Saturday, April 27, 2013

Empathy and Compassion: Notes from an Amateur

El Buen Samaritano (1838) PelegrĂ­ ClavĂ© i Roquer 
I'm not an especially compassionate or altruistic person. I mean, I'm not heartless or cruel, but I don't give a large chunk of my money to charities, or spend much time volunteering. I'm more of a thinker than a feeler, and I'm jealous of my time, which I mostly want to spend thinking about big questions--what's true, what's good--that sort of thing. I tell myself that if I ever really do have insights into some of those things, and if those insights influence anybody to do some good in the world (or not do some bad) then my time is justified. But really, what are the chances?

Anyway, I'm no expert at compassion, either at an emotional or intellectual level. But I do think compassion, as well as its relatives, altruism and empathy, are central to some of the big questions in life. One question is: What are those things good for? It may seem shocking to even ask the question, but a lot of people do. Related questions are: What's the proper balance between selfishness and altruism? Is some degree of selfishness reasonable? Would a world of entirely selfless people, who never thought about themselves, but only about each other, even make sense? After all, what would be the point of thinking about others, if they don't care about themselves?

For the record, I do think compassion, empathy, and altruism are good things. Very good things. And contrary to the Ayn Rand acolytes of the world (and those who have somehow convinced themselves that callous selfishness is compatible with Christianity), I think the world would be a better place if people were nicer to each other. Crazy, I know. But I understand that you can't necessarily help or trust everyone. Being all heart and no head doesn't work well. I even understand people who say that kindness and altruism are good, but shouldn't be the concern of government. I disagree, mostly, but I understand the argument. I also understand that some people believe it sincerely, while others use it to rationalize their own callousness.

Another question about altruism and related impulses is: what exactly are they? That's the question I'm really going to address in this post. I keep listing the words "compassion", "empathy", and "altruism", instead of just using them as synonyms, because they actually aren't synonyms--they're related, but distinct. Empathy basically means insight into another person's thoughts and feelings. It doesn't necessarily mean you have the best interests of others in mind. The animal behaviorist Frans De Waal points out that a car salesman needs empathy to understand what will make you want to buy a car, but he may still have no qualms about selling you a lemon. When most people talk about empathy, they really mean compassion or sympathy, which involves understanding or even mirroring other people's thoughts and feelings, especially suffering, as well as actually wanting them to feel better. That last part is crucial. Actually, I don't see why compassion couldn't also mean feeling happy when others are happy, or wanting happy people to be even happier (why focus on just the negative?) but that's not how most dictionaries define it. Finally, altruism is the actual act of helping others. It's often motivated by compassion, but not always. It can also be motivated by a sense of duty, or even the old-fashioned fear of going to hell.

What really needs to increase in the world is compassion and altruism (applied with a good dose of realism) but to understand how that might be done, I think it helps to take a closer look at empathy. Empathy is surprisingly complicated. There are multiple kinds of empathy, mediated by different circuits in the brain. There's cognitive empathy, which means having insight into what another person is thinking. Then there's emotional empathy, which is insight into what another person is feeling. Emotional empathy can be further subdivided. Some people respond to the sight of people suffering by getting distressed, but that doesn't mean they will want to help out. They may just want to leave. That's emotional empathy, but not a particularly kind variety. Some people may be able to read other people's emotions very well, without feeling any particular benevolence toward them. Once again, this is empathy without benevolence.The kind of emotional empathy that underlies benevolence is sometimes called "empathic concern" which seems to be more or less synonymous with compassion or sympathy.

The psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen (not Sacha, that's his cousin) has studied how empathy explains different psychological disorders. Psychopaths, in the technical sense of people with antisocial personality disorder, have an impaired sense of emotional empathy, or more specifically compassion. They may have insight into your thoughts and feelings (sometimes to a scary degree), but they just don't care about them, except to the extent that it helps them get what they want. If psychopaths are shown pictures of painful accidents or people screaming, they are unmoved (sadists might actually be excited, but not all psychopaths are sadists). People with narcissistic and borderline personality disorder also have empathy problems that make then extremely unpleasant to be around, if not as truly dangerous as psychopaths.

People with autism or Asperger syndrome are like the reverse of psychopaths. They aren't unusuallly callous or cruel, at least not on purpose. Their problem isn't with emotional empathy or compassion so much as cognitive empathy. They can't read other people's thoughts and feelings well, even though they might care about them. They can't decipher facial expressions, and they're often confused when other people see them as rude. Common social activities can seem arbitrary and bewildering to them, and they prefer more systematic pursuits like math, computer programming, and learning about or collecting things, which they may get a little obsessive about (People who hang out by themselves writing cerebral blog posts aren't necessarily on the autism spectrum--they are just weird).

Those with Asperger's and autism may have trouble navigating in the world, but they can have some very positive traits. Lots of intellectuals and techy types are a little Aspergery, and they have given the world some great ideas and inventions. If we're talking about how to make the world a kinder place, these people aren't our focus. The real question is, how do we keep people from acting like psychopaths? Because under the right conditions, most people are capable of it.

What are those conditions? Very few people are born psychopaths, though some may be if they have certain genetic and neurological defects. Male babies exposed to too much testosterone in the womb can develop antisocial tendencies later. But most psychopaths are the product of horrifically neglectful or abusive households.  At the individual level, both nature and nurture can create a psychopath, though nurture may do it more often.

What are the conditions under which normal people lose their sense of compassion? What led average Germans to go on with their lives while cattle cars full of people went by? What allowed Americans to keep slaves, or to massacre whole villages of Native Americans? Why did so many of our ancestors enjoy blood sports and attend public executions?

Simon Baron-Cohen believes that any time people are cruel or callous, they have lost their sense of compassion, at least temporarily. It can happen in a fog of rage or fear--for example, when something hurts or scares us. I'm a very peaceful guy, but I once killed a rooster with a hammer. I was carrying the hammer, and it spurred me from behind. It hurt, and I was bleeding. When I turned around, it was coming at me again, so without thinking I flung the hammer at it, and killed it. And then I was sorry, but it was still dead. Something very similar happens all the time in the rougher sort of bars. Joe takes a swing at Bob, who pulls his gun and shoots Joe dead. Bob might be very sorry afterward, but Joe is still dead.

Baron-Cohen lists other compassion-killers, including ideology, conformity to peers or to authority figures, and in-group/out-group dynamics (the worst atrocities tend to happen when all three happen at once). Most people think their ideology will make the world a better place if it can just be put into practice. But ideology can cause atrocities when people are too sure of them, and start thinking it's OK to hurt others in the name of a higher cause or greater good. During the inquisition, priests tortured people, reasoning that it was better to torture a few people to root out heresy than let more people risk going to hell. Some of the inquisitors may have even been compassionate people, who thought they were choosing the lesser of two evils--which means compassion doesn't always keep people from hurting others.

Of course, not all destructive strains of ideology are religious. The communism of Stalin and Mao, the ultranationalism of Hitler and Mussolini, and even the "enlightened" egalitarianism of the French Revolution all led to piles of dead bodies. As Solzenitsyn said in The Gulag Archipelego, "Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble – and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology."

Another thing that can erode compassion, or at least make people do things that violate it, is conformity Psychologists have shown that if people see others ignoring someone in distress, they'll probably ignore them too. The mob mentality can also lead to horrors, as anyone knows who's seen photographs of smiling people posing next to the person they've just lynched. Obedience to authority figures will also make people do awful things. The famous Milgram experiments showed that a majority of people will shock another person, raising the voltage until they scream and finally go silent, as long as someone in a lab coat is hovering over them and telling them not to stop. They may shake uncontrollably, but they keep administering the shocks. Frans De Waal points out that Nazi soldiers early in the war often wept when they were ordered to shoot Jews, but they usually shot them anyway. Eventually, they probably stopped weeping. They got used to it. Habituation is surely another way that compassion erodes. We can get used to nearly anything, if it happpens gradually enough.

Finally, in-group/out group dynamics can determine who falls within our circle of compassion, and who doesn't. Humans are social animals who have to cooperate to survive, so we have evolved to have some degree of compassion, empathy, and altruism toward our relatives, our friends, and to a lesser extent, anybody else we consider "one of us". But we don't necessarily have compassion for outsiders, especially if we see them as a threat or a competitor. History is full of examples of one group of people enslaving or massacring another group; treating them as if they weren't really human. Most of us have grown up with a milder version of this. I know many Americans who couldn't care less about people in other countries, simply because they aren't Americans. Sometimes they will defend this attitude by saying it's impossible to take care of everyone, so we should just focus on our own country and let others focus on theirs. There's some validity to that kind of argument (some), but there are a lot of people who truly seem to think an American life is more valuable than a foreign life. I don't get that. Is there some magic essence that you have if you happen to be born American, that you don't if you are born in, say, Saudi Arabia?

Historically, our natural lack of compassion toward outsiders has been intensified by propaganda; by blood libel and depictions of the outgroup as demons or vermin. It's a lot easier to kill someone you don't consider fully human. Take a look at the depictions of the Japanese in WWII propaganda posters. They look more like demons than people. No wonder there were pop songs that happily mentioned the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

If we want a kinder world, one tactic is to teach people to recognize and avoid the things that lead to erosion of empathy and compassion.  If we teach kids to think for themselves, to try not to follow the crowd too much, and to question authorities who tell them to do things they know they shouldn't, that would help. Teaching critical thinking could also help people hold ideologies at arm's length, because if you're questioning the foundations of ideas, your'e not likely to be so sure of them that you find a little death or torture acceptable. Teaching people to take the perspective of others, and to be on guard for nasty in-group/out-group dynamics, could help people feel in their bones that it's not just people like them who feel pain or want to live a decent life. Thinkers like Steven Pinker have argued that the rise of mass-produced books and movies describing the lives of other kinds of people have lead to an expansion of empathy to other groups. Uncle Tom's Cabin, with its sympathetic depiction of slaves, inspired more than a few people to be abolitionists. Certain kinds of meditation seem to increase a sense of compassion, perhaps by temporarily blurring the boundary between self and others (a boundary that is created by the mind more than we usually realize).

As I write this, I'm surprised how close the connection between good reasoning and the cultivation of compassion turns out to be. That may be my particular bias, since I'm a big fan of good reasoning, and I even try to do it occasionally. But it's striking that being skeptical of ideologies, being wary of groupthink, and avoiding knee-jerk ethocentric and egocentric thinking--all hallmarks of good reasoning--may also help make us more compassionate. People think of reason and emotion as separate and even opposed, but they don't have to be, and emotion isn't necessarily more conducive to kindness. To the contrary, the destructive ultranationalism, and the faith in the inevitable greatness of particular nations or economic systems, both of which caused so much trouble in the 20th century, were born in the emotion-laden romanticism of the 19th century. In his book The Expanding Circle the philosopher Peter Singer argued that the expansion of rights to wider groups of people, and even to animals, has been driven in large part by reason. If someone points out--quite reasonably--that there is no particular reason that their happiness and welfare should be less important than mine, then it's hard to argue with them. Because they're right. Reason--real reason, not rationalization--is opposed to provincial, biased thinking. Reason tells me that your feelings and aspirations are likely to be just as real and powerful to you as mine are to me. If reason doesn't necessarily make me more compassionate to others, at least it makes me ask why I'm not. Emotions like anger, greed, and pride may be more likely to tell us to be selfish than cool reason.

Besides, as much as we need more empathy in the world (or really, more altruism and compassion, effectively applied) benevolence and good deeds can only go so far. As Steven Pinker points out, they may be too unreliable to base our hopes for a kinder world on, at least entirely.
When the Americans and the Soviets stopped rattling nuclear sabers and stoking proxy wars, I don't think love had much to do with it, or empathy either. And though I like to think I have as much empathy as the next person, I can't say that it's empathy that prevents me from taking out contracts on my critics, getting into fistfights over parking spaces, threatening my wife when she points out I've done something silly, or lobbying for my country to go to war with China to prevent it from overtaking us in economic output. My mind doesn't stop and ponder what it would be like to be the victims of these kinds of violence and then recoil after feeling their pain. My mind never goes in these directions in the first place: they are absurd, ludicrous, unthinkable. Yet options like these clearly were not unthinkable to past generations. The decline of violence may owe something to an expansion of empathy, but it also owes much to harder-boiled faculties like prudence, reason, fairness, norms and taboos, and conceptions of human rights. 
I think he's right. We shouldn't pin all our hopes for a kinder and more just world on something as variable as human kindness. Compassion, empathy, and altruism aren't panaceas. By themselves, they won't give us world peace. They aren't even always positive, if they aren't applied effectively, or applied for the wrong reasons. Still, the particular kind of empathy called compassion is almost always a good thing. It can't save the world all by itself, but we could still use a whole lot more of it.


The Erosion of Empathy  A short, excellent talk by Simon Baron-Cohen. I can't recommend it enough.

The Greater Good Science Center: An institute at UC Berkeley on the psychology of leading a meaningful life. Good explanations of empathy, compassion, and altruism. The tone is a little touchy-feely for my taste, but the site is based on real science.

The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty / Simon Baron-Cohen

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined / Steven Pinker

The Expanding Circle / Peter Singer

The Moral Behavior of Animals: A TED talk by Frans De Waal. He's really funny, and the video clips of animal behavior are amazing.

Let's Revive the Golden Rule: A TED by Karen Armstrong

Prisoner's Dilemma: The Challenge of Cooperation: One of my blog posts, about the evolution of empathy and cooperation.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

More Things in Heaven and Earth: Thoughts on Openmindedness and Skepticism

Like most people, I like a good quotation, and I have several favorites. A good, pithy observation can stick in my head for years. Some stick because they make me say, "Yes! Exactly! That's just how I would have said it if I were clever enough." Others stick because they bother me.  That happens when I can't quite decide what I think about them, but I'm pretty sure the answer is important.

One of these bothersome quotations is from Hamlet:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

The context here is that Hamlet has been having a chat with his father's ghost. The ghost vanishes, and Hamlet's friends Horatio and Marcellus walk up. Hamlet makes them swear not to reveal his plans to avenge his father's murder. From beneath the grave, the ghost backs him up, saying, "Swear". Horatio, understandably taken aback, says, "O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!" Hamlet replies, "And as a stranger therefore give it welcome. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy".

I've loved that quote ever since I first heard it. It's a great reminder to be openminded. We live in a great big weird universe, and our little minds have just begun to understand it. There are plenty of things out there that we have no idea about, so we shouldn't get too smug about our theories. Taken that way, Hamlet's statement is similar to Newton's reflections about his discoveries: 

I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

But the Hamlet quotation is commonly used in a different way. It comes up in discussions of astrology, miracles, and yes, ghosts, whenever someone says they are skeptical of those things. Then, the quote is used to tell those people, "Stop being so skeptical! You don't know everything, so how do you know it's not true?" 

I don't know Shakespeare's feelings on such things, but I don't care for that use of his quotation. Yes, we should be intellectually humble and open to the possibility that the universe is full of surprises, but that doesn't mean any particular claim about ghosts, miracles, etc. is true. Maybe there are such things as ghosts and maybe not. I doubt it, but if I ever saw enough evidence that they existed--evidence that couldn't be debunked as a hoax by skeptics--then I would have to conclude that they exist. The point is that to say "the world is full of unexpected things, therefore this particular unexpected thing is real" is fallacious reasoning. 

Open-mindedness is a virtue, but only to a degree. Which brings me to another saying that comes up often in these discussions, but not often enough: 

I believe in an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out. 

I say it's a saying, and not a quotation, because no particular person seems to have said this exact thing. It's often attributed to Arthur Hays Sulzberger, longtime publisher of the New York Times, but it may predate him. Like many common "quotations", it's probably evolved into a more streamlined and memorable phrase over time (the Newton quote above often takes a shorter form, for example). 

Wherever it came from, it's a good thing to remember. We live in a big, complex, hard-to-understand world, and there are plenty of hucksters and charlatans in it, trying to get us to do what they want and buy what they are selling. It doesn't do to be open-minded to the point of gullibility. Truth doesn't come easy, and there are a lot more false claims than true ones. As P.T. Barnum, one of the great hucksters in history, said:

There's a sucker born every minute.

I don't know about you, but I don't want to be a sucker. What's needed, I think, is a balance between openmindedess and skepticism. As I've said elsewhere in this blog, those things can be seen as two sides of the same coin: an attitude of not clinging too tightly to any idea, whether you currently believe it or not. If you're willing to consider--or abandon--any idea according to its merits, then you are both openminded and skeptical. They aren't mutually exclusive. At their best, they are mutually necessary.

I've been saying this for years, but I've recently remembered where I got the idea: from a book by Carl Sagan called The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Here's an extended quote, where he explains the essential balance we need to strike:

what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you’re in deep trouble. If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) But every now and then, maybe once in a hundred cases, a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you are too much in the habit of being skeptical about everything, you are going to miss or resent it, and either way you will be standing in the way of understanding and progress. On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful as from the worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all. Some ideas are better than others. The machinery for distinguishing them is an essential tool in dealing with the world and especially in dealing with the future. And it is precisely the mix of these two modes of thought that is central to the success of science.
This balance is certainly central to science, but I think (and I think Sagan would have agreed) that it has an even wider reach than that. It also works when trying to think about any idea, to try to determine whether it's true or at least useful. 

There's another balance that has to be struck, though, when it comes to skepticism--the balance between skepticism and cynicism. Contrary to popular belief, the two aren't the same. Skepticism is a probing, realistic view of the world, whereas cynicism is an overly-negative view. A cynic thinks the world is nastier than it really is. Still, it's easy to slip from skepticism into cynicism if you're not careful. Realism, for one thing, can be depressing. There's no guarantee that skepticism will make you feel better about the world. It's easy to come up with all kinds of false, but comforting, ideas about how the things are. In fact, comfort seems to be a more popular criteria for judging ideas than evidence or truth. Studies have shown that depressed people are more realistic about some things (how well other people like them, for example) than happy people. That's a depressing fact in itself, huh? If you stay skeptical all the time, a lot of the things people do can start to seem a little nonsensical--arbitrary at best and farcical at worst. That happens to me sometimes, and it is a little depressing.

The trick, I think, is to remember two things (though I don't always remember them). First, focusing on negativity doesn't do anybody any good (unless you're trying to change something negative, and then it's still more effective to stay as upbeat as possible). Winston Churchill has a good quote here, as he so often does: 

I am an optimist. It does not seem to be much use being anything else.

Optimism here doesn't mean self-delusion, or turning a blind eye to injustice. It just means remembering the good and the hopeful, while staying mindful of the bad. That's the second thing to remember: to pay attention to the good things. Sure, this world is full of nasty stuff, from dishonest politicians, to wars, to brain-eating amoebas. But it's full of a lot of love and goodness and beauty, too, and remembering that is the way to keep from slipping into cynicism. It's possible to be skeptical while still maintaining a sense of awe and humility, and a respect for beauty and goodness. If that hackneyed word "spirituality" means anything to a skeptic, it means that kind of attitude. Unlike some smaller-minded skeptics, Carl Sagan respected spirituality in that sense. The older I get, the more I'm amazed by Sagan's intellect and elequence, so I think I'll end with another quotation from him. Once again, he's talking about science in particular here, but there's no reason it shouldn't apply to the search for truth in general.

Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: It's for People, not Beliefs

"Test everything, hold fast to what is good" - 1 Thessalonians 5 21-22

Douglas Adams, hilariously hyperbolic humorist and author of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, once attended a conference called Digital Biota 2, where he stood up and gave a impromptu, rambling, and altogether brilliant talk. People still read and quote it today, years after his death.

One of the topics he covers is the way people tiptoe around other people's religious beliefs:
Now, the invention of the scientific method and science is, I'm sure we'll all agree, the most powerful intellectual idea, the most powerful framework for thinking and investigating and understanding and challenging the world around us that there is, and that it rests on the premise that any idea is there to be attacked and if it withstands the attack then it lives to fight another day and if it doesn't withstand the attack then down it goes. Religion doesn't seem to work like that; it has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. That's an idea we're so familiar with, whether we subscribe to it or not, that it's kind of odd to think what it actually means, because really what it means is 'Here is an idea or a notion that you're not allowed to say anything bad about; you're just not. Why not? - because you're not!' If somebody votes for a party that you don't agree with, you're free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it, but on the other hand if somebody says 'I mustn't move a light switch on a Saturday', you say, 'Fine, I respect that'.
He goes on to say:
It's rather like, if you think back in terms of animal evolution, an animal that's grown an incredible carapace around it, such as a tortoise - that's a great survival strategy because nothing can get through it; or maybe like a poisonous fish that nothing will come close to, which therefore thrives by keeping away any challenges to what it is it is. In the case of an idea, if we think 'Here is an idea that is protected by holiness or sanctity', what does it mean? Why should it be that it's perfectly legitimate to support the Labour party or the Conservative party, Republicans or Democrats, this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows, but to have an opinion about how the Universe began, about who created the Universe, no, that's holy? What does that mean? Why do we ring-fence that for any other reason other than that we've just got used to doing so?
This question has been nagging at me lately. I absolutely agree with him that the best way to find the truth is to test and question every idea. Whatever ideas can survive the questioning are the ones most likely to be true or useful. But if questioning is essential, how do we approach religion? Religious people can be very attached to traditional religious answers to big, important questions like, "Where do we come from", or "How should we act?" Those who question those ideas can face a backlash. Once they were burned at the stake, and they still face violent reprisals and arrest in many parts of the world. Such backlash is just one reason people avoid questioning religion, but it's a pretty compelling one.

These days, it's not just Christianity that gets this kind of deference. Lots of secular liberals have a knee-jerk respect for most of the world's religions. That comes from an admirable impulse to avoid ethnocentrism, but it can be problematic, too. A while back, for example, I was reading about how Bob Marley died. He had found a melanoma on his toe, but when doctors advised him to have it amputated, he refused, saying it was contrary to his Rastafarian beliefs. He died of cancer at the age of 36. People praise him for being brave enough to stick to his beliefs in the face of death. I even had the same reaction at first. And then I thought, "Well, yeah, it was brave, but it was also a tragic waste of a brilliant life." If he had stopped to question why it should be taboo to amputate a cancerous toe, he might have stayed alive these last 32 years.

When people react to such stories with approval, rather than sadness, it shows that they're respecting people's beliefs more than their actual lives. And that's perverse. Beliefs have no feelings, no hopes, no family...people do. Beliefs aren't the kind of entities that deserve dignity and respect. People are. Life is precious, not belief.

When so many beliefs in this world are both wrong and harmful, being deferential to them is a luxury we can't afford, and that includes religious beliefs. But that doesn't mean we should start ridiculing religion willy-nilly, the way a lot of people in the secular humanist/atheist/skeptic movement do these days. There's no reason you can't question somebody's religious beliefs politely (unless questioning them at all is considered impolite, and that's what needs to be changed). Questioning is essential for all ideas, not just religious ones. But it can be done considerately: by trying to understand and respect people's feelings...and remembering they have every right to question your beliefs, too. Fair is fair.

But having a frank, respectful discussion of religion can be especially tricky. One thing secular types like Douglas Adams and myself forget is that religious people see the things they believe in as real and deserving of respect--even worship. To a secular person, God is an abstract idea. To a believer, God is the supreme creator and ruler of the universe, who loves them and watches over them. They may see any questioning of God or other sacred things, like sacred texts and rituals, as disrepectful to God; as sacrilege or blasphemy. Secular people have a hard time understanding blasphemy: how can an abstract idea be insulted? But to religious people, that abstract idea is very real. Maybe they're even right. But if the ideas that can survive our questioning are the ones that are true, and God is a real, all-knowing, all-powerful being, then he should have no trouble weathering our puny little human questions.

Ideas have to be questioned. It's the only way to figure out which ones are true. Such questioning might be the chief engine of human progress (a twin engine is compassion). But we can do our questioning with respect--not for the ideas themselves, but for the people who hold them. One reason to be respectful is simply practical: if you want someone to seriously consider what you're saying, the last thing you want to do is offend them. Sometimes you truly can't help offending people, but the less you do, the more likely they are to listen. The other reason to be respectful is that most people--religious and otherwise--really do deserve respect. When I think about the people I admire most in this world, some of them are atheists, and some of them are devoutly religious. I know truly great people in both camps, and at many points in between. I know people on both sides whose compassion and selflessness I find awe-inspiring. When I write this, I hope some of the religious people I admire will read it, too, so I'm trying to show them the respect they deserve.

I don't always succeed, of course. I get mad and scathing. I forget that the point of having a discussion is to get at the truth, not to win the argument or show off my debating skills. I let my ego get in the way of productive debate, and try to back people into embarrassing logical corners. Then I feel bad about it later, unless they're absolute jackasses, and then I really don't. Maybe I should anyway. I'm only human, though, and I still have a lot to learn from wiser people than myself--religious and otherwise.

My point is that we need to change how we conceptualize respect for other people's opinions. Maybe true respect is best shown by having an honest, civil discussion, with no taboo topics. After all, are you really respecting someone's intellect when there are topics you avoid, for fear of giving offense? I don't think so. I think polite honesty can be more more respectful than deferential silence. Besides, as I've been saying, beliefs don't deserve respect. People do, and that's why it's possible to question a person's beliefs while respecting them as a person. In fact, it's not just possible. It's essential. There's not much hope for humanity if we stop questioning old beliefs and looking for better ones. But there's also not much hope if we forget to treat each other with respect.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Euthyphro's Dilemma: Why You Don't Have to Be Religious to Be Moral

In the last few years, the secularist movement has gained a lot of ground. When asked what religion they belong to, more and more people are responding "none", and so the demographers have dubbed them "Nones". I'm one of them. I'm not an in-your-face atheist in the mold of Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, but I do read books and follow organizations associated with atheism and secular humanism. But I don't identify with the movement completely, and there are things about it I don't like. First, most of the humanist organizations seem to take it for granted that all their members are atheists, which grates on me, because I'm not. Second, most of them have far too many members who love to ridicule religious people. I think that's generally both disrespectful and counterproductive (though I admit I've done it with some true wackadoodles, like Pat Robertson). Third, I don't like the idea of identifying myself in terms of what I'm not, or what I don't believe in. I'd rather focus on what I do believe in.

Still, I do identify with the secular movement enough to be sensitized to something: lots of religious people assume you can't be moral if you aren't religious. As a non-religious person, I don't much appreciate that. I don't like the idea that I can't be good or moral. Not only is it insulting and prejudicial, it's not true. I'm actually a pretty decent sort, and so are a many other non-religious people. It's just that we base our morality on different foundations than most religious people.

Still, I do understand the "morality requires religion" line of reasoning. The argument is that if morality comes from God, and if you aren't a true believer, then you can't really be moral, since you have nothing to base morality on. That seems to make sense at first, but I think it's misguided for at least two reasons. One is that there's a lot of evidence that people have a complex sense of morality as a result of evolving as an intelligent social animal. That doesn't mean our moral sense always tells us what is really good and right (often it doesn't) but it does explain where our moral sense comes from. The second reason it's wrong is that it's logically incoherent to think that morality is ultimately based on God's will.

Here's why, and I think this is surely one of the most important philosophical ideas ever put forth (it's called the Euthyphro Dilemma, because it comes from a dialogue between Socrates and a man named Euthyphro).

If you say that morality is based on what God wills, that raises the following question: does God will it because of some independent standard of what is moral, or is what is moral simply whatever God says is moral? Many people would say they believe the second option, but only the first actually makes sense. If you think that what is moral is whatever God says is moral, then you would have to agree that if God said that, for example, torturing babies was moral, it would be. But practically nobody would think that, which means they do think there's a standard of morality independent of God. Now, you could say that God is good, so he would never will something bad, but that also shows you believe in a standard of goodness independent of God. 

The Euthyphro Dilemma doesn't (necessarily) mean God is irrelevant to morality, but it does mean that when we ask what makes things good or bad, or right or wrong, saying "because God says so" is not a sufficient answer. So, whether you're religious or not, if you want to seriously think about morality, you have to think about why something is good or bad, apart from God's will, or some "because I said so" command in the Bigle. It's not enough to say something is wrong or right. We have to grapple with why it's wrong or right. Some people might think we still have to rely on God to tell us what is moral, even if there's a standard of morality other than his will, because he knows that standard better than we do. Maybe, but I don't think so (for reasons I don't have time to get into here). I think we have to use compassion, evidence, and reason to decide what is right and what is wrong, and those things are just as available non-religious people as religious people. 

It's true that people might behave better if they believe in divine punishments and rewards (unless they believe they will gain divine reward by doing something awful--and we all know that happens), but such beliefs won't make people more intrinsically moral. If you're only good because “God says so”, or because of the anticipation of rewards and punishments, then you're actually not very good. Good behavior is great, but it's a lot better to be good because we truly feel it's the right thing to do. People who can do that have a true sense of morality, whether they are religious or not.

What Is and What Ought to Be: Speaking Freely About the Big Questions

Sometimes I think all serious questions in life are just variations of two basic Big Questions. Big Question One is "What is true?" and Big Question Two is, "What is good or right?" Put another way, the Big Questions are: 1. What is? 2. What ought to be? For years, I was more interested in Big Question One. I wanted to figure out the basic facts about what reality was like, so I read all about science, history, and other fact-oriented fields. I even tried to write a humongous book attempting to tie the most important facts together in a coherent narrative. Nobody wanted to read it, of course, but I put it online just in case.

After all that time pondering Big Question One, it ocurred to me that I had mostly forgotten to consider a whole other dimension of life; Big Question Two. So, in the last couple of years I've gotten fascinated by the second Big Question, and thought a lot about the foundations of morality and ethics. I want to know what determines what's good and bad, and what's right or wrong. On what basis can we decide how to behave, and how to treat others? This blog has mostly turned into an exploration of those questions.

With both Big Questions, however, if you want to think and write about them, and discuss them with other people (and that is essential) then before long you'll run smack into religion, and then things get touchy. In this country, a majority of people try to answer one or both questions by turning to their Christian faith. Of course, Christianity is diverse, and the Bible is big, complex, and subject to a wide range of interpretations, so different Christians answer those questions in a different ways. Some think we were literally created in God's image sometime in the last few thousand years, while others think scientists are basically right about evolution and the age of the universe, but still think God's ultimately in charge. Some Christians think homosexuality--to take a currently contentious example--is wrong because of things the Bible says, while others think the negative passages about homosexuality should be dismissed as belonging to an ancient, pre-scientific, and rather cruel culture.

Since I live in a country with a large Christian majority, if I want to write openly and honestly about the Big Questions that interest me, I can't avoid discussing the traditional Christian answers to those questions. That's why I end up talking about religion a lot in this blog. I'm interested in morality, which is bound up with religion in most people's minds, and in science, which is often at odds with religion, at least when it comes to more literalist branches of Christianity. In both cases, I usually disagree with the conservative Christian interpretations of these things, and sometimes even the liberal Christian interpretations.

And these aren't trivial disagreements, like disagreeing about whether licorice tastes good or not (it doesn't--it's gross). These are disagreements about things that matter. It matters that people think gay people shouldn't be able to marry, or that global warming can't happen, because of their interpretation of the Bible. Those beliefs determine their actions, and their actions affect others. So I find myself at odds with conservative Christianity a lot of the time, even though I respect some conservative Christians a great deal (I'm planning to blog about the respect issue soon). 

Another reason I talk about religion a lot is that I think it's important for people in a country with freedom of speech to actually speak freely, so I've been much more open lately about being non-religious. These are Big Questions, after all. The answers are important; important enough that if I think some of the dominant religious answers are wrong, and even harmful, then I can't just keep my mouth shut about it for fear of offending the religious. To do so, I think, would be immoral. Which brings me to my next post.