weover.me: Post #5: You Cannot spell G-O-O-D without G-O-D

6 Feb

Posted by Bart Garrett

After reading the first four blogs, two introductory comments:

First, a restatement of what others have previously acknowledged: We are NOT debating whether or not PEOPLE need GOD to be GOOD, but rather, whether or not GOOD needs GOD to be GOOD. These two debates are very different. The first would be about behavior that is good, while the second about the being (or essence) of good. In the first debate, the “godless-team” would march out all of its secular saints to demonstrate how good people who do not believe in god can be. The “god-team” would then march out all of its sacred saints and we would say, “Oh, yeah, well our saints can beat up your saints!” (‘er, rather: “Our saints would never beat up your saints because our saints are so good!”). Then, we would all agree that none of us is an exemplar of “the good,” but that our trajectory (godless or godful) has us on the right track.

The second debate, on the essence of goodness, would be lot more interesting. The “godless-team” might argue that we can apprehend “the good” in all sorts of ways and through all sorts of means. But the “god-team” will argue that in making that claim, the “godless-team” makes a Grand-Canyon-Chasmic assumption: A definition of moral good is possible without some sort of objective, outside standard, reference point, measuring stick, or criterion. And, we would argue that god is the most plausible origination from which true goodness emanates.

Second introductory comment: Thanks to my seven conversation partners. The two dinners together were wonderfully gracious affairs. And the blog posts have been incredibly engaging. Though, in attempting to rev up my brain for this debate, they have caused me to feel a bit like I am on a moped circling a Cheerio while the others are taking 200mph turns at the Indy 500. It is my humble prayer that my post adds some gas for the tank.

My two postulates:

(1) There is a universal standard for moral goodness.
(2) God as its ultimate origin is the best hypothesis.

There is a universal standard for moral goodness.

In the Seinfeld episode, “The Yada Yada,” Jerry takes a rare visit to the confessional booth to visit Father Curtis. While sitting, rather than kneeling, on the kneeler, he offers his confession: “I wanted to talk to you about Dr. Whatley. I have a suspicion that he’s converted to Judaism purely for the jokes.” Father Curtis responds, “And this offends you as a Jewish person?” “No,” Jerry banters, “it offends me as a comedian.”

It is vintage Seinfeld, and the crowd, aided by the laugh track, erupts. Why is this so funny? Because, we all know, in keeping with good decorum, that we should offer deferential respect toward someone else, especially when it comes to his or her ethnicity or religious affiliation, and particularly to a Jewish person given the 1930s-40s. But, as is customary in this “show about nothing,” Seinfeld turns etiquette sideways, and suggests that the respect and dignity are due him, not because of who he is ethnically or believes religiously, but because of what he does—he is a comedian. Jerry is offended, first, because there is a common decency, a goodness, which Dr. Whatley should extend in the form of respect toward him yet does not. I contend that this courtesy would affirm both basic human rights and the basic dignity (or worth) of a human being. Jerry is offended, second, because his rights as a comedian, rather than a Jew, are violated.

This dual offense demonstrates that our acceptance and application of the moral good varies from place to place and from time to time. In the 1940s, Dr. Whatley’s conversion is offensive to Jewishness, but in the 1990s it is offensive to Comedianishness. Yet, it also demonstrates that there is still some sort of innate notion of moral goodness (basic rights, human dignity, etc.) that should never be violated or compromised.

Lets move from pop culture to anthropology. One of the more interesting test cases for universal moral goodness is found in The Chronicle of Higher Education in 1995. In it, Dr. Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, an anthropologist, writes an article entitled, “Anthropologists, Cultural Relativism, and Universal Rights.” Fluehr-Lobban comments:

“The issue of violence against women throws the perils of cultural relativism into stark relief. Following the lead of human-rights advocates, a growing number of anthropologists and others are coming to recognize that violence against women should be acknowledged as a violation of a basic human right to be free from harm. They believe that such violence cannot be excused or justified on cultural grounds. Let me refer to my own experience. For nearly 25 years, I have conducted research in the Sudan, one of the African countries where the practice of female circumcision is widespread, affecting the vast majority of females in the northern Sudan. Chronic infections are a common result, and sexual intercourse and childbirth are rendered difficult and painful. However, cultural ideology in the Sudan holds that an uncircumcised woman is not respectable, and few families would risk their daughter’s chances of marrying by not having her circumcised…. For a long time I felt trapped between, on one side, my anthropologist’s understanding of the custom and of the sensitivities about it among the people with whom I was working, and, on the other, the largely feminist campaign in the West to eradicate what critics see as a ‘barbaric’ custom. To ally myself with Western feminists and condemn female circumcision seemed to me to be a betrayal of the value system and culture of the Sudan, which I had come to understand. But as I was asked over the years to comment on female circumcision because of my expertise in the Sudan, I came to realize how deeply I felt that the practice was harmful and wrong.”

In a respected, academic journal, Dr. Fluehr-Lobban concludes this paper with a “deep” feeling that this practice was wrong. Typically, deep feelings have no legs to stand upon in academic papers, but I imagine most everyone intuitively agrees with her sentiment. She then concludes the paper with these words: “[When] there is a choice between defending human rights and defending cultural relativism, anthropologists should choose to protect and promote human rights. We cannot just be bystanders.”

That most people would agree with her conclusion is to suggest that most people will not struggle with my first postulate: “There is a universal standard for goodness.” A small minority might insist that everyone is free to decide right from wrong, yet caveats abound:

(1) Do no evil.
(2) Empathy always and everywhere.
(3) Your rights end where my rights begin.
(4) Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Yes, indeed, most will acknowledge that there is some sort of universal standard for moral goodness. Two questions to pose to oneself further elucidate this:

(1) Is there anyone, anywhere doing something that I find morally reprehensible?
(2) If so, then I believe there is some sort of moral standard that people should abide by regardless of what they might believe personally, do I not?

But a third, self-imposed question gives us greater pause:

(3) Then, from where (or whom) does that standard originate?

God as its ultimate origin is the best hypothesis.

Some of us would say that this standard originates merely from people—there are cultural conditions and social constructions that define goodness. Groups, societies, and cultures develop moral standards over time. A set of individuals living collectively in community must learn to agree upon the rules. Others would say that this standard for moral goodness originates sheerly from nature: The genes of altruistic ancestors whom operated cooperatively and unselfishly were passed along, while selfish genes did not proliferate and propagate. Over time, we have come to call this good.

For those who attach moral goodness to cultural construction, notice that the anthropologist still chooses human rights over cultural conditioning. Do not miss the conundrum this raises: Where does she derive this notion of universal human rights? From the West? From whites? From women? From the well-educated? This is simply a culture coup: My culture’s notion of right and wrong, of good and evil, is better than yours! It seems very dangerous to view cultural conditioning as the ultimate force or origination for moral goodness. One better hope that his culture is on the top! Further, as demonstrated by Dr. Fluehr-Lobban’s “deep” emotional response, cultural construction seems an insufficient ground for a universal impulse we all feel about some sort of universal good.

But what about nature? Sheer evolutionary process? This would at least grant a moral universal ubiquity to our notion of moral goodness. Modern philosophers like Steven Pinker, Peter Singer, and Thomas Nagel rests their cases upon this premise. Modern scientists like Richard Dawkins and neuroscientists like Sam Harris do as well. I am out of space here, but I would love to spend more time engaged in Marilynne Robinson’s fine work, Absence of Mind, and the arguments she makes regarding the limitations of mere mechanistic evolution in handling radical altruism. She writes: “By the extremely parsimonious standard of Neo-Darwinism, [altruism] is the proverbial bad penny, liable to show up anywhere.” Further, the most oft applied theory to altruism extended to strangers, the theory usually marched out as the debate-clincher, is game theory. This baffles me, given that each player tries to find a solution least harmful or most beneficial to the self, hardly an explanation of radical altruism involving sacrifice for strangers.

Thus, scientists begin to make unverifiable leaps of faith to explain the unknown:

We have more than genes, we have memes.
We have more than our universe, we have multiverses.

But, what if the best hypothesis for the origination of universal, moral goodness was God? Some might laugh at the claim that there is some sort of transcendent moral order with God as the source, but it is certainly no less plausible than saying: “The meme made me do it,” or “It could happen in the universe next door.” More to come…we hope to see you on February 21st!

Leave a comment and/or proceed to post #6: Airports, bars, Reno



One Response to “weover.me: Post #5: You Cannot spell G-O-O-D without G-O-D”

  1. ezra roizen February 7, 2013 at 2:21 pm #

    Great post Bart. Does Good need God? Well to the extent God created the universe I guess it’s hard to argue to anyone other than an atheist that Good hasn’t ever needed God – but the question is does it need God today? I think our side would generally say that there isn’t a single universal standard of Good, but instead behaviors to which we ascribe the adjective Good – and natural drivers which reinforce those behaviors. We might even go as far as to say that Good is like a form of social physics – we can create rules and laws – but the search for a single, unifying formula still eludes us 🙂 Gonna be a good debate Bart!

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