Monday, November 25, 2013

Breaking the Spell III

In the fourth chapter of Breaking the Spell, “The Roots of Religion” (see previous posts, Sept. & Oct., 2013), Daniel Dennett claims that “at the root of human belief in gods lies an instinct…to attribute agency—beliefs and desires and other mental states—to anything complicated that moves.” 

He doesn’t really prove this claim or make a serious argument for it.  He certainly doesn’t consider counter-arguments.  His goal seems to be to speculate on possible natural evolutionary explanations for the origin of religion in order to show that we can explain religion without recourse to the supernatural.

His underlying naturalistic assumption is that every phenomenon has a material origin.  Again, he never really makes an argument for this assumption, nor does he consider counter-arguments.  I’m puzzled how he thinks he can persuade religious adherents who don’t share his assumption without addressing it directly.

Nevertheless, it is fascinating to consider that humans developed this instinct or “intentional stance,” as he calls it, for purposes of survival and that this attribution of agency associated with movement becomes the basis of supernatural belief.  It might explain the rise of animism, totemism, and animal deities among early humans.  Dennett also uses this idea to explain the rise of burial and funeral ceremonies.  To the extent that early humans considered each other animistic agents, they would have been deeply conflicted by the association of a rotting corpse with such animism.  One way to resolve the conflict would be to bury the corpse with an accompanying ceremony to affirm the spiritual value of the dead.

If Dennett’s goal is to show that religion can be explained naturalistically, he is largely successful.  The problem is that he has no way to counter the claim of human ensoulment by supernatural means and therefore no way to convince those who start with a non-naturalistic assumption or those who find naturalistic explanations alone to be inadequate to account for the fullness and richness of human experience.

Denial of the supernatural based on the lack of empirical evidence is hardly an argument against it.  By definition, the supernatural would be non-material and non-observable.  All that is required for belief in the supernatural is a conviction that it is possible or a deeply felt experience that one interprets as spiritual or mystical or transcendent in some way.  If the supernatural is possible, then it is not unreasonable to believe in it.  And many believers can offer logically thought out reasons, as well as experiential claims to support their belief.  Of course, there are also many believers who simply accept uncritically what they have been taught or base their beliefs on little more than wishful thinking.

I personally find it difficult to invalidate anyone’s deeply held religious beliefs, especially when they are based on reason and/or experience.  Even if I don’t agree with them, they deserve my respect.

By the same token, I can respect the strongly held beliefs of a naturalist like Dennett.

Where I have a problem is with dogmatism, whether it be the dogmatism of a religious fundamentalist or of a scientific materialist.

Dennett is playful enough in his speculations to avoid a dogmatic tone.  Yet his uncritical assumption of naturalism and his barely concealed contempt for religious believers as inferior to himself is off-putting, to say the least, unless of course the reader shares his assumptions and his sense of superiority.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

An Enemy of the People I

Upon reflecting on the ethical issues that arise in “A Horseman in the Sky” (see previous post) we might ask whether “duty” is a relative term.  If we sympathize with the Union cause in the Civil War, then Druse’s decision to join the Federal Army is morally right, but if one values loyalty to one’s “homeland” and family, then Druse’s decision is a form of betrayal, even more so because he abandons his mother on her deathbed.  Similarly, from a perspective of military duty, Druse is right to kill his father (or cause his father’s death by shooting his horse), whereas from the perspective of familial duty he should hold his fire, even if it means putting his comrades and the Union cause at risk.

Is morality always relative, depending on culture, upbringing, religion, circumstances, or even one’s own individual moral code, or are there certain general principles of moral behavior that transcend culture, social norms, religion, specific situations, or individual preference?  In Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play An Enemy of the People, one man defies the civic authorities and the majority opinion of his town in order to take a stand for what he believes is objectively true and morally right.

Dr. Stockmann had developed the plans for the healing baths that have made his town prosperous.  As the chief medical officer in charge of the baths, he notices that after using them some visitors had contracted typhus, so he sends some water samples to be tested at a university laboratory.  The results reveal that the baths have become polluted, and Dr. Stockmann immediately reports this information to the authorities, including his brother, the mayor.

When the mayor and other town leaders find out how much it would cost to repair the baths, how long it would take, and how much lost revenue the town would suffer, they suddenly become skeptical of the lab report and insist that Stockmann not make it public.  His brother threatens to fire him from his job if he spreads the word.  Even Stockmann’s wife, concerned for the well-being of their family, urges him to remain quiet.

In the end the whole town turns against him, and his wife’s fears are realized, as Stockmann is declared an enemy of the people.  He is fired, his patients are told to boycott him, his daughter loses her teaching position, and his sons are attacked in school.  In a public speech to the town Stockmann argues that “might” (in the form of majority opinion and civic authority) does not make “right.”  Truth and right are not relative to the prevailing winds, but have an objective standing, independent of the town culture and social norms.

In rereading this play I was reminded of our own contemporary deniers of evolution and climate change.  When the truth challenges traditional belief or threatens economic well-being, it may find itself dismissed as false, fraudulent, or even conspiratorial.  But, as has often been said, “facts are stubborn things,” and the failure to heed them may lead to disaster.  Some “truths” may indeed be contingent on time, place, and even individual preference, but some truths apply regardless of such circumstances. 

Of course there is a significant difference between a scientifically demonstrable fact and a moral principle, which is beyond the bounds of science.  But is morality outside the bounds of reason? 

When slavery was a socially acceptable practice, did that make it right?  Did it only become wrong when enough people decided it was wrong, or was it always wrong?  Do humans have universal rights?  Or are human rights relative to time and place?

Does Carter Druse have a duty to help abolish the evil of slavery in his country by supporting the Union cause, even if it means abandoning his mother and killing his father, or does he have a duty to protect the “way of life” of his region and family, not to mention a duty to honor his mother and protect his father’s life? 

Does Stockmann have a duty, not only to scientific truth, but also to the well-being of those who use the baths, or does he have a duty to protect the economic welfare of his town and his family, even if it means innocent people get sick and even die? 

Is it all relative or is one choice morally superior to the other?

Friday, November 1, 2013

"A Horseman in the Sky"

Christian ethics (see previous posts on “The Bishop and the Candlesticks” and “Bartleby the Scrivener”) is based on the “divine command” theory of ethics, which in turn is usually based on a sacred text, purporting to embody the word of a supreme deity.  Good and bad behavior is determined by an appeal to the authority of a higher power.  These commands, such as “Thou shalt not kill,” don’t usually include any exceptions, qualifiers or guidance on how to choose when one command comes in conflict with another or when special circumstances such as war or self-defense arise.   The appeal to authority removes the burden of having to think through and develop one’s own moral code, but the absence of exceptions often leaves the believer in a moral dilemma with no way out.  As shown in “Bartleby” and “The Bishop and the Candlesticks,” divine commands often set an impossibly high standard.  They might work in fiction, but not necessarily in reality.

There are those who believe that religion is necessary to morality, but the deontological theory of ethics is based on our human ability to think for ourselves.  We don’t need religion to tell us that killing and other harmful acts are wrong.  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that such prohibitions are necessary to the viability of human society, not to mention our own self-interest.  In *The Lord of the Flies* by William Golding human nature is represented as selfish and cruel, once the thin layer of socialization has been stripped away; yet the novel appeals to our innate good sense about the need for a moral code.  When Piggy asks, “Which is better—to have rules and agree, or to hunt and kill?” there is little doubt about the right answer.   Certain behaviors are intrinsically wrong, and we have a practical and moral duty to refrain from them.  However, in certain situations it may be our duty to kill, as in war.  Under most wartime conditions, a soldier will kill the enemy without question.  Not only is it a matter of following legal military orders, but it is also a matter of kill or be killed.  But what if that duty conflicts with another one?  What if the “enemy” is a friend or family member, to whom we also have certain obligations of concern? 

Such is precisely the dilemma of Carter Druse in Ambrose Bierce’s 1889 Civil War story “A Horseman in the Sky.”  A native Virginian, Druse chooses to join the Union side.  When he tells his father of his decision, the elder Druse accepts his son’s choice, telling him “Well, go, sir, and whatever may occur do what you conceive to be your duty.” 

Later, Druse is assigned to keep watch on a cliff overlooking his comrades in the valley below as they prepare for a sneak attack on a Confederate camp site.  Should they be detected by the enemy, not only would their plan fail but they would themselves be in a “perilous” position.  Druse falls asleep on his watch, but awakes in time to see a Confederate horseman on the cliff looking down on the five regiments of Federal infantry.  From his hidden location, Druse can easily kill the horseman and save his comrades from detection, but the horseman happens to be his father. 

After a struggle with his conscience, Druse shoots the horse, causing both horse and rider to plunge down the side of the cliff.  Presumably, Druse can satisfy his conscience that he has fulfilled his military duty (and saved his comrades) while also refraining from shooting his own father.  Clearly, though, by shooting the horse, Druse is responsible for his father’s death.  On the other hand, his father had told him to do his duty “whatever may occur.”  The question is, which duty is the higher one in this situation, his familial duty or his military duty?  Which is worse, patricide or treason?

A similar ethical dilemma arises in Susan Glaspell’s short story “Trifles” (see Jan. 19, 2011 post).  Two women struggle between their duty to reveal evidence of a crime and their duty to protect their friend, who has apparently murdered her husband.  Believing there were extenuating circumstances that may have justified the murder, the women end up concealing evidence.   

Whatever we may think of the actions taken by the characters in the two stories, the point is that deontological ethics, like divine command theory, may not help us when we are confronted with two bad choices.

But is the main function of either story to question the efficacy of deontological ethics?  Probably not.  As stated in my blog post on “Trifles,” the main point of the story had to do with the way the male characters dismiss and trivialize the women, thereby overlooking the evidence the women have found. It is not just that the women conceal the evidence, but that the men can’t conceive they might find something significant while sorting through the domestic “trifles” of the suspect.

So, what is the main point of “A Horseman in the Sky”?  Is it an anti-war story, suggesting that war itself is immoral, forcing soldiers to commit horrible acts that they would never commit in civilian life?  Is it about the twisted ironies of life, in which a father’s advice to his son is turned against him?  Or is it about Carter Druse’s character?  After all, he makes his decision to join the Federal Army while his mother lies on her deathbed.  What does that say about his devotion to familial duty? Couldn’t he have waited until after her impending death?  Why does he not struggle with his conscience over abandoning his dying mother?  And, what does it say about his devotion to military duty that he is asleep at his post and only by chance awakes in time to see the Confederate horseman?  Does his struggle with his conscience before shooting the horse suggest a moral advance over his failed duty to his mother?  Or, does his shooting of the horse represent yet another failure to take responsibility for his actions by allowing him to tell himself he didn’t kill his own father?

On a different level, does his decision to join the Federal Army represent an admirable loyalty to the Union (and perhaps an opposition to slavery) or does his disloyalty to his own state (and family)represent yet another failure of character?

Like all good literature, the story is rich with possible interpretations and with implications for our own human reflections on ethics, character, and the ironies of life.