Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Mistress of Troubling Signs returns

The Mistress of Troubling Signs is out in fine form! There is nobody at the Strib who can send you looking for the Arby's insert with the coupons, or maybe Parade Magazine, as fast as Kersten can. She can write a column like this in her sleep, and she often has.

The Mistress is also peerless at drawing wild and hysterical conclusions from a single event, denying both logic and gravity in the process; she's a regular shrieking, mylar helium balloon of moral panic. In her column variation in the Sunday Strib, the problem is that some guys -- they were probably black and Muslim, too, you  know! -- stole televisions in the U.K. From this we must conclude that:
The anarchy in the streets of Britain's largest cities has been brewing for half a century, [British rabbi Jonathon -- yes, that's apparently how he spells it] Sacks wrote in the Wall Street Journal. He traced it to what he calls "one of the most radical transformations in the history of the West" -- the moral revolution of the 1960s, when the West abandoned "its entire traditional ethic of self-restraint." 
The West tossed the Judeo-Christian moral code out the window, says Sacks, and replaced it with materialism and radical individualism. The new watchword is "Whatever works for you." 
Britain's social fabric is unraveling in the resulting ethical vacuum.
It wouldn't be a real moral crisis unless the pope weighed in on the subject, too:
Like Sacks, Pope Benedict believes the West faces a moral vacuum. Europe has rejected the religious notion of universal ethical truths, he says. Yet it's clear we can't derive an alternative moral code from "the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology." 
Today, young people are learning that morality is purely subjective, and that every person must decide questions of right and wrong for himself or herself, the pope told Croatian leaders in a speech in June. [The pontiff believes we should be deciding right and wrong his way, naturally.]
In Benedict's view, the idea of "conscience" -- a precondition of democratic civil order -- is becoming untethered from, and unformed by, a larger search for universal truth about what is good for man. 
This is perilous to the common good, said Benedict. For without men and women "moved by the power of truth and good," Europe will eventually wither and die. 
Sacks and Benedict agree on the diagnosis of the West's ills. They also agree on the cure: A remoralization of society, which means a return to religion as a shaper of morality and community.
Of course, Sacks and Bendict have some skin in this game. Well, one of them does, maybe, I guess. But neither one is exactly a disinterested observer of the utility of religion in moral behavior.

Deciding what is right and wrong is called "ethics;" you can't dodge making ethical decisions. If you try, it's called the Nuremberg Defense. Many ethical decisions are inherently subjective. Ethics requires judgment; in our heart of hearts, we all know that. It's just silly to claim that Western religion -- especially since you'll get different answers from different clerics -- knows it all. Ethics is not, as Kersten frets, "purely subjective," but it's not purely objective, either.

That is why, for example, that even people who are opposed to abortion because they believe it is "killing babies" would make exceptions in the case of rape, incest, and to save the life of the mother. And while they would cheerfully charge an abortion doctor with murder for performing an abortion, they wouldn't charge the mother. These, boys and girls, are judgment calls. But they're just a couple of several possible judgment calls on the issue of abortion.

It is, moreover, ludicrous to pin the rioting on a decline in church attendance. Personally, I agree with Professor Jerry A. Coyne of the University of Chicago, who wrote recently in USA Today:
We see the instinctive nature of moral acts and judgments in many ways: in the automatic repugnance we feel when someone such as Bernie Madoff bilks the gullible and trusting, in our disapproval of the person who steals food from the office refrigerator, in our admiration for someone who risks his life to save a drowning child. And although some morality comes from reason and persuasion — we must learn, for example, to share our toys — much of it seems intuitive and inborn. 
Many Americans, including Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and an evangelical Christian, see instinctive morality as both a gift from God and strong evidence for His existence. 
As a biologist, I see belief in God-given morality as American's biggest impediment to accepting the fact of evolution. "Evolution," many argue, "could never have given us feelings of kindness, altruism and morality. For if we were merely evolved beasts, we would act like beasts. Surely our good behavior, and the moral sentiments that promote it, reflect impulses that God instilled in our soul." 
So while morality supposedly comes from God, immorality is laid at the door of Charles Darwin, who has been blamed for everything from Nazism to the shootings in Columbine.
 He forgot Communism.

Although this post is already overlong, I will mention a couple of other points that Professor Coyne made:
But though both moral and immoral behaviors can be promoted by religions, morality itself — either in individual behavior or social codes — simply cannot come from the will or commands of a God. This has been recognized by philosophers since the time of Plato.
Religious people can appreciate this by considering Plato's question: Do actions become moral simply because they're dictated by God, or are they dictated by God because they are moral? It doesn't take much thought to see that the right answer is the second one. Why? Because if God commanded us to do something obviously immoral, such as kill our children or steal, it wouldn't automatically become OK. Of course, you can argue that God would never sanction something like that because he's a completely moral being, but then you're still using some idea of morality that is independent of God. Either way, it's clear that even for the faithful, God cannot be the source of morality but at best a transmitter of some human-generated morality.
Which is why when God told Abraham to murder his son, the right answer would have been, "Are you crazy, God?"

The professor also observes:
So where does morality come from, if not from God? Two places: evolution and secular reasoning. Despite the notion that beasts behave bestially, scientists studying our primate relatives, such as chimpanzees, see evolutionary rudiments of morality: behaviors that look for all the world like altruism, sympathy, moral disapproval, sharing — even notions of fairness. This is exactly what we'd expect if human morality, like many other behaviors, is built partly on the genes of our ancestors.
You know, Katherine, you aren't even any fun anymore. Your gig as the Pope's Progangadist is wearing really thin.

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