February 28, 2012

What is this “self-sacrifice” so beloved of ideologues?

What the world needs is people who look after others and themselves.


Ethics and Philosophy

January 25, 2012

Here’s a sentence guaranteed to baffle those enamoured of idées reçues:-

Although philosophy has shaped the ethical teachings of the main Western religions, many of the most influential ethical thinkers have been dedicated to explaining and defending principles in ways that are entirely independent of religious doctrine.

Kitcher rightly asserts the primacy of philosophy over religion in matters ethical.

Theology as Kenosis

November 7, 2011

I think the literal meaning of kenosis best sums up theology.

Recently, there has been a brouhaha following the debate between evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne and theologian John Haught on the question of the compatibility or non-compatibility of science and religion. Out of petulance, it seems, Haught at first refused to sanction posting of the video of the debate, which only served to attract attention to the content of his talk and Q&A comments.

“Theology is an ‘I want tea’ level of understanding” pretty much sums up the depth of Haught’s thought. An impermissible analogy opening imaginary space for believers to believe. Check it out for yourself.

There’s little point trying to add to Eric MacDonald’s analysis of Haught’s anti-intellectual contortions. Here it is, in 2 parts:-

How Not Why

October 18, 2011

It is infuriating listening to Start the Week hosted by Andrew Marred. How tiresome to listen to Richard Dawkins and a cosmologist argue with Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi. What is the point of having a science OR religion debate? Who really thinks that is a real choice? Why is it so rare to hear someone mention secular ethics in such a debate? Sacks made the laughably hackneyed point that, “science takes things apart to see how they work; religion puts things together to see what they mean.” Dear, oh dear … what gibberish! And then he started waffling on about left and right brain languages. Pitiful. Can you imagine Michael Walzer explaining the history of political philosophy in terms of left and right?

There are only two big questions:-

How did things come to be as they are?
How should we live?

Science attempts to answer the first question, as does history. Secular ethics attempts to answer the second, and the answer includes love, politics, work, art, literature, nature, sport and so on.

Religionists’ pretence to deal in Big Why Questions is an outdated impertinence.

Ibn Warraq on Islam

April 6, 2011

Eric MacDonald quotes Ibn Warraq:-

“Let us then turn to Islamic extremism, what is very often called Islamism. Here some distinctions made by Ibn Warraq are important. He distinguishes Islam 1, 2, and 3, as follows:

Islam 1 is what the Prophet taught, that is, his teachings as contained in the Koran; Islam 2 is the religion as expounded, interpreted, and developed through the Traditions (hadith) by the theologians and jurists, and includes the sharia, Islamic law, and the corpus of dogmatic theology; Islam 3 is what Muslims actually did and do and achieved, that is to say, Islamic civilization, as known to us in history …

And then he goes on to point out that when he speaks of the incompatibility of Islam and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he has Islam 1 and Islam 2 in mind, whereas, at times, Islam 3 was much more tolerant than Christianity of such things as homosexuality, while Islam 1 and 2 are very relaxed about circumcision, yet in Islam 3 it is universally practiced. But then he goes on to say:

Islam, in the sense of Islam 1 and 2, is indeed a threat to, and totally incompatible with, democracy: Islam 1 and 2 do not accept democracy’s core principles of religious tolerance; freedom of conscience, belief, and expression; the separation of church and state; equality before the law; and notions of citizenship and loyalty to the state. There may well be moderate Muslims [Islam 3], but Islam [Islam 1 and 2] itself is not moderate. The so-called Islamists or Islamic fundamentalists are acting canonically, that is, following Islam 1 and 2 to the letter.

To my mind this is an exceptionally important passage, and it should stand as a warning to us. Islam itself is incompatible with human rights, as so many people, like Bruce Bawer or Hege Storhaug, Ayan Hirsi Ali and Paul Berman, Wafa Sultan and Nonie Darwish have been telling us for so long. In other words, Islamic extremism, Islamism, is not extremism; it is canonical Islam. When women in Britain, dressed from head to toe in black cloth, hold up signs in front of 10 Downing Street saying that “Shariah will Dominate the World,” they mean precisely that.”

Why the Target Committee decided in May 1945 that Kyoto was the appropriate target for the atom bomb:-

“Technical concerns over the delivery and efficacy of the bomb had already dictated the choice of Japanese cities as targets by late 1944. It was in picking which city to attack that psychological factors came into play. The Target Committee ultimately selected Kyoto, the intellectual center and historical capital of Japan, as the best initial target in part because its inhabitants were “more highly intelligent and hence better able to appreciate the significance of the weapon.” The goal was not simply to obtain “the greatest psychological effect against Japan” but also to make “the initial use sufficiently spectacular for the importance of the weapon to be internationally recognized.” The Target Committee apparently left unexamined the question of how incinerating and terrorizing the “highly intelligent” citizens of Kyoto might push the Japanese government into capitulation. This macabre and shallow reasoning was reflective of a greater disconnect between the planning for military operations against Japan and the diplomatic efforts to leverage military success into a Japanese surrender that characterized the last months of the war in the Pacific.”

Here’s Simon Blackburn in his wonderful, short book, Being Good.

“We do not like being told what to do. We want to enjoy our lives, and we want to enjoy them with a good conscience. People who disturb that equilibrium are uncomfortable, so moralists are often uninvited guests at the feast, and we have a multitude of defences against them.”

New Atheism points to the lies that people live. This makes many atheists very uncomfortable because they perceive an attack on their integrity. Whereas in the past the Oxbridge atheist prof enjoyed a civilised chat with those decent chaps from the theology department, now the poor assailed atheist wonders whether he or she is guilty of a certain hypocrisy. New Atheists are moralists in a restricted sense: they care nothing who sticks what where, with and to whom, but they do cast moral aspersions on those who doggedly stick with delusion and those who cosy up to them. The multitude of defences translates into a multitude of attacks.

The Tea Party makes a religion of personal autonomy.
Misinformation attacks autonomy at its core.
The Tea Party watches Fox.
The snake swallows its tail.

Let’s start with:-

1. Respect for evidence.

2. Epistemic modesty.

3. Political and social institutions predicated upon individual autonomy/moral agency.
(Individual, not group, rights.)

Another wonderful passage of writing from the estimable Anthony Appiah:-

“Cultural norms are, after all, constituted not only by what they affirm and revere, but also by what they exclude, reject, scorn, despise, ridicule. To forbid the latter set of social practices is to change the nature of the relevant social forms. Perhaps an Igbo who doesn’t find the Yoruba brash and excessively self-assertive will have lost some of his Igbo-ness; certainly a Pentecostalist who found nothing objectionable in contemporary mass culture would be scarcely recognizable to his peers. To favor one thing may entail disfavoring another thing. It isn’t strictly incoherent to value modesty and admire grandiosity, but it may be hard in practice to reconcile them. In their paper on national sovereignty, Margalit and Raz say it is “mere common sense” that “individual dignity and self-respect require that the groups, membership of which contributes to one’s sense of identity, be generally respected and not be made a subject of ridicule, hatred, discrimination, or persecution.” It is common sense, but I doubt it is quite correct – I doubt, in such contexts, that we can require “respect,” as opposed to simple tolerance. As I said in the preface, the sphere’ of “respect” is where liberal abstraction shows its strength, for the encumbered self – whom advocates of community would substitute for the abstraction of the liberal individual – is not someone we can, as a rule, be bound to respect.”

Many people lose sight of what ‘tolerance’ means, namely, ” 1. the ability or willingness to tolerate the existence of opinions or behaviour that one dislikes or disagrees with; 2. the capacity to endure continued subjection to something such as a drug or environmental condition without adverse reaction” (OED)

Tolerance is very different from respect. Respect has to be earned.