Thursday, January 26, 2006

Moral Reason

Arch-athiest and Tufts University Professor Daniel C. Dennett shows up again this week in the Chronicle of Higher Education, where he argues any religious person who holds moral beliefs and is unwilling to open them to rational argument has forfeited her right to the discussion. Dennett does a good job of anchoring his argument in everyday axioms and situations. Sorry for the length.
Surely just about everybody has faced a moral dilemma and secretly wished, "If only somebody — somebody I trusted — could tell me what to do!" Wouldn't that be morally inauthentic? Aren't we responsible for making our own moral decisions? Yes, but the virtues of "do it yourself" moral reasoning have their limits, and if you decide, after conscientious consideration, that your moral decision is to delegate further moral decisions in your life to a trusted expert, then you have made your own moral decision. You have decided to take advantage of the division of labor that civilization makes possible and get the help of expert specialists.

We applaud the wisdom of that course in all other important areas of decision making (don't try to be your own doctor, the lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client, and so forth). Even in the case of political decisions, like which way to vote, the policy of delegation can be defended. When my wife and I go to a town meeting, I know that she has studied the issues so much more assiduously than I that I routinely follow her lead, voting the way she tells me. Even if I'm not sure why, I have plenty of evidence for my conviction that, if we did take the time and energy to thrash it all out, she'd persuade me that, all things considered, her opinion was correct. Is that a dereliction of my duties as a citizen? I don't think so, but it does depend on my having good grounds for trusting her judgment. Love is not enough.

That's why those who have an unquestioning faith in the correctness of the moral teachings of their religion are a problem: If they haven't conscientiously considered, on their own, whether their pastors or priests or rabbis or imams are worthy of such delegated authority over their lives, then they are taking a personally immoral stand.

That is perhaps the most shocking implication of my inquiry into the role religion plays in our lives, and I do not shrink from it, even though it may offend many who think of themselves as deeply moral. It is commonly supposed that it is entirely exemplary to adopt the moral teachings of one's own religion without question because — to put it simply — it is the word of God (as interpreted, always, by the specialists to whom one has delegated authority). I am urging, on the contrary, that anybody who professes that a particular point of moral conviction is not discussable, not debatable, not negotiable, simply because it is the word of God, or because the Bible says so, or because "that is what all Muslims (Hindus, Sikhs...) believe, and I am a Muslim (Hindu, Sikh...)" should be seen to be making it impossible for the rest of us to take their views seriously, excusing themselves from the moral conversation, inadvertently acknowledging that their own views are not conscientiously maintained and deserve no further hearing.

The argument is straightforward. Suppose I have a friend, Fred, who is (in my carefully considered opinion) always right. If I tell you I'm against stem-cell research because "my friend Fred says it's wrong, and that's all there is to it," you will just look at me as if I were missing the point of the discussion. I have not given you a reason that, in good faith, I could expect you to appreciate. Suppose you believe that stem-cell research is wrong because God has told you so. Even if you are right — that is, even if God does exist and has, personally, told you that stem-cell research is wrong — you cannot reasonably expect others who do not share your faith or experience to accept that as a reason. The fact that your faith is so strong that you cannot do otherwise just shows (if you really can't) that you are disabled for moral persuasion, a sort of robotic slave to a meme that you are unable to evaluate. And if you reply that you can, but you won't consider reasons for and against your conviction (because it is God's word, and it would be sacrilegious even to consider whether it might be in error), you avow your willful refusal to abide by the minimal conditions of rational discussion. Either way, your declarations of your deeply held views are posturings that are out of place, part of the problem, not part of the solution, and we others will just have to work around you as best we can.
One of the first gaffs of reasoning you learn in Logic 101 is the fallacy of the appeal to a higher authority. How can you possibly know your priest's interpretation of scripture is correct? Should we all just follow the President's lead because he's the President?

The problem with many religions is that even questioning Yahweh or Allah is tantamount to treason and comes with weighty consequences. Before the door of free thought is even opened, it's nailed shut from the outside. Nevertheless, people who cannot be persuaded into open discussion of the most critical of moral issues due to their absolute belief in divine revelations have to be marginalized from decision making processes. We can't hold all their hands until they have the courage to make that "leap of faith" toward reason. Shit has to get done. Besides, how valuable is someone's opinion if it goes something like this.
"Sodom and Gomorrah was destroyed due to homosexuality. God hates fags. Therefore homosexuality is an affront to God and cannot be made legal. And God forbid if they are allowed to adopt."
Is this a crude and simplistic rendition of redneckian logic? Sure. (But I have heard it exactly like this before.)

Democracy itself, assumes that its citizenry is well-educated and well-versed in using reason. For many Founding Fathers like Jefferson, man's ability to reason was God's greatest gift. It separated us from all of creation. It made us adaptive and resilient. This is partially Dennett's point when he concludes:
It is time for the reasonable adherents of all faiths to find the courage and stamina to reverse the tradition that honors helpless love of God — in any tradition. Far from being honorable, it is not even excusable. It is shameful. Here is what we should say to people who follow such a tradition: There is only one way to respect the substance of any purported God-given moral edict. Consider it conscientiously in the full light of reason, using all the evidence at our command. No God pleased by displays of unreasoning love is worthy of worship.
If God was pleased by unreasoning love then also democracy would be null and void, which is why, Islamists such as bin Laden believe democracy is an affront to Allah, because it is the people through their representatives that make the law, not god. This necessary leads to this corollary: Democracy depends on free men, subjugated to no one, whether that be on earth or in heaven.

Can you be a religious person and still believe in democracy? Sure, in a way, but it also means you've opted publicly for man's law and not god's law to discipline society. It means you've made the wise decision that your religion is a private matter that you don't need to bludgeon the rest of us with. Besides, you can rest assure that while you spend eternity in bliss, us infidels will be burning in hell.

For me, it's a fair trade off for freedom.