Featured

We need better morals, not better labels

We need better morals, not better labels

BY ‘Victor Onrust’

The author, who is based in the Netherlands, responds

to Jeff T Haley’s featured article, ‘We Need a Better Label ….’

LET’S start out with approving the fact that we should have a better label. But not before examining what should be the contents of this new label. If it is the same message that goes around with the old labels of “atheism”, “skepticism”, “brightness” or “the church of virus” it will meet with the same kind of success.

The problem with these labels is that morally they all stand for the same value system that I would call some variant of liberal humanism. In my reading of his essay, Haley suggests nothing else. Now what is wrong with (liberal) humanism? Aren’t we all humans? The answer is that morally seen, we’re not. “We” are Christians, Muslims, humanists, socialists, libertarians, “primitives” or whatever.

It is an illusion that we are one of these because we have freely chosen to be so. We were raised in one, and if we are now not a part of it anymore, we had reasons to change. It is not impossible to change from one “we” to another, but in order to do so there are two important conditions to be met.

The first is that one’s present social environment of which one’s belief system is a part (or better: one’s belief-system makes you a part) is open enough to allow such a change. The second is that this other belief system should offer you advantages over your present one.

For this, the fact that a belief system is “rationally more true” is, by far, not enough. There are circumstances that encourage a change, such as real life not being as it should be according to the Book. But in such a situation it remains to be seen whether a secular outlook is the more attractive alternative. Many people are going for some vague spirituality, with an extreme emphasis on individual well being.

Before we can go on we will have to critically examine the notion of a belief system. The strands of humanism assigned by the terms “atheist” and others see themselves as holding a more or less absolute truth. Strange as it may seem, this claim is exactly the one that any belief-system makes. The only difference is that atheists (and socialists) claim their truth is based on scientific knowledge and that theists base their absolute truth on the existence of God. The atheist claim is too bold. Our belief systems, seen as a set of moral instructions, are the result of our culture, our history. They do not flow from raw nature itself but are man-made over a long period and, as such, are fallible.

The first conclusion is that any belief system is just that: a belief. It takes an act of faith to be with it. There is no objective guarantee in “science” that can make this an absolute claim. We can, however, claim that on the scale of scientific truth the humanist belief system scores better than any theist one. However, on the whole I would say the humanist belief system scores pretty weak in relation to the realities of this world.

The main problem is precisely the idea that “we are all humans” and “born equal”. This is in flagrant conflict to the reality of the situation in the world we occupy.

You can tell that without much science. You could say that it is a desirable goal to have equality. But apart from the fact the world could become a rather boring place if this were achieved, this goal could probably never be reached, and in any case it would not provide a good moral foundation for the here and now.

So one of the objectives of a good secular belief system would be that it copes with inequality as a fact of life and perhaps leads us to actions that in the long run bridges the gaps, or makes them smaller. This is a tricky business, because it could easily lead to the justification of Nazism, racism or slavery.

The second shortcoming in liberal humanism is its stress on individualism. It sees the matter of finding and upholding moral standards as a private business, where everybody is responsible for his own interpretation of the “Golden Rule”. No serious movement can exist where members do not share some common mores and hold each other accountable for it.

These shortcomings do not only affect the position of atheists and the like but are the main cause of the deterioration of our democracy, the immorality in financial sectors and the increasing weakness of the West on the world stage.

Since about 2004 I have tried to tackle these problems and find a beginning of a solution to them. The last two years I have done so with a small number of others. I have even thought up a nice label and started a website. During my struggles with these problems I have come to the conclusion that it’s a bad idea to drop another label into some website, make some public noise and wait for the enthusiasts to flock to it. This kind of movement must rely on personal contact and slow growth, especially in the beginning. Websites and public media can only play a supporting role.

A second thought is that, in as far you make public statements these should be pseudonymously. The media have an insatiable appetite for the “person” which will mostly cloud the message or it will not transmit the message at all because the person is not sexy or interesting enough.

Second, pseudonymity should somewhat curb personal interests, from the leaders or writers as well as from the readers or followers. In some situations it might be better to do this in non-public communications as well. Third, it offers some protection against non-verbal opposition. Some ideas could be seen as controversial.

It is for this reason that I have chosen to pen this article under a pseudonym. “Onrust” is Dutch for unrest.

If you are seriously interested in sharing your views on this issue, you can mail me at:

victor.ft@xs4all.nl.

• “Victor Onrust” is a blogger based in Amsterdam, occasionally writing in English (http://onrust.2fd.eu/2013/11/reading-dennett/)”

His Twitter address is  @VictorOnrust.

 

 

4 responses to “We need better morals, not better labels”

  1. mikespeir says:

    I like it. There are issues here from which too many of us shutter our eyes.

  2. JohnMWhite says:

    Perhaps English not being the author’s native language is muddying his message, but considering his grasp of it appears perfectly fine, I think it’s just the content of the passage that is a problem, for a few reasons:

    The only difference is that atheists (and socialists) claim their truth is based on scientific knowledge and that theists base their absolute truth on the existence of God.

    Having evidence does make a massive difference when dealing with beliefs. I can’t really think of a way to adequately express why that difference is actually worthwhile since it appears so apparent.

    The atheist claim is too bold. Our belief systems, seen as a set of moral instructions, are the result of our culture, our history. They do not flow from raw nature itself but are man-made over a long period and, as such, are fallible.

    This is an assertion that is simply not borne out by, dare I say it, the evidence. For one thing, it is not remotely too bold to claim “not x” when there’s no evidence for x, so atheists are not too bold at all. And secular morality is not purely the result of culture and history otherwise it would be practically indistinguishable from prevalent religious morality that grew up with the same culture and history. Also, evolutionary biology and psychology would like to know why decades of evidence of morality as an evolved trait in social mammals has been thrown out the window here.

    This whole passage seems to be a lot of hand-wringing and dancing around in discomfort at the terms ‘atheist’ and ‘equality’ for some reason. I don’t see the problem that a solution is being offered to. Obviously we are not literally all born equal, but that is an ideal and a metaphor used to show why we should treat one another with fairness and compassion. The strive for equality is not the strive to make everybody into clones. Nobody literally thinks we’re all born exactly the same with the same ideas or capabilities. Nobody endorsing secular morality is actually saying “do whatever you like, you wonderful individual, if you can justify it to yourself”. Accepting inequality as a reality but striving to close the gaps, as the author suggests, is what the case is now with what he keeps dismissing as ‘liberal humanism’. That’s what it is for, and it is not something to be used as a justification of the Nazi party’s racial policies. Nazism and racism are not the fault of or likely result of liberal humanism. Do I have to draw a picture to emphasise how much these issues were borne out of religion? Maybe a pretty yellow star will do the trick.

    The author seems to be problematising labels and concepts needlessly, taking them far too literally, in order to pursue his own idea of how we ought to say things and mostly to crucify liberal humanism, to no real benefit of anyone. The idea that it is responsible for the financial collapse and therefore “affects the atheist’s position” is completely devoid of logic. You can’t draw a simple line between these two things, it’s a non-sequitur to act like secular morality caused it and another one to suggest that it somehow means atheists have to reassess where they are or what they believe.

    In short, no, atheists don’t need better morals, the author needs better arguments, and perhaps some opponents not made out of straw.

    I’d also argue the point about the media doesn’t seem accurate at all but perhaps it reflects his experiences in Holland. In the US and UK, though, nobody cares how sexy you are when getting your socio-political message out there. Karl Rove or Bill O’Reilly don’t get on TV all the time because they are sexually attractive, it’s because he has a message the powers that be want heard. Nobody gives Natalie Portman an hour of prime time every weeknight to talk about improving women’s access to health care and not blowing up Palestinians so often.

  3. @JohnMWhite

    “… secular morality is not purely the result of culture and history otherwise it would be practically indistinguishable from prevalent religious morality that grew up with the same culture and history. Also, evolutionary biology and psychology would like to know why decades of evidence of morality as an evolved trait in social mammals has been thrown out the window here.”

    Maybe we live in different universes. Evolutionairy psychology can of course not show that morality “is an evolved trait in social mammals” if this “trait” is considered to be something biological as I think JM suggests. On the other side: of course “secular morality is not purely the result of culture and history” as there are basic (biological) instincts and drives where culture builds upon. However, secular morality is distinguishable “from prevalent religious morality” precisely because culture has evolved in the last 400 years to “produce” such a secular morality. So its difference comes entirely to the credit of developing culture (/history) as I hope JM does not include supernatural injections of morality from outside the system.

    Accepting inequality as a reality but striving to close the gaps, as the author suggests, is what the case is now with what he keeps dismissing as ‘liberal humanism’.

    My central problem with “liberal humanism” is not that it’s trying to close the inequality-gap or not (I don’t think it does however), but that it presupposes its absence because “all men are born equal”. The appearance of inequality in reality is in this vision an unfortunate by-effect of “circumstances” to be remediated with subsidization, extra education, positive discrimination and the like. Or, if a bit further away, to be crying over and donate some do-good money. So yes, this is the central theme of humanism, and yes, it should be crucified. To be a liberal is to presuppose everybody is equal otherwise liberalism would be unacceptable to itself. The fact that liberalism cannot accept the truth of large groups being fundamentally unequal, by birth, upbringing, culture and material circumstances makes its morals problematic and in fact obstructs attempts to close the gap if this is at all possible. This goes for the light version of the Human Rights and for the strong version of neoliberalism where everyone is supposed to be the author of his own fate.

    For a large part I fear it is impossible to close the gap. And in some ways it’s even undesirable. With titanic and worldwide good will it might be made somewhat smaller over a period of at least 50 years).

    Sorry this answer is a bit late.

  4. Bruce Elniski says:

    to victor.ft

    Re: http://freethinker.co.uk/2014/01/21/we-need-better-morals-not-better-labels

    Dear Victor Onrust:

    I enjoyed your reply in the Freethinker. One phrase in your essay
    caught my eye: “They do not flow from raw nature itself but are
    man-made over a long period and, as such, are fallible”.

    I think that this thought, the knowledge that the humanist/secualar/
    epicurean belief systems, based upon the assumption that the universe
    is a natural and not super-natural place, are man-made is an excellent
    point.

    I think, that in order to be honest, we must admit that all known
    religions, creeds, belief systems, values, ideals, codes of conduct,
    morals and so on are in fact ALL MAN-MADE.

    That is an excellent starting point.

    I have spent most of my adult life (I am 62) thinking about such
    things and I have a list of what I think a modern, up to date value
    system should be based on:

    1. It is admittedly man-made. Not apologetically, but admittedly.
    The authors, the people involved, should put their names to it if they
    helped to create it.
    2. It is willing to admit errors.
    3. It has an error detection and error correction mechanism built
    into it. This involves being open, honest and continually examined.
    4. It is based upon human experience from all times and places in
    which humans have lived, in so far as we can understand the past and
    present. Awareness is very important.
    5. It assumes that man can “figure it out” with his senses, brain,
    memory, logic and reason.
    6. The universe is a knowable place; it can be understood and man has
    the capacity to do so.
    7. The universe is a consistent place; everything from the rain to
    super-nova explosions follow from the knowable, immutable laws of
    nature.
    8. The universe is ordinary: no part of it is exceptional or special
    or apart from it.
    9. We are a natural, evolved part of the universe.
    10. We are all made of the same stuff; the elements and compounds
    discovered by science.
    11. All known biological creatures, at this point in time, February
    2014, are similar: we all operate in similar ways.
    12. There is always a tolerance of certainty that can be very close
    but is never exact: we know such and such within a certain degree of
    error or precision, which can of course always be improved. But it is
    always “plus or minus” the error factor of precision. Just like any
    measurement.
    13. We base our values on trust by an ongoing process of examination
    open to all and encouraged. That way we can become more and more
    trusting in certain values and distrustful of others based upon the
    experience of actual humans living these values. This would be the
    basis of the sorting process that must be applied to the claims,
    values and ideals promulgated by various groups.

    There are other assumptions but these ones are near or at the top of my list.

    A prime concern ought to be the “solidity” of the claims and
    statements. Do they stand the test of time, do the consequences of
    following them result in beneficial, not destructive things in human
    societies? Can these values and claims be arrived at independently in
    other places and times with similar conclusions? That is, can they be
    confirmed by other independent sources?

    We are not trying to “sell” or “promote” or sway or seek popularity.
    We seek the actual truth of the matter, always, based upon as much
    evidence and experience as can be ascertained from human experience in
    human societies around the globe.

    I agree that “atheism” is a poor, very poor label as it was intended
    to be by those who coined the phrase. It implies a negation, as in a
    horseless carriage. Well, we got over the idea of a horseless
    carriage and instead used the term “car”. We just accept the fact
    that cars go without horses. So too, we must accept that a modern,
    aware, mature philosophy also “goes” without god.