A question of morality

This is a subject on which one could argue till hell freezes over, and still not come to an agreement. So, for now, I ‘ll just link to some material that I have read over the past few months.

This is a very interesting, but well known position—to hell with the abstract man, what’s in it for the concrete me-

…you ask an excellent question:

Is there an objective reason why one shouldn’t abuse the free will of others (assuming there is no god), and can it be subjectively advantageous?

The answer is no, unfortunately. It can obviously be advantageous: that’s why people seek political power or commit crimes. Not everyone gets away with it, but allowing for the probability of failure it’s still the case that crime can pay. There’s no objective reason not to engage in it when the expectation (crudely, payoff times probability of success minus cost times probability of failure, if those things were cardinal quantities) is positive.

The counter-arguments all hold no water. The fact that you might be caught and punished is already factored into the expectation. The fact that others will call you “evil,” and other nasty names, is not an objective deterrent; it’s only a deterrent if you object to being called names, and that’s a textbook example of a subjective consideration. The fact that expectation isn’t really cardinal, and can’t be determined precisely, only means that one must allow a significant margin of error. The eudaimonean argument that you aren’t being true to your humanity is purely subjective, until someone can produce a trueness-to-humanity meter. The observation that your lack of ethics leads to contradictions if everyone else thinks like you is just a variant on saying that it “isn’t fair,” and there’s no objective reason to give a d*mn about fairness.

Since humans generally do care about fairness, down deep in the core of their souls, makes universality (aka fairness, aka symmetry, aka “the Golden Rule”) a mighty darn convincing argument. It is, however, a subjective one. A sociopath would consider the argument pure gibberish.

Religion, for a long time, has monopolized morality. The other day, Cafe Hayek linked to this interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali-

Your own grandmother oversaw your genital mutilation when you were 5, even though your father opposed it.

That’s why I keep hammering on principle. My grandmother was convinced she was doing something right. She was brainwashed. She was doing it out of love. She had done it to all her daughters; it was done to her, to her grandmother. She didn’t know it was possible not to be, as she called it, “cleansed.” Yes, education helps, but it had everything to do with the conviction that what she was doing was right.


One guiding value here is tolerance. You’re concerned about Americans tolerating the wrong things.

To be a community of free people, you have to defend that freedom tooth and nail, and for this country to remain vital, you have to understand that freedom is a very, very vulnerable institution. It’s something you have to keep defending, and the only way to achieve that is intolerance of intolerance.

Later in the interview, she talks about a debate wherein an opponent blamed traditions for such problems as against the religion of Islam. The debate is a pointless one. Religion is a belief, an ideology, just like communism, or nazism. Who is to blame, the gun, or the man who uses it to kill people, religion (or tradition), or those who kill in its name? I will reframe the first part of the question—Who is to blame, the ideology which advocates the use of guns to kill people, or the man who accepts the ideology and then kills in its name. Legally, its the man, morally its both.

The late American philosopher Walter Kaufmann wrote about his experience with religion. The faith of a heretic he called it. And he touches upon something significant. Even if all religions were eliminated, it still wouldn’t guarantee peace. The only significant difference between a Putin and a Mullah Omar is that Omar doesn’t wrestle tigers-

What remains if you give up the great religions? Many people think: only Communism, Nazism, and immorality. But the morality of Socrates, Spinoza, and Hume compares favorably with Augustine’s, Luther’s, and Calvin’s. And the evil deeds of Communism and Nazism are not due to their lack of belief but to their false beliefs, even as the evil deeds of the Crusaders, Inquisitors, and witch hunters, and Luther’s exhortation to burn synagogues and Calvin’s decision to burn Servetus, were due to their false beliefs. Christianity, like Islam, has caused more wars than it has prevented; and the Middle Ages, when Europe was Christian, were not a period of peace and good will among men. Does it make sense that those who refuse to let their Yes be Yes and their No, No–those who refuse to reject false beliefs, those who would rather stretch them and equivocate–should have a monopoly on being moral?

Renouncing false beliefs will not usher in the millennium. Few things about the strategy of contemporary apologists are more repellent than their frequent recourse to spurious alternatives. The lesser lights inform us that the alternative to Christianity is materialism, thus showing how little they have read, while the greater [l]ights talk as if the alternative were bound to be a shallow and inane optimism. I don’t believe that man will turn this earth into a bed of roses either with the aid of God or without it. Nor does life among the roses strike me as a dream from which one would not care to wake up after a very short time…

On the subject on religion and morality, Mises writes-

Until the beginning of the fourth century the Christian creed was spread by voluntary conversions. There were also later voluntary conversions of individuals and of whole peoples. But from the days of Theodosius I on, the sword began to play a prominent role in the dissemination of Christianity. Pagans and heretics were compelled by force of arms to submit to the Christian teachings. For many centuries religious problems were decided by the outcome of battles and wars. Military campaigns determined the religious allegiance of nations. Christians of the East were forced to accept the creed of Mohammed, and pagans in Europe and America were forced to accept the Christian faith. Secular power was instrumental in the struggle between the Reformation and the Counter Reformation.

There was religious uniformity in Europe of the Middle Ages as both paganism and heresies were eradicated with fire and sword. All of Western and Central Europe recognized the Pope as the Vicar of Christ. But this did not mean that all people agreed in their judgments of value and in the principles directing their conduct. There were few people in medieval Europe who lived according to the precepts of the Gospels. Much has been said and written about the truly Christian Spirit of the code of chivalry and about the religious idealism that guided the conduct of the knights. Yet anything less compatible with Luke 6:27-9 than the rules of chivalry can hardly be conceived. The gallant knights certainly did not love their enemies, they did not bless those who cursed them, and they did not offer the left cheek to him who smote them on the right cheek. The Catholic Church had the power to prevent scholars and writers from challenging the dogmas as defined by the Pope and the Councils and to force the secular rulers to yield to some of its political claims. But it could preserve its position only by condoning conduct on the part of the laity which defied most, if not all, of the principles of the Gospels. The values that determined the actions of the ruling classes were entirely different from those that the Church preached. Neither did the peasants comply with Matthew 6:25-8. And there were courts and judges in defiance of Matthew 7:1: “Judge not, that you be not judged.”

and on revelation-

Revealed religion derives its authority and authenticity from the communication to man of the Supreme Being’s will. It gives the faithful indisputable certainty.

However, people disagree widely about the content of revealed truth as well as about its correct- orthodox-interpretation. For all the grandeur, majesty, and sublimity of religious feeling, irreconcilable conflict exists among various faiths and creeds. Even if unanimity could be attained in matters of the historical authenticity and reliability of revelation, the problem of the veracity of various exegetic interpretations would still remain.

Every faith claims to possess absolute certainty. But no religious faction knows of any peaceful means that will invariably induce dissenters to divest themselves voluntarily of their error and to adopt the true creed.

If people of different faiths meet for peaceful discussion of their differences, they can find no common basis for their colloquy but the statement: by their fruits ye shall know them. Yet this utilitarian device is of no use so long as men disagree about the standard to be applied in judging the effects.

The religious appeal to absolute eternal values did not do away with conflicting judgments of value. It merely resulted in religious wars.

and, well, “scientific” atheism-

Marxism is a revolutionary doctrine. It expressly declares that the design of the prime mover will be accomplished by civil war. It implies that ultimately in the battles of these campaigns the just cause, that is, the cause of progress, must conquer. Then all conflicts concerning judgments of value will disappear. The liquidation of all dissenters will establish the undisputed supremacy of the absolute eternal values.

This formula for the solution of conflicts of value judgments is certainly not new. It is a device known and practiced from time immemorial. Kill the infidels! Burn the heretics! What is new is merely the fact that today it is sold to the public under the label of “science.”

[He is, of course, writing in the context of objective moral values. He doesn’t believe in them, but in utilitarianism, which has problems of its own. Chapter 3 of his Theory and History is interesting even if you don’t agree with everything he says.]

I will end with what Nietzsche writes in his Human, all-too Human

The origin of morality may be traced to two ideas: “The community is of more value than the individual,” and “The permanent interest is to be preferred to the temporary.” The conclusion drawn is that the permanent interest of the community is unconditionally to be set above the temporary interest of the individual, especially his momentary well-being, but also his permanent interest and even the prolongation of his existence. Even if the individual suffers by an arrangement that suits the mass, even if he is depressed and ruined by it, morality must be maintained and the victim brought to the sacrifice. Such a trend of thought arises, however, only in those who are not the victims—for in the victim’s case it enforces the claim that the individual might be worth more than the many, and that the present enjoyment, the “moment in paradise,” should perhaps be rated higher than a tame succession of untroubled or comfortable circumstances. But the philosophy of the sacrificial victim always finds voice too late, and so victory remains with morals and morality: which are really nothing more than the sentiment for the whole concept of morals under which one lives and has been reared and reared not as an individual but as a member of the whole, as a cipher in a majority. Hence it constantly happens that the individual makes himself into a majority by means of his morality.

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