More Rigorous Ethics: a look at normative societies

This is another post inspired by the remarkable work of Hiba Krisht, “an ex-Muslim, an apostate, an atheist, an escapee from the Middle East” and gifted writer. She talks about the first-hand horrors she experienced, and although her main focus is Islamic culture, she really does talk to all of us. Her latest post is a clear example: it outlines the painfully obvious similarity between North American Christian conservatism and Hezbollah. If you are offended by the comparison, you should probably leave this blog now, and never come back.
[EDIT 2017: Hiba started writing under the pseudonym of Marwa Berro, eventually closed her old blog and moved it to The Ex Muslim. I’ve updated names and links to make sure they point to live content and allow to read more of her work.]

For me, raised by atheist parents but within an overwhelmingly catholic culture (including at least three grandparents), the parallel is adamant, and is about strongly normative societies. In this blog I have put some effort in trying to figure out how one can derive “ought” from “is”, what are the limits of this kind of enterprise, and whether it makes some sense. There is a philosophical side, that starts from epistemological arguments about knowledge and science, and eventually discusses the possibility of exploring ethics in a strictly empirical way. To show how this may be done, I’ve looked at the ethical stance that is typical of certain British conservatism, as exemplified by Boris Johnson. This worked reasonably well because Johnson’s ethics (or lack thereof) does not rely on any metaphysical foundation. Today I’ll try something much more dangerous: I’ll explore the link between theistic ethical foundations and normative societies, my aim is to show how empirical ethics can show that both are wrong, harmful and unjustifiable.

Hiba’s post is my springboard: please read it first. She shows us what happens in a fairly typical situation: religious beliefs, with all the weight of a “divinely informed” view of the world, are used to build and support an ethical stance. This in turn generates a long and highly rigid list of “oughts”, that crystallise social structures and conventions, generating political stability. In turn this political stability is exploited by the gatekeepers of the underlying religious beliefs (not necessarily clerics) to establish and entrench their political power. In terms of my previous post: social infrastructures become antifragile by exploiting the belief system, and, sadly, by making the single believer utterly expendable.

The whole process is the antithesis of what I’m trying to do here: where I look for evidence to substantiate all my claims, a normative society uses faith, or the archetype of unsubstantiated knowledge, to justify its ethical stance. Where I’m trying to minimise the assumptions that I have to take, theistic societies are happy to build on pre-cooked, macroscopic edifices of dogmas that need to be, by definition, beyond doubt. The result is terrifying, able to generate the worse horrors, but is also fantastically stable. I will only hint to the source (and limits) of such stability, because what I wish to do today is:

  1. Briefly discuss how normative societies gain their strength. Following Hiba, this requires to highlight their best side.
  2. See if I can, after acknowledging the strengths of such systems, use the tools I’ve developed and conclude that normative societies are dangerous and unjustifiable.

The argument will be somewhat circular: because my ethical stance is based on empiricism, it is inevitable that I will reject ethical positions that are openly denying the possibility to derive ought from is. I can’t avoid this trap, but hope to convincingly demonstrate at least one thing: since different theistic positions are inherently incompatible, and since most of them declare to seek peace, empirical ethics offers a viable common language. Yes, it may question and/or erode dogmatic foundations, but in return it allows to establish some common principles and to seek a basic understanding that may reach different and otherwise conflicting belief systems.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Normative societies have a very strong allure, when one can fit-in: they provide support, ethical clarity, and promise transcendence (by identifying a unique, bigger than human, Good); in short, they offer a readily available solution to most, if not all, existential problems of humanity.

They may differ widely in the details, but all show some similarities. The most prominent is a strong sense of cultural identity. Every normative society that I can think of is characterised by a single dominant view of the world. Small differences within each society will always exist, but will never be enough to threaten the sense of identity: members of such societies will be happy to define themselves as either Evangelical Christians or Shia Muslims, or [insert here one of the thousands of possibilities]… There always is a cultural basis that establishes a collective cognitive attraction: reality is seen through the lens of the shared values, promoting homogeneity in a self-sustaining feedback. The result is a remarkable stability (possibly tainted by stagnation, see for example this curious study of entrepreneurship and religiosity in North America), strong intra-group support networks, and a cosy sense of belonging.

What is there not to like? One thing: each belief system provides different answers to the same questions, and, in the best possible hypothesis, only one of them can be right. The result is that billions of people find reasons to deny glaringly obvious ethical truths, and generate pain and horror in the name of their own, idiosyncratic beliefs. Using Hiba’s story: if the woman who died in the woods was indeed Holy, her death can be seen as good, but all the deaths and sorrows on the Hezbollah’s side would be senseless. The reverse applies. And more: you can apply this comparison to most (if not all) combinations of religions, sects, and dogmatic beliefs. Even if one/few of them is/are right, the overall result is still an overwhelmingly monstrous amount of senseless pain and suffering. Yes, religious people are supportive, they tend to give more to charities, will generally be welcoming in person, and will enjoy living in a cohesive and well organised society. But what is the cost? These good results require to deny some otherwise obvious realities: a dead child can (and will) become a good thing. All sorts of abuses can be justified to protect the greater good. And all of this is possible because, and only because, the source of truth is not evidence: because the distinction between good and evil is done a-priori, things that are clearly unethical (such as killing, mutilating, abducting and abusing children) become acceptable.

On the flip side, critical thinking, openness and tolerance are seen as suspicious, because they carry some inherent dangers to the dogmatic truths that sustain the system. So here is the circularity of my argument: if you believe that there is one reality, and that trying to understand it is a good thing, dogmatic stances that put some truths beyond empirical verification are bad. It’s an unavoidable tautology, but it’s the only option, especially if you don’t wish to see who disagrees with you as your enemy.

In conclusion, normative societies, no matter how sensible are their norms, are dangerous at best, but downright horrible in most cases. If any norms are generally accepted to be beyond scrutiny, some consequences will be unavoidable:

  1. Inquisitive people will be marginalised or abused. This will inevitably slow down the ability of such societies to adapt.
  2. People that are born with the wrong traits or inclinations (as above, but also unmarried parents, skin colour, sexual preference, etc.) will suffer the same destiny of marginalisation and abuse.
  3. People that are born within a different society, or belief system, will automatically become “them”, seeding conflict on both sides in the most efficient way.
  4. Some unethical practices will always need to be justified, because the a-priori belief system will never be able to accommodate all the complexity of the world.

Note that the above is true regardless of the accuracy of a belief-system. It is the direct and unavoidable consequence of a-priori thinking: the more beyond-discussion assumptions are allowed, the more unethical consequences will happen. And it doesn’t matter how true/accurate these assumptions are. As a result, the only option is to strive to cut down as many a-priori premises as possible.

For me, it provides the reason why “striving to understand reality” is a good thing, conveniently allowing me to remove it from the list of my own assumptions.
All in all, I’m concluding that we ought to derive “ought” from “is”.

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Posted in Ethics, New Atheism, Politics, Religion
9 comments on “More Rigorous Ethics: a look at normative societies
  1. I think the word “normative” is generally more neutral, implying standards that are generally accepted, rather than standards that are beyond discussion. The norms you seem to be objecting to are better called “dogmatic” or “theocratic”.

    The best possible Good is an ideal that might be operationally defined as “the best good for everyone” such that it would be impossible to improve it further for anyone without diminishing it for someone else.

    The monotheistic “God” is, in my opinion, an anthropomorphic symbol for “Good”. The “Devil” would be the similar symbol for “Evil”. These, and other religious myths, are one set of tools for passing on ethical norms to the next generation.

    The rational basis for “empirical good” is that we are always improving in our knowledge and understanding of “what is good for us”, that is to say, what truly benefits us and what truly harms us. I’m guessing this is also your opinion.

    I suspect that “God’s will” has always been what one man believed to be empirically good for us at the time. Dietary restrictions probably resulted from theories of illness. Perhaps the local butcher acquired some bad pork, and the impact upon the community was such that pork was thereafter suspect. So the local tribal chief or his priest decided God was trying to tell them something.

    Of course, after you say that “God said it” then how do you get Him to say something different when you later change your mind.

    Christianity actually did that. Jesus was always being criticized for breaking Jewish rules of hand-washing, associating with bad sorts, or doing good deeds on the Sabbath. Paul, when faced with dietary rules, suggested everyone should be free to follow his own conscience in these matters. In Romans 14:14 Paul made the rather radical statement, “I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.”

    Jewish rituals that depended upon a central Temple had to adjust when the temple was destroyed and they were dispersed.

    Many religions accommodate updates to their views in different ways. Creation and evolution are accommodated by a biblical reference suggesting “a thousand years are as one day to the Lord”.

    And it seems that most Catholic women practice birth control despite their Church’s prohibition.

    I think the key is that religions claim that God is Good. Therefore, if we discover that something which we once thought was good is actually bad for us, one can make the argument that it was not actually from God.

  2. Sergio Graziosi says:

    “Normative Society” is the shorthand I’ve chosen to describe societies that rely on a central core of beliefs that, when shared by the overwhelming majority of the citizenship, allow them to function. They don’t need to be dogmatic and/or theocratic, because peer pressure is in fact the real glue that keeps them together: peer pressure is fantastically powerful, but the topic would require a separate discussion!

    Naturally, if you dig deep enough, all social structures rely on a core of (largely) shared values/beliefs. My main point here is that when these beliefs include the argument that diversity is useful they will always get somewhat messy (compared to structures that have a substantially homogeneous set of beliefs) and may therefore seem less attractive. Only that’s not the case, because valuing individuality/autonomy (the reversed way of defining these core beliefs) allows, as you point out correctly, for much more adaptability.
    The flip side is that normative societies (that are so frequently, but not always, tightly associated with one or the other religion) invariably end up causing a lot of suffering to those members that can’t conform (for intellectual or even strictly biological reasons), and this suffering is unjustified.
    The consequence is that one can say that valuing free speech, difference of opinion, and all that is associated with the current mainstream of western thought (from the Enlightenment to the very least), that led to Democracy, the declaration of Universal Human Rights and all that sort of things, can indeed look counter-productive because it generates less social cohesion, but that it is still, without any reasonable doubt, far better than normative societies (despite their allure).

    Your focus on religion is correct up to a point: it is certainly true that if the core values are based on the obfuscated self-referential proposition that “our rules are good because God said so”, then these rules become even more rigid, which I’ll argue is Bad in itself.
    But you don’t need religion to support a normative society, think of the USSR, China or North Korea.

    Of course, my own opinion is that we’d be better off if we could get rid of all the superstition that slows down the evolution of social structures, but I try to be realist, and recognise I won’t see it happening, so I’d favour the intellectual tricks you mention (to allow religions to change according to what’s real).
    The one thing that strikes me of much of Christianity and in particular Catholicism is how fundamentally anti-humanist it is (and doubt that Christ as it is usually described would approve!): the whole point seems to be that humans are inherently evil and need a strong normative intervention to teach them (and coerce compliance to) the difference from right and wrong. I argue that this approach is now patently indefensible: secular non-normative societies do work and flourish, but we now also know that humans come in this world already equipped with moral inclinations (evolutionary biology tells us how it happened) and therefore the normative position is demonstrably wrong in empirical (normative societies are patently sub-optimal) and intellectual (there is no need for an external, “revealed” moral compass) terms.

    • Sergio: “valuing free speech, difference of opinion, and all that is associated with the current mainstream of western thought (from the Enlightenment to the very least), that led to Democracy, the declaration of Universal Human Rights and all that sort of things, can indeed look counter-productive because it generates less social cohesion, but that it is still, without any reasonable doubt, far better than normative societies”

      What I’m suggesting is that what you have described above is also a “norm”, and that this society in which we live is also a “normative society”.

      The goal of ethics is to derive the best set of rules, that is, the norms that produce the best possible result for everyone. Free speech, tolerance of differences, general liberty, democratic decision-making, and so forth are all values upheld by norms we teach to our children and that we embed in our institutions.

      And democratic decision-making allows us to change our norms when something better that what we’re currently doing comes along.

    • Sergio Graziosi says:

      Aaargh! You won’t drag me into semantics!
      I’ve said:

      Naturally, if you dig deep enough, all social structures rely on a core of (largely) shared values/beliefs.

      And that will do. 😉
      Yes, non-normative societies rely on a norm, a norm that says “let’s try to minimise norms”.

    • Which is why it would be an error to attack “norms” per se. I think the teachers of the philosophies of ethics tend to place artificial barriers between concepts, as if the truth in one philosophy denied the truth in another. All philosophies of ethics must ultimately be judged by their utility in achieving the best possible good (and least possible harm) for everyone.

      There will likely be a progression from the creation of a tentative rule, which involves research and moral judgment, through the implementation of the new norm within a society, and the propagation of the rule to the next generation as a given norm.

      To change things, we start with the given social norm/rule, and re-evaluate its moral implications (who is being hurt or benefitted currently – such as discrimination against gays), and then seek to find a better norm/rule which improves benefit with the least harm (such as “domestic partnership” vs “civil union” vs redefining “marriage”).

      An interesting thing is the “Bible in Progress”, which is being written through the actual and fictional stories we see in books or on television everyday.

  3. […] in the process, generate or support one of the greatest sources of suffering known to humanity: normative societies. On the other hand, science, when it does not degenerate into pseudo-science, can’t form a […]

  4. […] now. Furthermore, we have seen already how faith-based, top-heavy and prescriptive societies carry their own seeds of fragility: in the very long run, their own intrinsic rigidity is guaranteed to make them […]

  5. […] 1 – Religions, especially when embedded in society, promote rigidity. Taleb, of all people, should not be blind to this clear side-effect of religious norms! Considering that antifragility always requires a high degree of optionality, it should be quite obvious that normative systems that are directly promoting uniform behavioural patterns carry their own, internal source of risk. In the present world, where technological advances promote unprecedented levels of change on the global scale, relying on old-age wisdom, with a favourable inclination towards dogmatic norms, is simply absurd. It is guaranteed that the changes that are currently happening are generating new risks that the human race have never encountered before (if you need examples, you can read the precautionary principle paper linked above!), but, on the other hand, there is no guarantee that ancient wisdom will automatically protect against such novel (and systemic) risks. Moreover, uncritically accepting a dogmatic approach to ethics (in the sense of a set of norms), is a  required condition to espouse a religious way of life, but doing so, by definition, limits the ability to change the set of rules in response to new challenges. Taleb and Read do indirectly discuss some mitigating considerations: they note that many religious precepts take the form of “do nots” and thus incorporate advice about what should not be done (because accumulated knowledge shows that it is dangerous). In this way, the stifling effect of dogma is mitigated: as it concentrates on avoiding known risks, it does not limit positive action too much. This is true, but whether it counterbalances the other “positive” precepts of religions is anybody’s guess: since the human race is facing unprecedented global challenges, there is no guarantee that the existing “do nots” will be useful. They may or may not (some will, some won’t), but at the same time, the associated “dos” will keep inflicting their known damage. I have discussed this before, and see no reason to stop denouncing the inherent danger and nastiness of normative societies. […]

  6. […] This makes offence less informative. It also favours homogeneity of thought, a phenomenon that is dangerous in its own […]

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