Wednesday, August 24, 2011

"Good Without God; Ethics for Freethinkers": Important Dialogue, But Something Essential Missing

Immediately before attending this past Saturday evening's panel discussion "Good Without God; Ethics for Freethinkers" sponsored by the New York Ethical Culture Society, I caught a clip of Rick Perry on a tv screen as I walked through the city. The rise of Perry as a "legitimate" candidate for the presidency only underscores my appreciation that such a panel was being held. There is a tremendous need for people to be exploring, taking up, and projecting a morality that is not rooted in the Christian Bible (or any other religious text) with its "stone them to death" approach to gays, non-virgin brides, disobedient children, and its massive promotion of ignorance.

Indeed, there was much to appreciate and learn from in the arguments that were made throughout the evening and the morality that was projected. Coming from different angles, Michael De Dora of the Center for Inquiry, Dr. Anne Klaeysen of the NY Society, Massimo Pigliucci, Chair of the Philosophy Dept. at Lehman College, and Roy Speckardt, Executive Director, American Humanist Association, spoke compellingly of the possibility of being "good without god." They also conveyed a basic feeling that that one has a responsibility to other humans. Several times the speakers took important moral stands on some of the most critical issues confronting people today; they upheld women's right to abortion, opposed the U.S.'s wars of aggression, defended the importance of science and education, and demonstrated a real spirit of intellectual curiosity and engagement which is all too often lacking in popular discourse these days.

At the same time, throughout the evening -- as in the afternoon, when I interviewed two of the panelists on WBAI's Equal Time for Freethought -- I felt the discussion fell significantly short of meeting the needs of this intensely fraught historical moment or even of the immediate audience. What was missing, and what is absolutely essential for humanity to advance and truly be "good without gods," was the epistemology and morality that has been brought forward by Bob Avakian as part of his new synthesis of revolution and communism. Avakian's is a morality rooted in a scientific understanding of how the world got to be the way it is and how it can be radically transformed to emancipate all humanity, and it encompasses the partisan choice to act to realize that liberated world and to live in accordance with it now.

In the overall engagement, there was a striking emphasis on the ability to be "good without god" without ever determining -- or offering a consistent basis for determining -- what the content of "good" really ought to mean.

This first became clear during the pre-interview I conducted, together with co-host Matthew LeClair, with Anne Klaeysen and Michael DeDora.

Michael recounted how many religious people, after hearing him speak, acknowledge that they draw their moral convictions from life experience rather than religious teachings.  Anne quoted someone as saying (my paraphrase), "I have known good people who believed in god. I have known good people who don't believe in god. But i have never met a good person who doesn't believe in people."

However, these comments beg the question as to how one defines "good" or "moral." I posed two examples of competing -- and antagonistic -- moralities which flowed from competing -- and antagonistic -- social divisions. During this country's history, there were codes of ethics developed for how to be a "good slave-owner" (many of these principles drawn from the Christian bible). Obviously, the slaves had a very different idea of what was "good" -- quite righteously: rebelling against slavery and seeking its abolition. Or, today there are those who feel it is "good" to prevent abortion by any means necessary, while there are others who are clear that it is "good" to fight unapologetically to ensure that no woman is ever forced (or shamed) into having a child against her will.

In responding, both Michael and Anne demonstrated their sympathies with slaves during slavery and women today.  They actually spoke quite movingly to this which is extremely important and frankly not common enough.  But neither of them answered the question in a way that held up.

Anne emphasized that she sees an intrinsic value in each human being. Flowing from this she argued that slavery -- which dehumanized individuals -- was a bad system. However, she still elevated the principle of recognizing and enhancing each individual as the way to determine and achieve the greatest social good.  Michael spoke about the importance of dialoguing with those who have different values and then upheld how people eventually people came together to abolish slavery.

The problem is -- as I pointed out on air -- what it actually took to abolish slavery was not people "coming together" after a reasonable dialogue, but a massive, violent and bloody Civil War. Further, this Civil War most definitely did not act to "enhance the lives" of each slave-owner. It didn't even enhance the lives of a huge number of the former slaves who rose up during this war. It extinguished many of their lives. Yet, it was a righteous war -- absolutely needed and absolutely a "good thing!"

Both Michael and Anne again made clear their support for those who had risen up against oppression and again spoke with conviction about the morals they hold. But, during the evening's program several people who had listened to the interview came up to me to express their dismay that, "They never really answered your question." I agreed.

This problem was not unique to them.

At one point during the evening program, Massimo laid out what he felt was a good system-- reflective equilibrium -- for allowing the evolution and development of moral systems.

To demonstrate this method he gave the following example. Someone simultaneously holds several conflicting beliefs: 1. the Bible is inerrant, 2. it is wrong to kill children, 3. lying is not a capital offense. This person is then confronted with the Biblical commandment to kill children who lie to their parents. Now, she has to evaluate her beliefs and either discard the first belief (that the Bible is inerrant) or disregard her second two beliefs. Through this process of "reflective equilibrium," the individual will have to bring their belief system into greater coherence; thus, their morality will evolve. Right before he finished, Massimo interjected one last thought, "Of course, that assumes you want to be coherent."

Yes, it does assume you want to be coherent. But, that is not the biggest problem. That method never takes a stand on -- or provides a framework for sorting out objectively -- which belief to disregard. The main problem with oppressive moral systems (like those rooted in the Bible which justify killing of abortion doctors to preserve the life of every fetus, or those promoted by the U.S. ruling class of valuing American lives more than other people's lives), is NOT simply that they are often self-contradictory (although that is a problem). The problem with these moral systems is that they are rooted in, and reinforce, extremely outmoded and oppressive divisions that scar humanity in this era of patriarchal globalized capitalism (or previous class societies)!

(A side note: the fact that many oppressive moralities are riddled with internal contradictions is much more of a by-product of their oppressive nature than the cause of it; those justifying and seeking to reinforce oppressive social and class relations almost always have to distort and lie about reality in order to maintain any legitimacy in the eyes of those they oppress.)

However, this problem -- of how to determine WHICH of the contradictory beliefs should be discarded through this process of "reflective equilibrium"-- was not solved. More problematically, it wasn't even identified!

Later, Anne told how one of her children had once asked, in dismay, "How could anyone be a Republican?" Anne remarked, "How could I raise my children that way?" and then insisted the importance of recognizing -- and teaching one's children -- that Republicans have values too.

This was one of the more disappointing points during the evening.  Of course Republicans have values!  So did the Nazis!  And so did the man who killed the courageous abortion doctor, George Tiller. The problem is not that progressive people are failing to respect the morality of reactionaries, it's that not enough progressive people are fighting vigorously to counter and defeat these oppressive moralities and the kind of world they would impose -- all as a critical part of the struggle to bring a better world into being.

I believe the inability -- or unwillingness -- of the panelists to really grapple with antagonistic definitions of "good" and "moral" is linked to their failure to recognize and respond to the fact that the world does not consist of millions and millions of free-floating individuals, but instead that the world is divided into antagonistic classes, nations, and social groupings. These oppressive divisions take expression in contending moralities -- and contending ways that the world can be organized.

There are great needs of this historical moment that only Bob Avakian's development of communism, including its developments of morality, is capable of addressing.

First and foremost, there is the need for people to confront these divisions and the nature of the system that has given rise to them. And there is a need for people to act in such a way as to overturn this system and liberate humanity from these oppressive relations. There is a morality -- communist morality -- that flows from understanding this possibility and can guide this process.

As Bob Avakian writes in BAsics 5:1, "The basis for communist morality is contained, in a concentrated way, in what Maoists refer to as the '4 alls.' This is drawn from the summary by Marx of what the communist revolution aims for and leads to: the abolition of all class distinctions (or 'class distinctions generally'); the abolition of all the relations of production on which these class distinctions rest; the abolition of all the social relations that correspond to these relations of production; and the revolutionizing of all the ideas that result from these social relations."

As he gets into further in his book, AWAY WITH ALL GODS! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World, communist morality involves first and foremost the scientific determination of what is true about the world and how it could be and, on that foundation, the partisan choice to act in the interests of human emancipation.

Let me walk this through a little. First of all, this approach recognizes that there is not merely one definition of "good" or "moral." Avakian has written extensively about how all moral systems ultimately reflect and, in turn, will serve to reinforce one way or another that society can be organized. For instance, being "opposed to slavery" would have no meaning back during humanity's early days as gatherer-hunters, since the system of slavery (or even the material basis for the system of slavery) had not yet emerged. But, once that system was dominant, there became moral justifications for it -- as well as moral arguments for its abolition. So, in this way, morality and moral systems change during different epochs of human history.

But, this does not mean that morality is just relative. The communist outlook does not leave you simply with: "Oh, moral systems change so who is to say that one set of values is any better than any other set of values." We can say, with scientific certitude, that certain morals and values are better for humanity. Let me just underscore, certain morals are not better in some abstract, unchanging, dropped down from the sky sense, they are better in the concrete sense of what is in the interests of humanity in any given epoch. And this can be objectively determined.

In this era of capitalism-imperialism, it is objectively possible for there to be a revolution that -- through millions rising up to shatter the old, reactionary state which enforces the global system of private appropriation of massive, socially produced wealth and establishing a revolutionary socialist state where socially produced wealth is used instead for the development of society as a whole and whole new social and political relations are established on that foundation -- opens up a period of transition through which humanity can be led to fully uproot all class divisions and all the social antagonisms they give rise to.

Communism as a world outlook recognizes this objective truth. But it does more than that. On the foundation of this recognition of what is true about this era and the possibilities it holds, the communist world outlook leads to a moral position that this ought to happen because it is objectively in the interests of humanity.

There is much more to say about the relation between science and morality and the communist revolution and perhaps in another post I will address this further.

For now, I want to end by speaking to how -- flowing from a recognition of the horrors that confront humanity -- there is an important basis, and urgent need, for people to unite very broadly (communist and non-communist, religious and atheist, etc.) to promote a morality that corresponds to ending these horrors in the real world. Much of what follows are principles I believe people on the panel the other night would agree with and I offer the following, in part, in order to assist all of us in forging the broadest unity in fighting for a morality that really is urgently needed for humanity today. Bob Avakian writes, in AWAY WITH ALL GODS! (quoting from a previous work of his):

"....there is also a need and a basis to forge broad unity, among diverse forces, around values and cultural expressions that promote and celebrate equality, between men and women, and between peoples and nations; that stand against oppression and against violence which furthers and enforces such oppression; that oppose imperial domination by one nation over others and military bludgeoning to impose that domination; that foster relations among people based on an appreciation for diversity but also for community; values and culture that prize cooperation among people in place of cut-throat competition, that put the needs of people above the drive to accumulate wealth, that actually promote the global interests of humanity as opposed to narrow national antagonisms and great-power domination.

"The development of unity around such values and cultural expressions, like the furthering of political unity in struggle, will be an ongoing process. Building this unity is a challenge that must be taken up by all those who recognize the horror of what is represented by the fundamentalist reactionaries and the implications of this for the masses of people; who refuse to accept that the only "alternative" to this is one which shares essential things in common with it; who recognize the need to confront--and to offer a positive alternative to--the whole politics of poverty, punishment, and patriarchy and the ideological rationalizations for this politics. It is a challenge that must be boldly and urgently taken up."

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posted by Sunsara Taylor at 2:05 PM


Blogger Unknown said...

It’s not a mystery to me as to why suit dummies don’t have any well developed ideas about morality. There’s a little bit of hippy in every suit dummy. They believe they’re doing no harm and any harm to them is generally not life-threatening. A simple “be nice” orientation is enough to see them through up until they hit one of the many mental roadblocks located in the heads of all suit dummies.

8/26/11, 1:52 AM

Blogger Refuse and Resist said...

This contained a good, standard Marxist critique of these liberal "rationalist" approaches of morality. These are common approaches with Atheist organizations, which lack a dialectical, historical materialist approach. Armed with a Marxist understanding--a powerful theoretical tool, they just don't stand up without confronting some real questions of society that they may not feel politically conformable to assume, i.e. challenges their liberalism. :)

However, the problem with the article is there is no basis for your claims that 'There are great needs of this historical moment that only Bob Avakian's development of communism, including its developments of morality, is capable of addressing." Only Avakian is capable of addressing? Really? In fact, while Avakian's Marxist stances are quoted (again, all rather standard approaches from a Marxist stance, there is in fact nothing original to Avakian's thinking per se, as evidenced in the article. No where do you say what is special about Avakian's brand of communism that makes it uniquely essential. The Four All's, are Marx's, as are the theoretical understandings of historical materialism and the Marxist understanding of class basis for morality, and other parts of the superstructure.

8/26/11, 3:45 PM

Blogger Trastamara said...

Excellent discussion. The problem with dealing with morality is that it is based on subjective principles. What is good or bad does not exist outside of human consciousness. We should be very clear that there is no "ideal" morality.

in traditional cultures morality and its usual signifier "spiritual beliefs" are rooted in the numinous and mimetic experiences of those cultures. In other words "spiritual beliefs" are used to construct a vision of the universe and of reality that correspond to the environmental, social, cultural and historic experiences of traditional cultures.

But in the euro-christian culture, the problem acquires terrifying dimensions, precisely because euro-christian cultures are based on a transcendental concept, the Pauline principle of Universal Redemption. In other words the euro-christian consciousness is based on a universalizing principle that subsumes a loss of identity due to the exiled condition of its modern consciousness.

As Octavio Paz states: modern consciousness is without a history and separate from nature. This transcendental subject, the universal man or human, to be pc. Cannot view its own crimes, but as an expression of the dictates of its christian god: To save the world. In other words modern man or human is the colonizing subject "par excellence". And his religion, the biblical religions, the foundation for his crimes.

To put it bluntly, there can be no morality (as it is expressed by the enlightenment and its philosophies) under the chrisitian religion.

8/26/11, 6:13 PM


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