrupt!”

Certainly possible, but one those people was actually Thomas Aquinas, who is a saint for the followers of Catholic religion. But instead, I explained to him “why” that order had changed, and the reason was the change in economic system. A change so drastic that an idea like this could not resist it.

At this point it seemed that he lost his interest. Of course, like any other good marketer if you see that you cannot sell your goods to someone by any means, get out of there ASAP! And that was the end, I told them that I had work to do, and said goodbye. They said that they would be happy to see me at their group, which of course they did not mean it.

Any moral conclusion from this? Yes, as I pointed out before, their method of marketing is very abusive. If someone is in an emotional state of mind, these people can easily take advantage of him or her. The only way that one can resist is the way of reason, logic and science.

On The Fakeness of the Concept of Sin

Before (In this post) I have argued about how we can derive values and ‘should’ from a combination of what there ‘is’ and another ideological ‘should’; I also have argued that religion (Abrahamic ones specifically) cannot be the source of our morality (here). But how about religious moral arguments; How can we possibly say that they are wrong? Is it science that tells us this, or is it something else like ‘religious evolution’?

I will take two paths here, first, in this post I will prove that the concept of ‘Sin’ is fake, and by that I mean to prove it is absolutely ‘Subjective’ to different religions, but pretends to bear an ‘Objective’ value. Later on the next post, I will speak about the lack of internal consistency within religions and their changes through time and history.

Let’s first talk of objective and subjective: What is objective? Simply put, something that exists whether we know about it or not, and our opinion has no effect on it. When we talk about objective morality, it means that ‘Some’ things are wrong, and some are right, and ‘our perception’ has no effect on their wrongness or rightness.

To present my argument, Let me stick to our previous examples, say, about Homosexuality:

  1. If you are a Homosexual, you are a sinner.
  2. No one should be a sinner.
  3. (Conclusion)
    you should not be a Homosexual.

Of course now we know that Homosexuality is not a choice as a sexual attraction toward the same sex, and this argument is not common any more, not in this simple form anyway, but my point is the argument itself. The concept of ‘sin’ is the key here: This is actually a legitimate ‘logical’ argument. But is it meaningful too?

I’m afraid not. The fact is we have to believe in a specific religion and the concept of ‘sin’ within that religion in order to find that argument meaningful and true. This is why you can find a branch of Christianity (Like the United Church) that has no problem with being gay, or even gay marriage.

To have a better example, let’s talk about something more taboo, such as incest. We all understand that incest is wrong, but is that because it is a sin? Where does this ‘wrongness’ come from?

The meaning of incest tends to be different in different parts of the world, geographically and historically. In western culture, a sexual relationship between cousins is usually considered to be incest. But in  the Middle East and Islam it is not so, in fact in some parts marriage between cousins is considered ‘Heavenly’. Now, can a Christian argue with a Muslim stating: “Marriage between cousins is wrong because it’s a sin”?

No. He or She cannot do so. The meaning of that Sin in Islam is different, and is not referred to cousins marrying. therefore that argument is meaningless for a Muslim: His God (Allah) allows it. And as it gets even worse: That argument is meaningless for an Ancient Egyptian, who tended to marry their sisters, because their gods didn’t have a problem with it!

Religious people can try to escape this trap by redefining Sin, such as ‘Being like Christ’ or ‘being close to Christ’. But that would again be a mere matter of insertion, and again their argument will fail.

It is interesting that the only way they ‘can’ argue on common ground is based on science, and that common ground is ‘reality’ that they can use to address the issue properly (objectively). But that is not religion anymore, is it? That’s science.

Now, talking of objective moral values, ‘Sin’ was supposed to be an objective matter, but it seems to me it turned out to be absolutely subjective! If the concept and meaning of ‘Sin’ is not objective, doesn’t that mean that in reality it does not exist?

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P.S: Revision may happen on this post.

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