266 of 266 Popes agree: You Should Believe in Our God, Atheism is Naughty

Yesterday the Pope reminded us why we atheists just can’t resist the cute and cuddly fellow by releasing his latest encyclical (a sort of really, really long sermon in the form of a letter) on the subject of hope.

The linked article makes far too much of its prominence, but along the way, he takes some time to toss some love our way, wagging a finger at daring to think that we could ever get along without believing in his particular ideology. I know many Catholics find profound meaning in the Pope’s writings, and if I believed what they believed, can appreciate the appeal. The job of a good sermon is to invigorate and challenge readers with a new perspective on an old theology, and by the time you become Pope, you’d better have gotten pretty darn decent at this sort of thing.

But, because I don’t believe, and because the Pope and many of his fans are apparently incapable of the same sort of reciprocal empathy, when the guy tries to turn to moral philosophy and contest with the reality of atheism, the result is a childish mess of logical fallacy and clumsy slander.

In this sense it is true that anyone who does not know God, even though he may entertain all kinds of hopes, is ultimately without hope, without the great hope that sustains the whole of life (cf. Eph 2:12).

Yes yes, without your particular understanding of love or hope, we can’t really love or hope. We get it. We don’t buy it. And it certainly doesn’t make us respect you very much, or sympathetic to complaining about big bad atheist critics of religion.

Avid Catholic Mark Shea is simply elated by this sort of stuff though. I wish I could better understand why, apart from the tribalism. While Shea (and perhaps the Pope) has a point insofar as he argues that attempts to force someone’s idea of heaven on earth lead to hell on earth, I’m not particularly sure why either of them think this is a good argument against either 1) improving life for humanity in general or 2) arguing against atheism.

Yes, movements which try to radically change society all at once according to some particular dogmatic ideology are probably going to kill a lot of people along the way, particularly when they are led by maniacal dictators, drug addicts, and cackling supervillian psuedoscientists. But I’m not sure what that really proves exactly insofar as supporting the Pope’s claim that without faith and hope in some elaborate story about God, we can’t have hope or substantially improve our governments, communities, or moral life. In fact, the long trend of human history has been exactly that: a steady improvement in both the quantity and quality of human life as well as a refinement of the human political and moral conscience that was simply unimagined in Christ’s day or before. And, ironically, it’s been done with people like Mark Shea kicking and screaming that everything is totally falling into amoral ruin all along the way.

It can and has been done, and will continue to be done. How it is done matters a great deal, of course, as does what. But this backhanded pox on progress seems entirely too eager to change the subject with Godwinizing gambits. Is the fact that Nazis (primarily theists) and Communists (primarily atheists) wreaked mechanized havoc in the service of some crazy anti-enlightenment ideologies really particularly telling? Is it any sort of good reason not to continue to object to the sort of immorality and misery we find in the world?

No, and in fact precisely such moral objections were and are necessary to fight those very dictators and other evils, regardless of whether that moral outrage came from theist beliefs or just human empathy and ethical values. So this whole avenue seems to be one giant non-sequitur: an act of misdirection in the face of arguments that the Pope doesn’t seem to want to face down directly or honestly. The argument is about as sophisticated as trying to argue that because poorly tested and proscribed medicines like thalidomide once wreaked terrible havoc that all drugs (or even thalidomide itself, actually) are ultimately useless and only prayer, or homeopathy, or whatever else you are pimping is the one and only true medicine.

If you want to argue that your ideology has the goods on stuff like hope like none other, okay. But don’t try to do it in such a cheap and lazy way.

And hey, as a pitch for my form of hope, let me point out that things like democracy, indoor plumbing, synthetic insulin, comics, the end of slavery, and even religious freedom are all human hopes and dreams that demonstrably came true. I don’t begrudge people their hope in Christ and whatever sort of eternal cosmic adventure scenario they hope is real, but in the face of that key difference, it would be nice if the dismissal of all human works was a little less glib sometimes.

13 Responses to 266 of 266 Popes agree: You Should Believe in Our God, Atheism is Naughty

  1. cantueso says:

    if only the atheists could write shorter posts. It is incredible how they go on and on and on. And not just in English.

  2. Bad says:

    Ah, wit AND substance. You truly have me at a loss with your stunning rebuttal.

  3. mary margaret says:

    Dear Bad, I replied (finally, yeah, I know really late–don’t you judge me!) on Mark Shea’s blog. Seriously, I am sorry it took me so long.

    Now, I obviously think that you are wrong–I am a Catholic (full disclosure). But even if I weren’t, I would realize that both hospitals and universities were created by the Catholic Church. The Big Bang Theory itself is partially the work of a Catholic priest. Therefore, please don’t argue that we are somehow opposed to scientific progress (yeah, I know, Galileo, but at least we didn’t kill him for his theories. :-)

    Without arguing over the theological virtues, I would point out that there is no logical reason or basis for love. Good feelings, fine, but why love? Love is really illogical. Surely, one should want the best for oneself, and perhaps, for one’s offspring from a purely biological stance, but why care about those outside one’s immediate circle. Heck, it seems like a good thing for me if I can hire an illegal immigrant to do my yard work for far less than I would pay a citizen of this country. It’s really better for that person, too, right? He wants the work, and is happy (or at least happier than in his native country) with that wage. So I’m really doing a good thing–why not hire him to do my manual labor or look after my children? Now, I personally, guided by my faith, find this to be a horrible abuse of my fellow humans. To take advantage of them is wrong, or to enable other employers to do so, is also wrong. I just wonder why I should care if not for the existence of God who is immutably right(and condemns such a practice “the laborer is worthy of his hire”, Why not? If he is better off than he was, and I am better off than I was, then it seems like an OK bargain. Please explain, from a purely secular POV, why I should not hire illegal immigrants to do this work for me. (Please note that I not only do not do so, but I think it is offensive in God’s sight to abuse my fellow humans in such a manner.)

    As I commented on Mark Shea’s blog, I commend you for keeping your discourse civil for all. Thanks again.

  4. Bad says:

    You seem to be responding to me as if I’d argued that the CC and Catholics were bad, had never done anything good, yadda yadda. But of course this is not what I said. What I said was that, contrary to portents of imminent cultural and moral doom from people like Mark Shea in virtually every era, and contrary to a deep ambivalence to the idea of human progress that the Pope displays, we’ve seen tremendous progress in the human condition: and much of it driven by the very impulse to reduce human suffering that the Pope says is misguided unless it is accompanied by his particular ideology. Citing some examples where madmen had dreams of dominating the world and making it over in their image is just a lame red herring in this regard. People can and do have hopes for making the world better, and they can and do fulfill those hopes, utterly regardless of whether belief in god is involved or not. The fact that people can also do evil, even on a grand scale, is sort of irrelevant on this score. The Pope is trying to argue that hopes for a better world go horribly wrong without his ideology: that reason is a corrupter without faith. And his argument simply flounders on this point. Human hands have built and improved this world and civilization: they’ve unavoidably played god: even those that did it thinking that they’d served god in doing so.

    As to the matter of love being “illogical,” I think you are misunderstanding what logic is. Logic isn’t a source of reasons, it’s a system of justifying arguments. As such, saying that there is no “logical” reason for love itself makes no real sense. It’s like saying that there is no logical reason for rocks: it’s an incomplete thought: you can’t have logical reasons for or against things without first stating your particular premises (i.e., it is illogical to put rocks here on this car, because that will damage the finish and you don’t want that). Love in and of itself is not logical or illogical: it’s just a fact. Love is something you feel towards another person: it’s a value you hold, not an argument. To a secular person, the very question of “how” love needs to be “justified” sounds bizarre. Moral values and love are not conditional on the say so or threats of any super-being: if they were, then they would be ultimately arbitrary.

    When you think of whether love is “logical” or not, you are simply imagining an unstated premise that selfishness is what someone “should” value from a “biological” stance. But there are no “biological” shoulds. Biology is a fact, not an ethos. And, in fact, as an aside, biology has produced things like love and altruism in the first place. Not because it should have, just because it did. And now they exist, and that’s that. They aren’t justified or unjustified: they just are. I’ve explained this and more in my article on the subject: The Meaning of Meaning & Why Theism Can’t Make Life Matter which I think addresses your questions directly (at least insofar as giving my perspective on them) as well as explaining what I see as being misconceptions.

    As to your specific example, I tend to hold libertarian values on this issue: in my opinion, it is actually the local workers who are exploiting both the immigrants and customers by relying on immigration labor laws to keep costs unjustifiably high: it is they who are extorting money out of customers’ pockets, and wages out of those who can do the job more efficiently than they can. When we discover that Mexican immigrants could have done a job better and more cheaply all along, it would make more sense to require American workers to pay restitution to consumers for their act of legalized extortion. That probably sounds harsh, but why is that any less harsh than barring immigrants from jobs based on where they were born?

    I assume that you won’t agree with my conclusion here, but understand that I do not come to this opinion because I have no values or no love for people: it’s quite the opposite. I believe instead that it’s immoral to use imaginary lines on a map to divide people economically or restrict their ability to trade with each other based on some idea of who is more important. There may be political reasons for favoring Americans over other people in the world, but I don’t see it as legitimately moral to do so… and certainly not loving A very wealthy country finding bureaucratic ways and excuses to keep the relatively poor from sharing in or competing for that wealth is not my idea of moral or fair.

  5. johannesclimacus says:

    Hello Bad, good to see your blog active.

    I would still like to read about your definition of morality and such, of what your hope consists.

    I read the post you linked in your last comment. The ideas are very insightful even if the arguments aren’t very well formatted (of course we could blame that last bit on my poor reading).

    A matter in your last comment: you say that “There are no ‘biological’ shoulds. Biology is a fact, not an ethos. And, in fact, as an aside, biology has produces things like love and altruism in the first place. Not because it should have, just because it did. And now they exist, and that’s that.”

    Excellent point and very much to the point. From the perspective of philosophical materialism, or scientific physicalism, or whichever ism you would like: Not only has biology produced altruism. but it has produced (much more prominently in nature) exploitation, tyranny and many other things that we ignorant Christians blindly label, “bad,” or maybe even “evil,” if we draw on Nietzsche’s distinction.

    Since biology has produced both of these things, is there any reason to choose one over the other, other than, perhaps, personal preference, or emotivism? Certainly a person might choose “virture on a whim” as Camus said. Is it perfectly acceptable to you that others who do not hold those preferences relish in their tyrannies and their exploitation, so long as you are not affected? Of course, we talk a lot about how we are all connection, etc., but really, why care, if we’re not affected, about all those unlucky members of the Sudan who are being “cleansed” from the countryside?

    Of course, we are fortunate that most people have a natural inclination toward sympathy (Christians call it the conscience of beings created in God’s image, but you know that), but if someone lacks that natural inclination, why should we care to cultivate it? We have no mandate other than our own. And it need not bother us. In fact, why not sympathize with those committing the tyranny? (Christians, and you know this too, have something similar in that they are called to love their enemies, but this usually means specifically their enemies, for Christians are called to support also the least of these.)

    Anyway, once we have down a thorough description of morality and what not, or even if you would like to point me to Richard Rorty or Stanley Fish or someone else, I’m sure we’ll be able to dialogue more productively.

    As always, your friend,


  6. Bad says:

    I think you really need to consider what you think you mean when you say “since biology has produced both these things….” and then go on to reason onto something else. It still sounds like you are trying to draw (or at least imply that others draw) implications or pointers from what biology has produced, and that’s very much not the point. Methodological materialism is not itself a system of values: it’s a system of knowledge. Trying to see it as anything more than that is a misunderstanding (though a common one)

    The questions you ask about “why be moral” are good ones, of course, and my point was not to claim that I have fully satisfying ontological answers: simply that the claimed answers of religion suffer from exactly the same flaws as any other. Adding a God into the picture solves nothing at all as far as I can tell: it offers no fundamental reason to prefer good over bad no matter how you define those things. Saying that we have a conscience of beings created in God’s image is not, ultimately, an explanation or a justification for caring. It’s just another set of facts. Time and time again I’ve asked theists to explain how they “justify” morality, since they spend so much time scoffing about how non-theists supposedly cannot, and time and time again this bluster turns out to be a bluff. They’ve got nothing either. The question “why be moral” may well have no real answer. It may not even make any sense as a question.

    But that doesn’t mean that we’re left without morals. It just means that either you have the capacity to care about those people in the Sudan or you don’t. There isn’t an externalized “reason” to pick altruism over tyranny, but that’s pretty much irrelevant: altruism has won the war of ideas, and that’s that. Moral argument and convictions have indeed grown and developed a great deal over human history, but it’s all from the same core capacities for empathy, bonding, and sociability.

    But again: there is no ultimate justification for why you must care about others if you just don’t, in part because that, like subjectless/objectless “meaning” is an incomplete thought. Concepts like “should” require some pre-existing selection of goals or values. Without specifying those goals beforehand, the concept of “you should do this” is rootless and incomplete. And if you don’t share those goals in the first place, then there is really nothing to be done.

    Thus, in some sense, a question like “why care” is the sort of question only a psychopath (And I mean that in its medical sense) could really sincerely ask. And if he did, there would be no answer, from religion or anywhere else. You first have to have empathy and concern for other people, and THEN we can talk about and debate morality. But without that capacity to begin with, there is no basis for conversation. Whether God exists or not, there is no implicit reason for a psychopath to care about the fates of others. A God could threaten all the hells it wants: but these are and remain threats, not arguments, no reasons to care in and of itself.

    Because of that, your set of questions, which seem to me to sort of be an attempt to explore what you think it would be like to be a non-believer, are ones I’ve heard before and I think are largely misguided: they are failed attempts at understanding. You’re treating me as if I were a psychopath, and I’m not. Saying things like “And it need not bother us” don’t ultimately make much sense. It does bother us. We do care about the feelings and fate of others. Trying to reason what it would be like if we did not makes no sense. We don’t actually have that option in the first place. If we didn’t already care, then why would we be bothered by the idea of someone not caring? If we really didn’t care, then there would be nothing to worry about in the first place.

    But then, because we do care, we also care about cultivating moral sense in other people (preventing psychopaths). And we can have productive, sensible moral debates, because we can agree on basic principles and then bicker out what they really do or don’t imply about actions. So it seems that we can, in any case, get on just fine without ultimate justification for why we should be moral.

    I hope I’m explaining this well enough: I’ve tried many different ways at this point, but I know how difficult it is to understand, especially given how ingrained the (unfounded) belief is that religion provides some sort of extra and unique insight into this eternally baffling question. It just doesn’t: just like supernatural explanations for just about anything, theistic morality doesn’t actually get around to explaining anything at all.

    The result is not that theism is bad, it’s just that we’re all stuck in the same existential boat. If we all have empathy and moral values, then we can work together just fine, and the issue of God is and remains totally irrelevant.

  7. johannesclimacus says:

    Thank you for a thorough reply. I apologize if you thought I was calling you a psychopath. This dialogue rests almost entirely on the premise that you are not a psychopath, that you are in fact a person who desires that altruism and the general happiness of our neighbors should flourish, that you are among those who would raise alarms at every injustice, who has faith that we can in fact work together, who would throw themselves in front of a psychopath bent on others harm if it would prevent such harm.

    However, I think you miss the point of what most theists (and not only theists, as if theists were the only ones with metaphysical systems of belief that seek to understand or “explain” as you say, morality) mean to say when they speak of the meaning of morality, or how understanding the nature of morality will help us to be more moral.

    In fact, it is not really about “understanding” morality at all. Him who was the brightest archangel in the heavens probably understood the “nature” of morality much better than we did, and saw its divine origin much clearer than any theologian ever did, yet that archangel rebelled and chose its own damnation rather than the love and peace of God. I leave Milton to tell that story infinitely better than I ever could. All that to say, knowing what is good and bad will of no necessity make us do what is good or bad, as you have pointed out. And that is the existential dilmena that unites us.

    But that is not the dilemna that most theists you encounter are probably talking about. Of course, I should not speak for “most theists,” but for me at least it is not about understanding morality, but about motivating morality, cultivating morality. It is on the question of how to cultivate a moral sense that I believe religion in general does not “suffer from exactly the same flaws.”

    Ironically, systems of belief seem to cultivate selflessness through selfishness: if one is moral and altruistic, then one will be happier. This is true, in general I think, of even philosophical systems with no metaphysical basis. In pragmatist terms, for example, it says that if one looks at the data, one will note that those societies which prosper with wealth and power are those which embrace altruistic principles.

    Religious systems often offer these claims like this: one is happy when their nature is satisfied, and we were created so that our nature is altruistic and moral, so if our nature is altruistic and moral, then our nature is satisfied, and we will be happy. If one engages in selfishness and pride, they will not find ultimate happiness. That is the sort of Natural Law version.

    The Aristotelian and Thomist version uses nature as well says our nature is satisfied only when it is intelligible in relation to its telos, which is God for the Thomist and for most Christian. Thus when one talks about sin as separation from God, it is sort of the inability to ever reach our telos, and because our nature is satisfied only in reaching its telos, then we will never be happy apart from God.

    Even Karmaic and indigeous systems of belief somewhat depend on the idea of offering motivation. If you imbalance the universe, the universe will retaliate, therefore, if you want happiness, you must offer the proper amount of give and take.

    And, of course, there are more crude and fundamentalist versions of this method of cultivations: do what’s good or you’ll go to hell. There are many ideas about hell. There is the traditional fire and brimstone, there is the idea that it is the eternal separation from our telos as we continue to exist, and so on and so forth.

    Anyway, those are some “reasons for why” we should be good. Please note that these are not really reasons to believe any particular religion. (And I submit that one who believes these religions solely because they motivate people to do good, does not have a very solid foundation for their religion.)

    Notice in all of the religious reasons that the consequences will come of necessity. There is no escape from consequence. In non-metaphysical ethics, however, there are plenty of escapes from consequence, as exemplified in Stalin, Idi Amin, and any psychopath that is never caught. One is motivated to be good insofar as they can get away with what they do.

    Absolute power enables people to get away with absolutely everything, which makes an imperfect being absolutely corrupt. If one has been corrupted by power (which happens more often than the birth of a complete sociopath, I hope you will agree), the religious person can confront them with the argument that they will never truly be happy, or that they will have a terrible afterlife, or future life, whatever the case may be. Of course, this argument depends on how much one subscribes to the belief of the confronter. Whether or not it is a “live-wire” for them, as James argues.

    But if both parties subscribe to nothing other than their earthly existence, quite apart from any essential human nature which does not change (because natural inclinations can change easily), what will one say to the other?

    “Do you not remember the sympathy for others, that moral sense with which we were born?”

    “Yes, but it is useless to me now. I have much more power. I do not depend on anything but myself for my happiness. What will prevent my happiness in weilding this power as I please?”

    (Cue Nietzsche to nod in the background.)

    It’s a crude dramatization, to be sure, but Machiavelian moralization is more common than you might think. Praise God that complete sociopaths are rather rare. But we don’t need them for this arguments. We have corrupt politicians and authorities; and they abound.

    So whether or not “crime never pays” on an individual level is true. But I think it is a much better motivator, a much better “reason why,” than the only honest answer that a purely materialist philosopher can give: “Well, sometimes it does.”

    Unless you have other answers or motivators to offer the situation. I’m happy to hear them out. And again, I appreciate the dialogue.



  8. Bad says:

    I appreciate it as well. Don’t get me wrong on morality: I love thinking about moral philosophy. The fact that I don’t think there is any convincing universal ground to moral premises doesn’t mean that I don’t think seeking understanding is important or worthwhile. And I didn’t quite mean to imply that you were truly outright implying that I was a sociopath: rather just that the line of reasoning you were using fundamentally seems to take that perspective, forgetting that this simply isn’t a perspective available to most human beings in the first place.

    Anyway, those are some “reasons for why” we should be good.

    After reading the examples above this, I think I need to butt in and object that I think you’ve gone off, and been off, track with these reasons. Pretty much all of these boil down either into “it’s better for you” arguments or “unspoken premise” arguments. In the first case, they are not reasons, but simply more refined versions of bribes/threats: they appeal to what is good for one’s interests, which is simply amoral at best. In the second case, they are really just arguments with their actual arbitrary premise hidden or unmentioned… which can initially give the illusion that they are justified in some ultimate sense. In neither case have we really advanced a justification for a moral should. The second case is, I think, more interesting, because as I argued in my article, it’s the position that everyone is placed in: we simply can’t get to moral justifications without a generous helping of premises that cannot themselves be said to be justified. They are meta-ethics, but all inescapably amoral in their own right.

    For instance, neither of those sorts of things would actually be convincing to an intelligent psychopath as you seem to imagine, even if they did believe the set of facts being presented. They might cause him to alter his behavior to receive benefits, but this has nothing to do with morality. Nor would he see them as anything but arbitrary themselves. If the sociopath is also self-hating, bribes of pleasure or more fulfilled existence will mean little. If we’re dealing with a perfectly logical robot, to give another example, neither pleasure nor pain nor benefit nor loss may matter to it. And then we stand exposed as having no arguments with which to convince it that it ought to or ought not to do anything in particular.

    I also don’t think you understand Nietzsche if you think that his “will to power” involved dominating others: his will to power had far more about rejecting society and living off in a cave or an attic as a self-fulfilled hermit than anything else. Dominating others was, in fact, what the original folks (the lions) did in his genealogy of morality: those that dominated through simple strength predated the slave morality, and also are not the same thing as what he called the supermen.

  9. johannesclimacus says:


    I think we’ve might almost understand each other on this particular interest. “Pretty much all of these boil down into ‘It’s better for you’ arguments or ‘unspoken premise’ arguments”

    I believe you’ve gotten the choices quite right, and what I was working off of in my previous comment was the former case. And in that case I believe we actually do “advance justification for a moral should.” This is because it is a case that is not already dependent on a predetermined moral condition; I mean that “a moral should” will not be convincing because there is not yet a reason why one should be moral.

    I don’t see much fruit in basing a case for morality on the idea that it is the moral thing to do. Appealing to self-interest might be amoral, but that’s precisely the point: it is something other than morality, so as not to make the argument circular. I’m sure you may be able to point out circularity in some other area of argument, but I don’t believe it is here.

    As for calling appeals to such self-interest “bribes/threats,” I understand the rhetorical tactic, but bribes and threats are not generally seen to be amoral, as you say, rather they are seen as immoral, and we have not arrived at morality yet in the argument.

    Indeed, bribes are seen as something involving moral corruption and secrecy, not merely appealing to a need. And threats to me imply coercion, while claiming that one way will lead to harm seems to be mere persuasion, although I would admit that fear of something negative is involved in both.

    Imagine that someone arrives at the door step worn out and parched with thirst, so much so that the traveler’s greeting to you sounds cracked and breathless. And you, concerned for their health say, “Here, have a glass of water. From all the observable data, it will alleviate your thirst.”

    But suddenly that thirsting someone flings their hand at the glass you have held out, thus smashing it out of your grasp and thus shattering it on the now-wet pavement.

    “How dare you!” he or she shouts, in a strained voice, of course. “I would not be BRIBED with the idea of quenching my thirst! I will drink water only for the sake of drinking water, because it is my natural inclination to do so, and for no other reason! I will not defile my water-drinking principles with such petty self-interest.”

    Or imagine a doctor with a patient, the doctor with a syring in hand saying, “Now, as you have permitted us, we’re going to give you this shot. It will hurt, but if we don’t give it to you, you’ll get much worse.”

    We as on lookers would both be very surprised if the patient slapped away the syring (perhaps this is the same person who refused the drink), and said, “You fiend! You Grand Inquisitor! May the heavens in all their wrath smite you for using on me the THREAT of deteriorating health! I, to keep myself pure, will only endure syringe sticking for the sake of syringe sticking – and for no other reason!”

    Please duly note my lack of concern for calling appeals to self-interest bribes/threats. For I calling them such seems simply a misnomer.

    As for the proposed psychopath, I thought we had agreed that said persons are the existential dilemna, or I might be misunderstanding the point. I call those intelligent psychopaths, those who fully understand that they will be unfulfilled and unhappy, in this life and in any other afterlife or reincarnation, those who have the greatest judgment in these things and still would rather rule in hell than serve in heaven, I would call these the kin of Milton’s Satan.

    (First I would judge that these people have actually misjudged the situation and believe that the happiness they find in rebellion with morality or whatever will be the true source of fulfillment, but for the sake of argument, supposing that they understand this too, we arrive at our impasse.)

    As for the robot, we have two options. Assuming that the robot was programmed to calculate self-interest and then choose the best path, I believe that the robot would act with moral interests. But by the way that the description of the robot was phrased, I assume that it does not care about anything, that is, that it has no self-interest, in which case all argument about the benefits of morality would be a “dead wire,” even perhaps a literal dead wire. (Ha ha, I made a pun. Sorry.)

    Now, you do have one sentence which is an excellent segway to one of the great paradoxes of morality: that to find ourselves we must lose ourselves, that to satisfy these “selfish” desires of fulfillment and happiness and peace, etc. we must become selfless.

    You write about the psychopath: “They [the set of facts being presented so as to persude one to act morally to increase fulfillment and happiness] might cause him to alter his behavior to receive benefits, but this has nothing to do with morality.”

    To a degree, this is very true and it was what we said before: that appeals to self-interest are “at best” amoral. The appeals might be amoral, but I would argue that the behavior is very much moral. And it is in this sense that one begins to cultivate morality. That the behavior itself can help one to forget oneself, that one can ingrain the idea of sympathy into ones mind until one forgets the reason (the appeals to self-interest) that one was sympathetic, and directly associate sympathy with fulfillment and happiness and such, that seems to me to be a large part of the substance of moral cultivation.

    Now the “self-hating” part of the socio-path that you write about immediately after may make us run into our mutual existential problem.

    But as for the majority of what I’ve observed and experienced, I would argue that almost all of us are born psychopaths, (not in the clinical sense of course,) that we care nothing about the interest of others until someone wiser and more experienced than ourselves suggests that we share, that we not push back, that we do unto others and so forth, and lo and behold! we suddenly lose consciousness of the self-interest and care only to play with the other children, and finding fulfillment, because we are having such a wonderful time being their friend.

    And when we look back, realizing that by the general rule of putting others before ourselves we are happier, we begin to give this rule – instead of our self-interest – the authority by which we judge other actions.

    Losing consciousness of our self-interest is really the point, because once we return to it, we kill morality, looking down on others again, and here is the point when “bribes/threats” can be regarded as bribes and threats in all their rhetorical glory.

    One must even lose consciousness of selflessness, for who, gathered among good friends, immursed in their stories and their joys and their griefs, would suddenly stand (or even subtly think), “Friends! I am a wonderful person who is not concerned with my self-interest. I am here solely to nourish you with my selfless goodness, and my innate morality, with which biology [or Providence] has blessed me!”? Kind of kills the mood, no?

    Certainly for one such as Sartre, who thought such loss of consciouness impossible (and perhaps he is right, if we mean complete and pure loss of consciousness), it is true that man is a hopeless project, seeking to be for-itself and in-itself and the same time. But I digress.

    The “intelligent psychopath” might therefore be, as we have decribed him, the existential dilemna, or an overgrown child in need of cultivation, if they are not too far ingrained in selfishness. You are welcome to suggest other possibilities, although I’m more interested in the rules rather than the exceptions to them.

    As for Nietzsche, this comment is too long as it is, and I wouldn’t blame you for tossing it altogether, but later I would like to offer a more nuanced reading of Nietzsche. As a teaser, I have likewise argued with friends that the lions are not the same as the supermen, but for different reasons.

    Anyway, have a wonderful weekend with your family, and I wish you the best with your tight schedule.



  10. johannesclimacus says:

    PS, by “a more nuanced reading of N.,” I did not mean more than yours, but more nuanced than what I’ve thus far presented.

  11. Bad says:

    Appealing to self-interest might be amoral, but that’s precisely the point: it is something other than morality, so as not to make the argument circular.

    Well, yes. But in that case these theistic arguments have failed to do anything different from what any other secular moral philosophy does. I’m not arguing that these grounds are invalid: I’m arguing that they are all equally unsatisfying in that they are not ultimately universal or convincing, and that this dissatisfaction plagues all religious accounts of morality in the same ways it plagues any other.

    Furthermore, the theistic arguments tend to be a lot more convoluted and reliant on all sorts of supernatural beliefs. When one can reach the same conclusion in, say, the way the U.S. founders did (i.e. by thinking that one could look at nature and determine what rights were self-evident), that seems both a lot more direct and a lot more universalized to people who might have different opinions about the supernatural. (And yes, I know the founders believed those rights had a Creator, but as is too often overlooked, this is incidental: they merely assumed that anything that existed did. Their arguments are not ultimately affected by the source or origin of those rights.)

    Please duly note my lack of concern for calling appeals to self-interest bribes/threats. For I calling them such seems simply a misnomer.

    I don’t agree at all. I think those terms are quite accurate, and do not presume moral things prior to establishing morality. The point is that all they are is changes in personal incentives. They motivate given a goal of self-interest or self-preservation, but they neither show that such a goal is moral, or that whatever things are demanded to attain them are moral either.

    That is why the sociopath or the robot are too big of a problem to just be lumped in with some idea of Satan, which is not really an answer to the challenge anyway.

    While your discussion of how one finds value in others is interesting, and indeed something that I think is a very real process, the end result is simply the same thing I’ve been suggesting all along that we simply have as component of our species: concern for others. Not a selfish concern born out of any particular consideration of ones interests, but actual empathy for any being we can comprehend putting ourselves in the shoes of. In other words, the golden rule. I’m not suggesting that humans just have this inherently in any sort of perfect form: it can and does get taught to a greater or lesser extent, and it has clearly evolved tremendously over human history: I would virtually any day put my life in the hands of a random modern person than a random one of the ancients.

    But there are a lot of natural features to human beings, and common to all social animals, that make moral concern a natural part of us. We are not hatched as abandoned eggs on some seashore. We are born to a mother and sired by a father that far more often than not have a deep emotional attachment to us, and us to them: and we grow up caring about each other. And often this horizon of concern expands as we grow and meet more members of a family. Friendship too, is a natural and almost unavoidable part of human interaction. And so on. So we are not blank slates when it comes to empathy.

    And so it’s worth noting that sociopaths are not defined by selfishness, as some have little concern for themselves: what they are defined by is a lack of the ability to empathize: to really see other people as being the same sorts of beings as they are. Locke, using ironically the same language as Nietzsche, spoke of such beings as “lions” and basically said that they are simply at war with society, and society with them, no two ways about it, and no moral judgment relevant. But a human society is inherently a moral community inside itself: society is based on ideas of what is acceptable and what isn’t, shared values and agreements that make interaction possible.

    Best wishes for your weekend a well.

  12. Sally Kuang says:

    I just added this weblog to my rss reader, excellent stuff. Cannot get enough!

  13. Mavis Nallie says:

    In my minion rush game there is no no gift code

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